‘Up in Smoke’ Chronicles Slash and Burn Agriculture in Honduras

Filmmaker Adam Wakeling is a self taught documentarian. He began his career in television working in international distribution. His last role was as Head of International Sales and Co-Production for a leading London-based TV distribution company. During that time, he came across the story that turned into his first feature length documentary, “Up in Smoke.”

His film focuses on slash and burn agriculture, which is the process of cutting vegetation from a plot of land, letting it dry, and then setting fire to the cut vegetation to allow crop cultivation.


We asked Wakeling to tell us the challenges he faced in making his film:

“Being even vaguely concerned about the environment can, by and large, be a thoroughly demoralizing affair. Given the media bombardment of bad news, it is easy to think that all hope is lost.

So when, by sheer chance, I read about the work of Mike Hands, it seemed almost too good to be true. Yet on meeting him, the doubts evaporated and it seemed immediately obvious that he needed some help in getting his work to the wider world.

It came much easier in theory than in practice. For a start, I’d never picked up a video camera, had no formal training and thought it would be a ten minute film, completed in a few months, and end there. It took four and half years, took me back and forth to Honduras 14 times, to the U.S. three times, and absorbed every penny and asset I had. I spent the days at work and the evenings poring through footage, teaching myself to edit, and piecing together one trailer after the other.

The breakthrough came with the support of True Vision Productions, who believed in the idea and in me, swiftly followed by The Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation, who liked the idea enough to invite me to their BRITDOC Festival to pitch the idea to the masses. This was enough to make me jump ship from my job, and I resigned to give the film everything I had.

Financially, it was diabolical. Having worked in television, at the comfortable executive end, for over nine years, the realities of production on a tiny budget went from bad to worse. Each trip to Honduras from the UK cost on average around $4,000 USD, and was never without its fair share of anecdotes: cancelled flights due to spring break, infestations of ticks that I carried back to London on me, live red ants in the tape stock and almost being burnt alive in filming one of the burn operations. When I landed in Honduras four hours after the country’s first military coup had broken out, I seriously questioned my sanity in pursuing the film.

Yet it was impossible not to continue. If I had it bad, Mike had been through 50 times more, and was still fighting the battle, indomitable and resolute. In Aladino and his beautiful family, I have gotten to know heartfelt friends, people whose courage, humor, generosity and trust absolutely humbled me and continue to do so. Faustino Reyes is a magician, a philosopher and a gentleman — if there were 100 more of him, Mike’s work would be accelerating at a pace far greater than it is now.

Mike’s work is true alchemy, and has the potential to turn despair into hope, on a scale far greater than it currently is. That was always the intention behind this film, and in getting to know Aladino, Faustino and many others in the mountains and hinterlands of Central America, I can see it was the right decision to see this through.

At the end of the day, they are all the real heroes. If this film helps others like it has helped them, and gives Mike’s work and his Inga Foundation the publicity they truly deserves, it will have achieved its goal. My gratitude and thanks go to all of them.”

The documentary “Up In Smoke” will broadcast on NHK Japan on June 22. Find more from The Economist Film Project Series.