Wildfires, Whitefish, and a Middle School Community Garden


Making it happen

Producing documentaries gives you a chance to visit other worlds and drop in on other people’s lives. Montana was one of those places. Before going, I thought of Montana as Sierra Club calendars - beautiful mountain ranges and wildflowers.

Wildflowers growing in the Lions Club garden - photo by Branson Tarr

Wildflowers growing in the Lions Club garden - photo by Branson Tarr

But on this trip, it was wildfires that almost kept us from going. Fall 2017. Wildfires are burning in Glacier National Park. And we are planning to film a story about middle school children working in a Lions club’s garden. It’s a story of educating kids about food sovereignty and forming healthy eating habits. But the garden is close enough to the park that some days the kids aren’t allowed outside because of air quality. How are the middle schoolers going to work in the garden if they can’t go outside?

Optimism prevails. We book our plane tickets, cross our fingers, and keep monitoring the air quality reports. Then 4 days before we leave, there is another problem - threatening emails sent to parents at the middle school from an unknown source. As a precaution, they close the school. Again, no kids, no story.

We persevere. A few days later, the school reopens, enough rain comes to quell the smoke from the fires, and we get to work.

Zucchini or Bust

A good documentary tells a story. And a good story has a through line. During the month of preproduction, I heard about zucchini and decided to make it our through line. We’d shoot the zucchini being harvested, served in the school lunch, and prepped in a cooking class at the middle school.

But when I get to the cooking class, where I have an hour to get footage and an interview, no zucchini! Those school closings have thrown off the schedule. Do I go with the flow and film the planned activity? No. I want my zucchini through line. So we scramble. The guy who runs the school lunch program scores us some beautiful zucchini, fast! The teacher changes her lesson plan for us, and voila! We have a beautiful scene where the kids learn about how to cut up a zucchini…that was harvested from the garden.

Cooking class

Cooking class

Actually, true confessions, because our schedule got turned around, the harvest day is filmed after the cooking class day. So, when those girls from the cooking class show up at the harvest, I grab them. Part 1 of my story, harvesting zucchini. Go! But I have no time to interview each girl separately, so I stand all three up in the field and throw questions at each of them. And because I do that, the girls play off each other and I get the magic of the zucchini bread interchange. I could have cut it out. It doesn’t further the “plot” or give you any hard facts. But those are exactly the moments to find and leave in.

At the end of the day, it’s about connecting through a shared experience, overcoming inevitable challenges, and being flexible. That’s what was at the heart of this Montana video and why it’s one of my favorites. And the zucchini through line didn’t hurt either.

Anne Northrup/Producer