Sunday, April 29, 2007

a US movie premiere: ALL IN THIS TEA

i have much to relate about my time in san francisco last saturday, so i will split it up into less indigestible portions. this bit actually begins with a drive across the bay to berkeley, where tickets were waiting for us to attend the premiere of the long-awaited documentary, ALL IN THIS TEA, the latest release of les blank's 'flower films' production company. strictly speaking, this was the official premiere, but not the first-ever public showing, of the film; that, as far as i know, took place on 24 march 2006, in a special screening of a 'preview version' under the auspices of the national geographic society in washington DC. still and all, this weekend's screening was a gala event, and many of those involved in the making of the film were in attendance, including:
  • les blank [LB], who has long been known for his documentary film-making, and who was the director of photography [read: principal cameraman] for the shooting of this film;
  • gina leibrecht, who co-directed and edited the film, and shot some of the footage as well;
  • james norwood pratt [JNP], a living legend [and rightfully so, as he is one of the greatest living authorities on tea culture] and intermittent personage in the film; and
  • david lee hoffman [DLH], surely one of the most beloved names in the world of china teas, and the focal character of the film itself.

    [[at the berkeley premiere. L-R: gaetano kazuo maida; james norwood pratt; david lee hoffman; gina leibrecht; les blank]]

    the film was screened as part of the SF international film festival, which takes place from 26 april to 10 may this year. this premiere was sponsored by the saul zaentz media center and the SF film commission. the saturday screening [they have also scheduled shows for sunday and wednesday -- both at sundance cinemas kabuki, 1881 post street @ fillmore, SF] played to a completely sold-out house. moreover, the audience was highly appreciative; the affection for these film-makers and tea-people was palpable in the room. the venue was nicely appointed, with comfortable seats and ample leg-room; the only [slight] disappointment was that the screen itself could have been a bit bigger. but this is to cavil.

    the film, we learned, took shape over the course of a full decade, beginning in 1997 when LB encountered DLH at the berkeley himalayan fair, merrily serving up tea to all and some. by this point, of course, DLH had already been importing hand-crafted china teas for twenty years, often by tramping through the hinterlands of china in order to find the best-quality teas. the difficulties to be faced were unimaginable: the language barrier [barriers, plural: DLH had/has to deal with speakers of many different dialects besides putonghua]; the limitations of transportation across such a vast country; the often quite remote locations of the farms where the best teas are grown; and the reluctance of the government-appointed export company, which at that time held a monopoly on the rights to export teas -- any and all teas -- from china. DLH, that gentle renegade, often found his resourcefulness taxed to the full in trying to circumvent the iron-clad obstacles so politely set in his way by the powers-that-be [or, at least, that then were].

    the film begins with a sense of racing the clock: there is a clip of DLH tasting an excellent tea, pronouncing on its extraordinary quality, and opining that in a few years' time this farmer may, for lack of sufficient commercial support, have to abandon tea-production altogether and seek other work. it was in the face of this potentially tremendous cultural loss that DLH undertook his mission of helping the Little Guy -- the tea-farmer of modest means and holdings, living simply and far from urban environs, raising a small [possibly tiny] crop of top-grade tea [organic by default] and in some cases also processing the leaf himself. how can such davids survive against the goliath cartels of the tea industry, who ship many thousands of pounds of leaf each year? LB shrewdly casts his main character in truly classic [even mythic] terms: the Hero on a Journey, setting out to achieve the Impossible Task against incalculable odds. this gives the movie, which is overall fairly serene in tone, an undercurrent of urgency that a tea-loving audience cannot help but appreciate on the affective level.

    [[photo: flower films inc.]]

    other issues are addressed as well as the plight of the small-holding farmer: the looming menace of chemical pesticides used by the large-scale tea industry in china, threatening to toxify our tea; and the questions of sustainability over time and the danger of soil depletion.

