With SEED: The Untold Story, filmmakers Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz complete a trilogy of sorts, after The Real Dirt on Farmer John and The New York Times Critic Pick Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us, of films that put a very human face on the intersection of agriculture and ecology.  The beautifully shot SEED, which premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Monday, April 17 at 10 [check local listings], is “the rare documentary from filmmakers who are not just capable but also in love with their craft,” wrote Daphne Howland in the Village Voice. “The frightening beauty of SEED is the clarity with which it defines the mission of seed-savers — maintaining agricultural diversity for future generations, whatever the world they inherit,” adds Maitland McDonagh of Film Journal International. “It’s bluntly persuasive.”

The filmmakers chatted with us about making a different kind of environmental film, one that manages to get both literally close to embryonic plants, and up close and personal with an eclectic mix of amazing seed keepers. 

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making a film about seeds, and in telling the story of seeds in an engaging way?

It was a challenge to know where to begin when making a film about a topic as big and broad as that of seeds. We discovered that the story is historical, political, scientific, and cultural. There are seed saving cultures in every corner of the globe, that spans back 12,000 years. Seeds are embedded in our art, in our language, in our songs, in our DNA. Our greatest challenge was weaving these vast elements together to create a moving, entertaining and cohesive story.

We wanted SEED to be as artistic as possible, using animation, time lapse photography, macro photography to bring seeds alive and to show that they are living embryos. To establish the historical underlay, we choose to drive the story with animation: stop-motion, sand, and beautiful cut-paper montages. Sometimes we asked animators to use the seeds themselves in an animation tapestry to tell part of the tale. It took months to do all of this, but it gives the film a unique and rich flavor.

By using macro lenses we enlarged these tiny seeds to witness seeds as works of art, architectural wonders, and mysterious gems. We poured meteorite showers of corn, beans, and helicopter-like sycamore seeds at the camera and set up time-lapse photography to show a seed giving birth to a plant.

SEED directors Taggart Siegel (left) and Jon Betz (right)
SEED directors Taggart Siegel (left) and Jon Betz (right)

How did you gain the trust of all the main characters in your film?

We often started by presenting our previous films, The Real Dirt on Farmer John, and Queen of the Sun and this opened doors for greater trust and understanding. Because we shared the similar passions around food, farming, beekeeping and seeds this established a common ground, a place where we could explore the wonders of seeds together.

Louie Hena, elder and seed saver at the Tesuque Pueblo stands next to his corn field and shares about the heritage of corn and his people.
Louie Hena, elder and seed saver at the Tesuque Pueblo stands next to his corn field and shares about the heritage of corn and his people.

Were there any other stories you filmed that you wanted to include but couldn’t make the final cut?

We had to edit 40 minutes out of the feature length version of SEED: The Untold Story to create the hour-long PBS Independent Lens broadcast. A few people didn’t make it, including Winona LaDuke, a powerful indigenous leader of the Ojibwe people in Northern Minnesota and a leader in advocating for the rights of her people. Her story of protecting the wild rice of the Ojibwe from genetic modification by the University of Minnesota is powerful and important.

[There’s also the story of] Percy Schmeiser, who tells a dramatic story about genetic contamination of his canola seed field in Canada in the late ’90’s. He was sued by Monsanto after the wind carried pollen from neighboring GMO crops into his organic field. He was forced into a shocking and unprecedented lawsuit that opened the floodgates to suing other farmers for patent infringement when their crops unexpectedly cross-pollinate from no fault of their own.

Lastly, we removed a major scene in Mexico, where the origin place of all corn is being contaminated by GMOs. If you’re interested you can watch the feature-length version here.

Do you have a scene in your film that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you?

While filming a seed school event in the four corners of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado we met a Hopi Elder, Leigh Kuwanwisiwma who was performing a sacred ceremony for seed planting. We asked if we could film, but he explained that filming was not allowed. He later invited us to the Hopi Nation to record an oral history for his children and grandchildren about his culture and his lifetime stewarding Hopi corn seeds. He conveyed the story of the Hopi’s 5,000-year relationship to corn, explaining that the corn plants are his children. His relationship to a seed was so profound and spiritual it changed how we viewed seeds. When he explained the threat that their corn could be contaminated by GMOs and owned and patented by the largest corporations in the world, it hit home.

