Thursday, May 31, 2012

Interview: Ten questions for Vegucated director Marisa Miller Wolfson

Marisa Miller Wolfson's movie, Vegucated, delivers what many food documentaries
lack: a realistic look at what it takes to be a vegan. (Photos by Jessica Mahady)
By John A. Zukowski

The most em
otionally satisfying movie of the recent wave of food documentaries is Vegucated, which chronicles three people adapting to a vegan diet. A single mother, a college student and a bachelor bartender are recruited on craigslist to go vegan.

They face disapproving family members, receive a crash course in vegan cooking, and sometimes collapse into discouragement when they feel overwhelmed by a omnivore-based society.

Whether it’s in feature movies or documentaries, the best films show us convincing realistic moments. In Vegucated, there are a lot of those moments. Director Marisa Miller Wolfson takes us into the private lives of three people and isn’t afraid to show us their most difficult challenges, as well as what gives the characters the motivation to continue—which provides some poignant scenes. It all transcends many of the recent food documentaries that can sometimes be a little too overloaded with factual information and interviews with experts.

Vegucated is a successful piece of realism as well as an informative movie about the health and ethical benefits of a vegan diet. In a recent interview with New Vegan Age's John A. Zukowski, Wolfson says she intended from the beginning to create a realistic and human-centered documentary. She also answers questions ranging from vegan stereotypes in the media to what she makes for dinner when she gets home after a busy day.

New Vegan Age: Do you remember the exact moment you decided to make Vegucated?

Marisa Miller Wolfson: I do, actually. I was sitting in Super Size Me, and I thought, if Morgan Spurlock can use a vegan diet to detox from his burger binge, then I want to see that. Someone should make the opposite of his experiment, where we take someone who eats the standard American diet and have them go vegan for a month and capture it all on camera. Then I was sitting in Candle 79 with Mary Max, my boss at Kind Green Planet, and she said, “Let’s make the film!” So we did.

NVA: Several food-related documentaries have been released in the past few years. Why do you think there’s so much interest now in the subject of food?

MMW: There sure have been. We’re grappling with so many diet- and lifestyle-related health crises, and we’re trying to make sense of why that is and what we can do about it. Meanwhile, it seems that almost every month there’s a new undercover investigation or news story coming out about the horrors of what goes on behind closed doors in the food industry, from animal abuse to pink slime used in school lunches. Books about food consistently land on the bestseller lists, so it only makes sense that people want to watch movies on these topics as well.

NVA: Vegucated covers both the health aspects and the ethical issues of being a vegan. Do you find that people are interested in both of those issues? Or are they generally interested in one more than the other?

MMW: It varies. I’d say most people are interested in both, although some care much more about one than the other, with the majority of those who care leaning towards the health side because it's in their own interest. Just anecdotally, I've found women respond more to the animal compassion argument and men are more resistant to it.

Overall, people who watch Vegucated react more to the ethical arguments, which makes sense given that the focus of the film is more on animals. All film subjects enjoy health benefits from the vegan lifestyle, but it’s really their concern about what happens to animals in the industry that jumps off the screen.

NVA: When I talk to vegans and vegetarians who’ve seen Vegucated, they relate to it because they say it’s so realistic. They like seeing how the three people change over the course of the film and the challenges they face. Was it always your intent to show that human side of being a vegan instead of just convincing people with just statistics and information?

It may require more cooking at home
 if you want to be a vegan in a non-
metropolitan area, Wolfson says.
But more people are taking the steps. 
MMW: Absolutely. What made Super Size Me so popular? Everyone loves to hate McDonalds, but really, it's about seeing the charming Morgan Spurlock put himself through that nutty experiment and watching his ups and downs along the way that make it entertaining and compelling.

Also, how many times have you thought, “If people only knew the truth, they would change,” but then you’re shocked when they do have the information and then they don’t change? It’s about so much more than information. It’s tied up in questions of self-identity—“but I’m not a vegan!”—and beliefs about what you can or cannot do—“but I could never give up cheese!”—so that once you see everyday people making the shift for very good reasons and overcoming challenges, you start to ask yourself, “Hey, maybe I could do that; maybe I could be like him or her.”

NVA: Something interesting in your movie was that you showed the resistance that people who want to be vegans sometimes get from friends and family. Many people I talked to related to that! Based on your experiences with the film and in your own life, why do you think there sometimes is that resistance? And what advice do you have for vegans to handle it?

MMW: As soon as you start to walk out of step with your friends and family in any way, the change can lead them to question their own actions. You’re inadvertently holding a mirror to their face, and they’re asking themselves, “Do I like what I see here? Or should I be making the same changes as so-and-so?”

Even if you never ever ask them about their choices or even want to bring it up, they will inevitably think about it and talk about it in terms of their own choices. And if they don’t have the same inspiration or information as you, and/or they have their own psychological blocks, they will do whatever is in their power to discredit your position so they can stay in their safe zone and not feel the need to change.

My advice is to have compassion for the people around you, even if you’re sick of the jokes and the jabs, and to be patient. It will pass as people become used to the new you and learn how to navigate around this issue. Sometimes, especially with parents and partners, the discomfort can be tied to not knowing how to take care of you in one of the most basic ways they know how: through cooking for you. So, sharing recipes and bringing food to share will help there. So will sharing your reasons for going veg in a non-judgmental way.

Sharing books is great; people can read the information in their own voice, which psychologically makes things more digestible for people than hearing it through the filter of your voice and everything they think about you. Sharing movies can be incredibly effective because you’re asking them to commit an hour or two of their time, not days, as might be the case with a book. Just yesterday we got a review on Amazon from someone who said that she lives with a vegan and has had trouble grasping what it was all about, but now she gets it after watching the film. Anything that can create greater understanding is a positive thing.

