Byron Hurt (Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes) returns to Independent Lens this season with his new film Soul Food Junkies. We sat down to discuss how his father’s health issues inspired him to make the film, and his hopes for the film’s impact on the health of future generations. Soul Food Junkies premieres on Independent Lens January 14 at 10 PM (check local listings).
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope Soul Food Junkies has a huge impact with millions of viewers around the world. I hope this film makes it easier for families and communities to talk openly and honestly about the impact food has on their lives and their health. I also hope this film will be used widely as a discussion starter in communities of color around food consumption, health, wellness, and fitness. I hope that the film will get people who normally don’t talk about their health or their family members’ health to open up and have discussions that are difficult to have with their family members and loved ones. Finally, I hope that the health industry will find this film valuable and that health professionals, nutritionists, hospitals, and even First Lady Michelle Obama will put this film to work!
What led you to make this film?
My father led me to make this film. I always worried about my dad and his health, from the time that I was a young boy. His obesity and eating habits concerned me for years. When he got sick with pancreatic cancer, I automatically looked at his eating habits and lifestyle as the cause. I also saw how difficult it was for him to change his eating habits and give up eating certain foods that were high in fat and calories, so I decided to make Soul Food Junkies to explore the subject of soul food and black people’s connection to this cuisine.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
The biggest challenges for me were figuring out how to tell this story, keeping the project on schedule, and money. Also, staying focused on the project was a challenge, especially in the early stages of Soul Food Junkies. With the success of Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, it was a challenge for me to solely focus on Soul Food Junkies. People pulled me in so many different directions – inviting me to speak here, show my film there, be on a panel discussion here – so I had to really take a hard stand and so no to people who wanted me to come to their city for a speaking engagement.
I lost my editor in September 2011 for two months and we got way off schedule. That really bothered me because I wanted to deliver this film in one year. The fall of 2011 was a difficult time for me because I wanted so badly to finish the film. We also lost funding that I expected to receive from the Ford Foundation. It was a huge blow, and I had to shift my focus from working on the film to fundraising. I think that had to be the most difficult challenge – having to replace the $100,000 that I expected to receive from the Ford Foundation.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
I approach my subjects with a great deal of authenticity and respect. I love to talk to people and interview them about a subject that is of interest to them. I believe that I am a very good listener, so I think my subjects feel like they are being heard when they talk to me. I also believe that, based on my previous work, my subjects really trust me and believe that my work has integrity, so they open up to me.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
Oh, so much!! LOL! I really wanted to include a segment that featured the long held debate in the black community between pork eaters and non-pork eaters. That’s a huge subject in the black community and I really wanted to address that in the film. But we couldn’t really find a place for it in the film where it really fit in neatly with the story we were telling so we had to leave it out. But I really wanted to have that in my film because I felt like the pork debate is one of those subjects that is an internal cultural discussion that doesn’t get talked about publicly. Ironically, I was invited to be a guest on NPR to discuss that very topic on Michel Martin’s show, Tell Me More.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
That’s easy. It was the first time I watched the scene of my father – who was very ill at that time – give a toast to my wife and me at our wedding reception. The following scene there is a long shot of he and my sister walking away from the on the beach on Hilton Head Island just before we learn that he died from pancreatic cancer. I cried like a baby.
What has the audience response been so far?
I’ve had several small, private feedback screenings and most of the responses have been overwhelmingly positive. I sat in one screening where an elderly black woman talked back to the screen throughout the entire movie saying, “Yep!” “That’s right!” “Uh huh.” “That’s exactly right!” That was particularly gratifying to me. It meant I hit the nail right on the head.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
It is difficult – very difficult. But I love making and watching documentary. The process of having an idea swim in my mind for years and then watch it evolve and translate to the screen is very rewarding to me. I am also motivated by the desire to become a great filmmaker, and to master this craft. Admittedly, I have a long way to go.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Public television is one of the few spaces where a film like mine can be broadcast. I feel like I have complete editorial and artistic control, and I like that very much. Independent Lens gives me the space to tell my story without changing or watering down my ideas. I don’t think I will find that anywhere else on television.
Is there anything else you’d like to share in this Q&A—interesting anecdotes regarding filming, a commonly asked question by audiences, etc.?
I think it is really interesting that every time I tell someone I am a documentary filmmaker, they suggest a film they think I should make. If I had $20 for each time someone suggested a film idea to me, I’d have the money for my next film!
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
What are your three favorite films?
That’s a really tough question.
When We Were Kings
Trouble the Water
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Learn the business of filmmaking. That’s very important. Learn the craft by studying other filmmakers work and their process of making their own films. Learn how to write a really good treatment. Get used to rejection.
And if you really want to be a filmmaker, go for it and don’t give up. Stay committed.
What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film? (This question is meant literally.)
Making documentaries is like eating potato chips. Once you start eating potato chips, you can’t stop eating them. It’s the same with documentaries. Once you start making documentaries, no matter how many times you say you will never make another one – you will. So I would have to say, potato chips.