You touched on some of your techniques earlier, but could you talk more about creating that stunning, unique opening shot of the woman lying down in a pink dress with bags of seeds surrounding her?

This was a fun sequence to create, and audiences often ask how it was done. Sara Mapelli, featured in our film Queen of the Sun, [had] danced with 20,000 bees all over her body. She came to us and expressed interest in growing seeds all over her body and wanted to know if we would film it. You don’t get this chance in life more than once, so we rigged multiple cameras that took photos every minute. She ended up laying in one place for 64 hours to create this otherworldly shot where seeds sprout out of her dress and hair. 

Do you have any updates on some of the people featured in SEED?

Bill McDorman, former Director of Native Seed/SEARCH now runs Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance. He is traveling the country, hosting seed schools, and has started the Million New Seed Saver Campaign.

Will Bonsall, the Noah-like character from Maine, finished his amazing book on gardening, The Essential Guide to Radical Self-Reliant Gardening. He is traveling and entertaining audiences with his wit and sarcasm.

Joe Simcox, the botanical explorer continues to travel the world finding rare seeds and wild crops. Every time we get an email he’s in a different country.

Rowen White, founder of Sierra Seeds is now Chairman of the Board of Seed Savers Exchange, the pre-eminent seed saving network in the US.

Louie Hena and Clayton Brascoupe of the Tesuque Pueblo outside of Santa Fe continue to strengthen the Traditional Native American Farming Association and are helping to ban GMOs on Native American Reservations.

Jane Goodall just turned 83 and still traveling the world to protect animals and biodiversity. Her book on seeds is called Seeds of Hope.

What are your favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

Jon: Documentaries that taught me telling a story well can also be a lot of fun: Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams and Banksy’s Exit through the Gift Shop.

Taggart: Brother’s Keeper, Capturing the Friedmans, Koyaanisqatsi, Microcosmos.


What film/project(s) are you working on next?

Taggart: Before jumping into the next big project, I’m making a film for the seed saving, permaculture and biodynamic farming and gardening community. I’m taking material that didn’t make it into SEED: The Untold Story and creating a companion piece that contains more in-depth interviews, additional stories, esoteric and abstract thoughts combined with practical seed keeping to inspire the next generation.

Jon: I’m now the Director of Distribution at Collective Eye Films. Leaping off of the experience of distributing SEED: The Untold Story and Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? I’m enjoying the process of stewarding over 150 great documentaries and collaborating with filmmakers on educational and grassroots screening distribution strategies. My focus is to champion filmmakers, helping them find audiences for their films.

How can people get more involved on the issue of seed diversity and protection?

Saving seed diversity starts with buying food and produce that is organically grown, fairly traded, and as local as possible. Visit your local farmer’s market to support small farmers. Buy those purple carrots and heirloom tomatoes, and keep diversity alive!

Become a seedkeeper by growing non-GMO, open pollinated, heirloom and organic seeds in your garden. Make sure your seeds and plants are free of neonicotinoid pesticide coatings that kill bees and pollinators. Save your seeds, and then share them with your community at seed swaps, farmers markets, community gardens and seed libraries. Bill McDorman, who is in the film, has started the Million New Seed Savers Campaign to encourage people to join a community of seed savers and participate in the simple act of planting and saving a seed.

If your community doesn’t have a seed library help create one in your community. Seed Libraries are a growing social movement in the U.S. There are over 500 seed libraries around the country. Seed Libraries are free, and once you check out your seeds, you take on the fun and exciting role of a seed saver! Just save seeds from your plants, and bring your seeds back the next year to “return” them to the library. Find a Seed Library near you in the U.S. and abroad. Join the Seed Library Social Network.

Many seed banks are critically underfunded, and they need your support to responsibly grow out and maintain the thousands of seed varieties that we depend on for our future. Find your local seed bank and seed saving communities and lend your support.

You can also go visit seedthemovie.com for more information.