NVA: We’re soon publishing a piece on images of vegans and vegetarians in pop culture. It’s kind of interesting to see it all—from Lisa Simpson, to the character Phoebe from “Friends.” Whether it’s characters in pop culture or information in the news, how do you think veganism and vegetarianism is usually shown in the mainstream media? Do you think there are stereotypes? And did you hope to change it or add to the images of vegans with your film?

Wolfson has a busy schedule,
too, and shared with us in this
interview one quick meal she
made after a hectic day.
MMW: That sounds like a great piece. Unfortunately, there are still strong negative stereotypes of vegans in the news and mainstream media. It's presented as radical or extreme and very limiting. Yes, I did hope to change the stereotypes by having a bit of fun sharing my own old stereotypes of vegans at the beginning of the film and then dispelling these stereotypes by choosing three very normal people with whom everyone can relate and showing them becoming vegan. One of the goals certainly was to mainstream the image of the vegan.

NVA: Your movie was shot in and around New York City, where there are many vegan restaurants and grocery stores that carry vegan food. What advice do you have for people in remote areas trying to go vegan? Will it be more difficult for them to do it?

MMW: Coming from a more remote area myself—Evansville, Indiana—I know that it most certainly is more difficult for people in small cities and towns to do it. Not only do you not have all the restaurants and health food stores, but you don’t have the vegan cultural and social opportunities that you do in more veg-friendly cities.

Still, I hear from people all the time who are doing it and loving it in more remote areas. They rely much more on international cuisine when eating out, since that’s where more of their options are, and they rely more on home-cooked food. But what’s really exciting is that they’re really being proactive in creating social support opportunities by organizing potlucks, vegan monthly supper clubs, and other veg events, either informally or more formally through an organization or I’d strongly recommend people look for a vegan meetup or other group or consider starting their own if there isn’t one in their area. You’d be surprised by how many people there are who are interested in learning more and getting support.

Also, connecting with people online is super helpful. Friending or following vegan people and organizations will help you feel more connected, informed, and supported, and will help facilitate more in-person interactions with them. We’re actually building a Vegucated community site as we speak and a Vegan Buddy Locator so you can geolocate other vegan and vegan-curious folks near you. We hope people plug in that way too.

NVA: My wife and I are sometimes surprised to go out to eat with people who say they are progressive or liberal and see them ravenously eating meat. Why do you think so many people—even socially-aware liberals and progressives—don’t think about what they eat? Do you think it has anything to do with “foodie” culture which emphasizes a taste for the exotic over ethical issues?

MMW: I would love to understand the exotic “foodie” culture better. I wonder if it has to do with feeling a sense of adventure in a workaday world or having some kind of global or class identity or bragging rights?

At the same time, the ethical foodie culture has emerged strongly alongside it, and farmer’s markets, CSA programs, and the vegan food industry are some of the fastest growing sectors of the market. People are making more and more food choices based on ethics now than ever before, so I do actually think progressives are thinking about what they eat, but so much more is tied up their decisions than just generally caring.

Ignorance, fear of change, fear of isolation and deprivation plus emotional and psychological blocks all play a role. But so do different value systems and priorities. Just because we’re progressives doesn’t mean we share the exact same values when it comes to animals or the food system.

Some people don't care about farm workers or the environment in the same way that others do. And some people genuinely do not connect with animals the way that others do or just "don't want to know" because they fear being upset and they're afraid it will shatter their image of themselves as a compassionate person.

NVA: You’ve had a long day and don’t feel like taking a lot of time to prepare a vegan meal when you get home. So what do you make?

MMW: Um, that sounds like almost every night? I’ve been traveling a lot for the film, but the last evening I had at home I whipped up a cilantro-basil-garlic-with-almond-and-pumpkin-seed pesto quickly in my Vitamix and mixed it in with whole grain pasta, steamed spinach, sundried tomatoes, cannelloni beans, and Parma, which is a delicious mix of ground walnuts and nutritional yeast. The whole thing took about 20 minutes and was super yummy and covered some of my important protein, calcium, omega-3, iron, folate, zinc, and, of course, fiber needs for the day.

I’m preggers right now, so I’m more aware of individual nutrient needs than ever before. Pregnancy is definitely doable as a vegan and is even more enjoyable because you get to eat more food!

NVA: I’m sure it was a real process and labor of love to raise money, put together a film and promote it. What have been some of the most rewarding things from doing Vegucated?

MMW: Lordy lordy, what a journey it’s been! Well, we’ve had a blast connecting with veg-conscious folks all over the country and sampling yummy vegan fare from Dallas, TX to Minneapolis, MN to Philadelphia, PA. And when you’ve worked for years on a film, you get sick of seeing the footage over and over again and you lose perspective on it and wonder, “Is it any good? Is it even watchable?” And then you hear people in the audience laughing and sniffling at the film, and you remember what inspired you to make it in the first place.

But hands down the most rewarding thing is hearing from people who are thinking and eating differently as a result of seeing the film. Yesterday a viewer named Tracie who attended the UK Green Film Festival screening in Cardiff, Wales posted on our Facebook wall and said her 17-year-old daughter turned to her after the film and said, “We just have to go vegan, Mum." To which Mum replied, "Yep, makes total head/heart sense." That’s music to our ears.

Interviewer John A. Zukowski worked for more than a decade as a feature writer reporting about pop culture, music and religion for daily newspapers. He's now a freelance writer who lives in Eastern Pennsylvania with his wife Kim.