"One of three filmmakers chosen to give visual voice to the worldwide reach of non-profit organization distributing vitamins and minerals to at-risk children and mothers: Vitamin Angels.
Filmed over the course of a month in autumn of 2013, this short doc conveys just what goes into supporting 3 of the 30 states Vitamin Angels reaches in America."
Post-Travel Interview w/ Vitamin Water
VW: What about this project interested you?
AB: In all honesty, what initially drew me to this project was the opportunity of working with two other filmmakers. As someone who wears the conductor hat the majority of the time, the concept of having three intrigued me. In the early stages, Vitamin Angles was actually kind of in the background because there wasn’t much information right upfront so until we all went to the VA headquarters in Santa Barbara, met for the first time and actually figured out what all this was, the gamble over whether this was going to be brilliant or a hot mess was the backbone for my decision to take this on.
VW: What was the coolest moment for you and why?
AB: Being the shameless film dweeb I am, the fact that I hiked amongst some of the dunes used as Tatooine in Return of the Jedi (while in Yuma, AZ) or stayed in the cozy little town Steel Magnoliaswas fully concocted in, I’d have to say those were pretty cool (and accidental) finds that pleased the bright-eyed cinematic child that still dwells inside me.
VW: Tell me about the person who had the most significant impact on you you the most.
AB: All one has to do is look through my footage and see the personality and heart that permeated from Swami and Shirley to see the impression those two incredible folks had on me. With each interview, we would begin asking what got them involved volunteering. For Shirley, she experienced 9/11 in ways I had only seen documented on the news. She watched breathlessly as both planes hit the World Trade Center, (located just across the street from where she previously worked). Her description of that cloud of dust and debris chasing her, the aftermath of counseling and a different worldview shocked me, especially coming from the mouth of the woman I had been nicknaming The Shirlinator (for her truly fierce skills commanding the hundreds of people filtering in and out of that early distribution morning). The devastation still present in her recollection is something I won’t forget anytime soon.
Swami started “serving” during the AIDS crisis whilst going through the process of losing multiple loved ones (two partners in total amongst numerous friends). For him, bringing homemade cookies to the hospital patients and visitors was so rewarding. He described calling every friend and having them help so that together they could bring in thousands of cookies. It was at that moment when he saw the joy and help simple cookies could bring when he thought up Riverfund NY. He began the food bank out of his personal home (where it still resides) in 1991. “It started just by baking cookies” he chuckled in front of boxes and boxes of various foods, stacked and ready for the next morning to be distributed to the 700+ arriving. For me, talking with Swami in his world was one of the first times I’ve truly seen the power a simple concept can have when followed through. Here was this magnificent man who took his immense losses and turned them into something positive: something that will carry on after he’s gone.
The entire Queens community was a treasure-trove for inspiration but those particular stories brought me to my knees. Swami, Shirley and Riverfund NY in general understand the need for places like Vitamin Angels and I’ll cherish the time they gave me and I’m still in awe of what they accomplish day in and out.
VW: How did you relate to the people and their way of life?
AB: Money has always been just a tool for me over the years. I was brought up by educators so knowledge was what was stressed early on, not status or material things. I think in that way right off the bat, I really related and empathized with the people of the communities we visited as they were a very familiar group. One of the most influential individuals in my life happened to also be one of the poorest I’ve known: my great-grandma Violet. I didn’t actually know the extent of her poverty until later in life so to me, being in these areas wasn’t actually shocking by any means, just kind of a relief to see because there is some serious good being done by Vitamin Angels and the partners we visited. I didn’t expect that.
VW: What did you learn about the people and the community?
AB: In America, there tends to be this generalization about those who utilize the government for support. The term "handouts” comes to mind as the most over/mis-used. To me, that mindset has always come off incredibly offensive, but after this trip, it's something that extremely annoys me. When we arrived the morning of distribution day in Queens, the line was down a couple blocks with mothers, brothers, sisters, daughters, grandparents, and just about every one you could imagine of differentiating ages. Speaking as someone who’s done absolutely nothing (other than simply being born into a middle class family) to be given the opportunity to go to the store and choose what to eat, I realize just how unexpected life is. Seeing entire families sitting out front of a little house in the middle of Queens as the sun is setting just confirms why that generalization is incredibly off kilter with actuality. This may not be something I learned but it’s something that was confirmed during this trip and needs to be addressed more often. There is a need for places like pregnancy centers, food banks and organizations like Vitamin Angels. Let the footage from my portion be the proof of that in America.
VW: What did you learn about how culture impacts the ways people live?
AB: Like I mentioned earlier, one of my fears for covering the domestic side of VA was dealing with those who were ashamed for seeking and needing help. My intention is never to make anyone feel uncomfortable so when we talked prior to traveling, the concept of comfort and the sacredness of these communities was truly a number one worry of mine. To my surprise though, when you go to the source of support and resource, pessimism and shame are the things you can’t find. No stigma. No judgements - just humans helping humans without all the distractions. It’s truly a beautiful thing we don’t focus on enough, especially here in the US.