    DLH [followed, let us not forget, by LB across mountain and plain] interacts over and over with tea exporters, tea growers, and tea drinkers. his very engaging openness of spirit makes him irresistibly charming, to filmgoers as well as [evidently] to recalcitrant tea officials who were initially reluctant to bend or break the rules of the People's Republic for his sake. though he laughs infectiously and connects easily with these sometimes bemused and shy people, he never loses his laser-like focus on the nature and quality of the tea he is encountering. if it is good, or even superb, his praise is unstinting; but if his reaction is negative, he does not sugar-coat it.

    driven by a sense of preserving the world's heritage, as well as by his personal zest for the drinking of fine teas, DLH moves very naturally into the heroic role LB has prepared for him. the scope of this anointing comes into focus very early on in a memorable cameo of the film, when the legendary werner herzog pays DLH a visit at his west marin home, and shares some tea with him. [herzog was the subject of an earlier documentary by LB, BURDEN OF DREAMS, which itself aired at the SFIFF in 1995.] in the course of his brief remarks, herzog muses on all the things that the tea in his cup evokes -- the mist and clouds on the mountainside, the soil of china, the rain that made the tea plants grow: 'it's all in this tea,' he says.

    the main course of the narrative is interrupted from time to time with cameos by norwood pratt [a pretty charming guy himself, as his own adoring audiences and readers know], by gaetano kazuo maida, and by winnie yu, proprietor of TEANCE in berkeley. these tea experts proffer opinions and aperçus that supplement, illuminate, and expand upon the points made by DLH as the film progresses.

    in addition to the footage shot by LB, by gina leibrecht, and by tom valens, we see still photos of DLH in earlier years, including some of him hobnobbing with the dalai lama [who wanted to 'practice his english'] and various tibetan monks. the music is well-chosen and evokes the traditional nature of the culture that gave birth to the production of these artisanal teas. the frequent use of hand-held cameras underscores for us the rugged terrain [and considerable hiking] involved in the making of this film. there are some wonderful moments -- the tantalizing glimpse of DLH's famous cave full of pu'er; his participation in the first-ever organic tea farming conference, at which he was the only non-chinese conferee; and the hurly-burly in which DLH finds himself surrounded by a bevy of tea-vendors importuning him to have a look at their bags of fresh tea. he puts his nose into one bag to give it a sniff; pronouncing one word -- 'chemicals' -- he swiftly consigns the tea to eternal damnation, and moves on.

    perhaps the most surprising cameo appearance in the film is made by the common earthworm. in the interest of avoiding spoilers, i will say no more about it here. but really: who knew?

    the Q&A after the screening gave the audience ample time to respond verbally to a film that clearly had a powerful effect on them. we were able to laugh at what the announcer called the 'liptonian dictatorship' over the world tea industry. it was bracing to hear DLH proclaim unequivocally that 'the best tea in the world is still found in china.' and it was exciting to hear LB announce that ALL IN THIS TEA will not only be screened at other festivals, but will soon be released on DVD; if you want to receive an email alert when it is available for purchase, send him a request at

    after the Q&A, the crowd milled about in the sunshine on the elegant terrace. there were some intriguing first meetings and some happy reunions. but after such a focused experience, there was only one thing that made sense to do: go and drink some tea. and that is exactly what we did.

    FILM MAKERS [these blurbs are from the SFIFF page for the film]:

    Acclaimed filmmaker Les Blank has made numerous documentary films since 1960, including Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (SFIFF 1980), The Maestro: King of the Cowboy Artists (SFIFF 1995) and Gap-Toothed Women (1987, SFIFF 1995). Chulas Fronteras (1976) and Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers (1980, SFIFF 1995) have been selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress National Film Registry. Retrospectives of his films have taken place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. In 1990, Blank received the American Film Institute's Maya Deren Award for outstanding lifetime achievement.

    Gina Leibrecht has worked as an editor on several documentary films, including Katrina Epperlein's Phoenix Dance (SFIFF 2006 Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary Short) and Frank Green's Counting Sheep, which won a Northern California Emmy for Best Documentary in 2006. Leibrecht has been collaborating with Les Blank since 1998.

    Unknown said...

    Fantastic review. Thank you for this, corax. Only you could have written such a piece. Wow.

    corax said...

    grasshopper! you are too kind!
    i am glad if you enjoyed it.
    i hope you get to see the film
    itself sometime. it really is a bouquet to DLH, who richly deserves one; but it will also get people thinking about the miracle of artisanal china teas, and that is all to the good -- for all of us.