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Film And Food: Sharing The Stories Of Immigrants With Conservative America

Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine, the husband-and-wife duo behind the web series <em>Perennial Plate</em>, have made over 160 videos about people, good food and sustainability.
Courtesy of Perennial Plate
Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine, the husband-and-wife duo behind the web series Perennial Plate, have made over 160 videos about people, good food and sustainability.

Like a lot of creatives distressed by the current political climate, filmmakers Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine want to tell stories that matter right now. They want to make a difference.

The husband-and-wife duo behind the Perennial Plate, a weekly web-based program showcasing sustainable food and farming practices, believe in the power of a meal combined with storytelling to bring people together.

Now, Perennial Plate wants to use its platform to spark a dialogue, particularly with conservative Americans, about immigrants and refugees in this country. Klein and Fine want to sow seeds for tolerance and acceptance — in contrast to fear and distrust. And they're starting with five short films under the banner "Resistance Through Storytelling" about multi-generational immigrant families making a meal and gathering at the dinner table.

"Food is as good a place as any to start a conversation. Food and family are the great connectors, something we all have in common," Klein says. Each film will feature a compelling family who originally hailed from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America or the Middle East.

Klein and Fine have spent almost 10 years telling 160 such tales. They started locally, documenting the foodways of Minnesota, their home state. Then they set off around the country, before eventually circling the globe gathering footage and stitching together intimate portraits of the different ways people farm and cook. For example, the episode Our Heart Within Us recounts the story of Francisco and Lucia, Mayan refugees from Guatemala who came to Alamosa, Colo., in the 1980s. The couple grow plants indigenous to their country of origin in their adopted community; by doing so, they've held on to a piece of their homeland.

En route, the husband-and-wife team earned two James Beard Awards (they're like the Oscars of the food world) and added another partner, fellow filmmaker Hunter Johnson, to the mix.

Mirra Fine shoots an oregano farmer in Hidalgo, Mexico, for the film <em>Homeward</em>. It tells the story of a group of farmers who, tired of people leaving their community for the U.S., decided to keep more home by growing organic oregano.
/ Courtesy of Perennial Plate
Courtesy of Perennial Plate
Mirra Fine shoots an oregano farmer in Hidalgo, Mexico, for the film Homeward. It tells the story of a group of farmers who, tired of people leaving their community for the U.S., decided to keep more home by growing organic oregano.

In an intriguing distribution approach, the filmmakers plan to use Facebook advertising, known as sponsored posts, to reach a wider audience and a different demographic than they have to date. They intend to target Americans whose social media preferences suggest they might not be sympathetic to the plight of newcomers to the United States. Sponsored posts can roll out in feeds in specific locations (such as swing states like Wisconsin) and cherry-pick people with particular interests (say John McCain and The Packers).

"We want to get outside of our liberal bubble," says Klein. "We're not interested in preaching to the choir."

The unorthodox distribution model makes sense. These days, many Americans rely on Facebook as a source of news. And the newsfeed on anyone's social network can create what Klein calls an echo chamber, where a user only sees posts from like-minded people and sources.

The best illustration of this stark division in the dissemination of political information: Perhaps The Wall Street Journal's "Blue Feed, Red Feed," which includes an immigration category. Launched in May 2016, the tool is updated hourly. Even a cursory scroll through the side-by-side feeds reveal there's nothing fake about the deep divide in news consumed in this country.

A woman in China's Yunnan Province makes tofu in an episode of<em> Perennial Plate</em> called "Where The Water Settles."
/ Courtesy of Perennial Plate
Courtesy of Perennial Plate
A woman in China's Yunnan Province makes tofu in an episode of Perennial Plate called "Where The Water Settles."

"My perspective on immigrants and refugees is entirely positive and based on personal experience," says Klein.

But some of his family members and friends, who see posts in their newsfeeds from right-wing pundits and their ilk, are nervous and worried about immigrants and refugees, he says. Some of them don't know any actual recent immigrants, which only adds to the disconnection.

"This doesn't make them 'bad,' " he says, "but I do think it's time to get more positive stories of immigrants and refugees in front of audiences that don't normally see that narrative."

It is widely documented, says Klein, that when a person knows someone of a different background or ethnicity, his or her perspective on that "group" changes. He points to a recent anecdotal story about a member of a mostly white, President Trump-supporting southern Illinois county who was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Its residents and elected officials rallied around Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco, a father, restaurant manager and longtime pillar of the community, who also happens to be an undocumented immigrant. Locals didn't seem to care. They just wanted Carlos back home — in West Frankfort, Ill., that is, according to a New York Times account. He was released from immigration detention in March.

"If we are constantly bombarded with a certain negative story line — say, that immigrants are criminals with no regard for American values, who just want to 'steal' jobs from 'real' Americans — it creeps into our psyche," says Klein. "But I've never met an immigrant or refugee who didn't come to this country just looking for the opportunity to have a better life."

In fact, says Klein, newcomers to this country may have more in common with the political right than they realize. "In my experience, immigrants and refugees have a lot of the same traits as conservative Americans," he says. "They work hard. They value family. They want to be productive members of their communities."

The filmmakers, no strangers to crowdfunding, raised over $50,000 via a recent Kickstarter campaign for their latest project. Half the money will go toward production costs and the other half will be used to pay for Facebook advertising, a strategy, says Klein, used before by political campaigns with success.

It's also an ambitious experiment. And more overtly political than the typical Perennial Plate video. Klein intends to start close to home. He wants to feature a Somali family from Minneapolis, which has the highest population of Somali immigrants in the United States. The impact of the current administration's travel ban on the predominantly Muslim nation and a spike in deportation threats directed toward the Somali community will likely feature in the film. He's also keen to cover an undocumented Mexican-American family living in a sanctuary city. He has his eye on San Francisco as a possible location for that shoot.

Will Perennial Plate's films change attitudes towards immigrants? It's too soon to tell. But Klein says he has research on his side. He points to a 2016 study by scientists at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, which found that a frank, brief conversation lowered another person's bigotry when attempting to combat anti-transgender attitudes. So why couldn't a 5-minute film designed to encourage people to reevaluate their racist or religious biases towards Muslims or Mexicans do the same thing, asks Klein?

Showing someone a different perspective on the immigrant experience might just create some mental space for empathy and understanding. At least, that's what Klein is counting on.

"This is an opportunity to build a bridge. If we can play a role in people having an attitude adjustment, a shift in thinking, more tolerance towards immigrants, that's one measure of success for this project," he says. "We want to engage people around this issue and what better way to do that than through food?"

Sarah Henry is a food writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, the author of Farmsteads of the California Coast and the co-author, with chef Preeti Mistry, of the forthcoming memoir with recipes The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook: Indian Spice, Oakland Soul.

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Sarah Henry