VW: How did the US inspire your creativity? Why do you think traveling around the world is important? What does it mean to you?
AB: In between each domestic trip with VA, I embarked on my own adventures. Austin, TX, Los Angeles, CA and New York City, NY were my homes when I wasn't shooting so for over a month, I was nomadic and feeling the smallest I’ve ever felt as a human. I loved every minute of that process (minus maybe one or two traveling snafoos) because as anyone in the midwest knows, you kind of get lost in this little bubble of comfort after a while and forget just how big this world is. As a storyteller, I always find it most helpful to have one foot out of one’s comfort zone. It’s important to creatively push yourself for those unexpected moments are the ones where truth resides so to wrap up this convoluted response, I’d have to say that being a member of so many communities over such a short amount of time all over this part of the world I felt I wholeheartedly understood was the single-most beneficial thing for my creativity. I highly recommend anyone given this type of opportunity to run, (not walk) to it.
AB: As with any documentary, the uncertainty factor was always fighting against us. Without naming names and locations, there were a few subjects that were a little surprised and unwilling to let us film at that moment so we were kind of stuck being tourists which sounds like such a first world problem when said out loud but when you are traveling with the purpose to film a community and show a large-scale program, only to be greeted with a “please come back tomorrow” response, you get pretty frustrated because there is so much build-up and excitement without that payoff. Thankfully, every thing worked out in the end and we ended up seeing more in the areas we stayed so I wouldn’t change a thing.
VW: What was the most interesting part of the trip?
AB: While not much was captured on camera, there was a lot of good quality bonding moments in Natchitoches, LA between my camera gent, Aaron and VA representative, Phoebe. We actually had more time to explore than was necessary to film so we were able to just waltz around and take in the gorgeous (yet relentlessly hot) little southern splendor. What was so interesting though was how connected everyone was. Maybe it was because we were painfully obvious in our tourism but when someone would get word of another, they’d smile and have some personal anecdote. It was really bizarre to see as it happened in some fashion at every single spot we went. The real glue to all of this though was Theresa, the 70-going-on21-year old who ran the stunning little bed and breakfast we stayed at. This woman had the stories, the wisdom and the sass of every dream-grandparent out there. The only negative thing I could even think about this gal is how old and lazy she made ME feel. If I grow to have half that much energy when I’m at that point in life, I will have done it all right. I’m sure even then, Theresa will still be cooking up something fierce and saying something even more so.
VW: Why do you think giving back is important? What does it mean to you?
AB: Prior to this whole endeavor, I had only really experienced “giving back” through volunteering at homeless shelters and donating blood. To me, those were things I had to actually go out of my way to seek out. I remember the first time I volunteered and the rush that came over me during the interaction. It surprised me because I was actually nervous about it. For me, whenever you put yourself in that situation, there’s this strange power struggle that I do my best to distinguish. Nobody is better than any other person and when I remind myself of that fact, things make so much more sense. However, the concept of giving back becomes a little more muddled. For me, giving back is a tricky thing because you’re not really giving anything back, you’re just being there for someone who needs an extra hand at that time. Now, I realize I probably sound like I’m speaking bumper sticker in this interview but it’s just so simple, easy and true.
One of my hopes with this project is that folks my age get inspired to seek these organizations out and volunteer: be a part of their community. Better yet, if those younger see how rewarding it is to just take a couple hours out of their week to work at a food bank or stuff backpacks, or whatever is around (because I bet you there is whether you realize it or not), that’d be even more spectacular as the youth is what will carry all this on.
VW: What did you learn about yourself on this trip?
AB: Considering this doc came pretty soon after I graduated from film school in my comfort blanket known as the Windy City, I was really hesitant about my move to LA later in the year. Before this trip, I kept dreading leaving what was so familiar and I had this weird attachment to Chicago. As someone who is very nostalgic, this wasn’t a surprise by any means but it was certainly a worldview that shifted the more I traveled and saw the world. I eventually got to the point midway through the trip when I felt a home-like comfort in airports and hotel rooms so if that wasn’t proof enough that home is where you make it, I don’t know what is (unless you found that in a dentist’s office in which I would congratulate you on annihilating my discovery completely).
VW: Would you do this again?
AB: It may come as a surprise given how glowing I’ve been this entire time about this experience but I don’t know if I would do this again. My only real holdup is that I’d want to go to new places. I think for me, I found a great deal of warmth in Queens so I’d absolutely go back there at some point (and truly hope to revisit sooner than later) but everything else just made me want to see more of this domestic program so I wouldn’t necessarily do this again unless I knew where I was going was going to be different. So much of what made this such a rewarding experience was being put out of my comfort zone and plopping me in spots I had never been. It wouldn’t be right to try and replicate this down the road. There are 27 other states calling my name.