From a bare description, "The Liberation" is a documentary about a culinary training program. Really, though, it's about "the idea of transformation," and the notion that people can radically change their lives, said Christoph Green.
He and co-director Brendan Canty spent 14 weeks following students in the D.C. Central Kitchen as they hope to move from a troubled past to full-time work.
The movie, shot in the nation's capital, is premiering here in Missoula. Canty, drummer for the post-hardcore legends Fugazi, has brought movies to the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival with Green two times before. Both were on the rock band Wilco. First in 2009 was "Ashes of American Flags," a tour-concert film with themes about the decline of small-town America, then in 2015 with "Every Other Summer," a visit to the band's curated art and music festival.
The two were familiar with the kitchen, a nonprofit founded by Robert Egger in 1989. Initially it collected unused but usable food from restaurants to re-purpose and feed the hungry. One of its flagship programs is the Culinary Training Program, a weeks-long course where students from troubled backgrounds can learn kitchen and life skills to enter the food industry full-time.
Canty said everyone in D.C. is aware of the program and its success stories, but no one documented them. He likened it to "a miracle box that nobody had looked inside."
Once they talked their way in, the two filmed guerrilla-style with small cameras and mics. They followed one class in 2013, shooting every day from the early morning until late afternoon.
Canty and Green estimate they shot some 400 hours, including deeply personal stories about the students' lives in the morning self-empowerment classes with Ron Swanson. They're there for sometimes tense meetings with instructors when a student is on the brink of failing. There's also the the high-energy cooking classes with chef Jerald Thomas and cook-off "tests;" and their failures and successes trying to find jobs.
After a lengthy editing process spearheaded by Green with help from his wife, Julia Glazer, they decided to focus on a series of character studies instead of making a broad overview of the program.
"The story is about these individuals and their transition back into the real world, and being functional human beings," Canty said.
He thinks the "broad undercurrent that's going through the film" asks simply who the students are and what happened to them.
Their main subjects are Wanda, a recovering drug addict who wants to show her grown children that she can complete a task she's set her mind to; Michael, a former drug dealer who spent nearly a quarter-century in prison; and Vishawn, a former drug dealer who will face a steep sentence if he re-offends, one that would separate him from his young kids for most of their childhoods.
"When you first start on this movie, they're really closed. They're all really battened down. These are people who have been beat down," Canty said.
In part, Green said, they wanted to choose subjects who were "destroyed by the same economic system," either selling or using drugs.
Swanson, a recovering alcoholic, says in the film that there aren't programs for "people who are addicted to living on the streets and selling drugs." Moving toward stability requires "a fundamental change in the personality."
Swanson and program director Marianne Ali, a recovered drug addict, "give it to them raw" from the first day in class, Canty said. It's one of the aspects of the program's success. Graduates have a higher job placement rate and lower recidivism rate than the general population.
Green said it took almost a year to talk their way into Swanson's classes, where some of the most personal stories unfold. He thinks the life skills taught in that class underscore the broad appeal of the film.
He said that after the third day the students often forgot the cameras were there, but they could still be guarded.
"You have to establish so much trust, that you have someone's best interests at heart," Green said.
Despite the serious subject matter, the film has a positive arc, as indicated by the title.
Canty, a D.C. native, said in some ways they wanted to give people a snapshot of Washington that they don't usually see, about ordinary people who grew up there and attended public schools and live and work outside the government.
"It's about trying to show people the real D.C.," he said.
Green is pursuing more documentaries outside the music realm. Both he and Canty work on others' projects full-time. Canty wrote the score for "The Liberation" himself, and he's currently working on music for a D.C.-centric project with novelist/screenwriter George Pelecanos. He also has a new band, the Messthetics, with Fugazi bassist Joe Lally and D.C. guitarist Anthony Pirog.