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Award-winning food systems documentary premieres on
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Award-winning food systems documentary premieres on

A key to feeding the hungry of the world can be found in an award-winning documentary filmed in Southern Arizona.

“Man in the Maze,” one of five films to win the Sundance Short Film Challenge, takes the viewer from the devastating dumping of fruits and vegetables into the Rio Rico landfill to the Borderlands Food Bank in Nogales and on to Southern Arizona communities working to save the food from waste, and to grow their own.

“Man in the Maze” will make its world premiere Tuesday on the Arizona Daily Star’s website,, where it can be seen exclusively for a week before it heads for wider distribution.

The film, made by New York City-based Greener Media, heavily features Tucsonan Gary Nabhan talking about ways to rebuild food systems.

Sounds dry, maybe, but this 8-minute film is anything but.

It begins with an aerial scene of the dumping of the produce from Mexico. Red tomatoes, yellow peppers and green cucumbers tumble over the landfill, most looking fresh and eatable. Nogales is the largest inland entry port for fresh produce in the world, Nabhan says in the film, and the third largest port of entry in the country.

“Twenty-five to 30 percent of all the produce that we eat year round comes from the border towns,” Nabhan goes on to say.

“With that is a tremendous amount of food waste, because if the Florida tomato prices drop on a certain day, 120,000 pounds might be thrown into a landfill just because of the pricing.”

The filmmakers, Phil Buccellato and Jesse Ash, follow some of the food that is spared from the landfill and distributed through the Borderlands Food Bank. They also talk to residents of the rural town of Amado who feel passionately about growing their own food for their families and their community.

The result is a documentary that is beautifully shot, focused on a complex problem, and offers compelling stories and thoughtful solutions.

Ash and Buccellato, who through Greener Media produce works that address social issues, worked closely with Food Tank, a food think tank with programs and a presence around the world.

When the filmmakers heard about the Sundance competition, underwritten by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and geared toward addressing such issues as poverty and hunger, they brainstormed with Food Tank.

They found out about Nabhan, one of the founders of Native Seeds/SEARCH, an author, food advocate and 1990 winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant. They were convinced they found the subject of their documentary.

Then they landed in Southern Arizona.

“I think this story unraveled in a way that wasn’t expected,” says Buccellato in a phone interview with the Star. “I wouldn’t have expected to do the Rio Rico landfill. You reach out to one person, and they refer another, and another.”

That referral chain resulted in a poignant interview with Christina Natalini, a mother who is teaching her young daughter to grow her own food; another with Arturo Lopez, who maintains a community garden in Amado, and another interview with the people at The Avalon Organic Gardens, a community-supported agriculture program in Tumacácori.

“This is an important story that impacts billions around the world — how do we sustainably feed a growing population,” says Ash.

The Sundance Institute’s Mike Plante says about 1,300 films had been submitted for the competition, which has five winners — each pocketing $10,000. Those initial entries were culled down to about 15, which were then sent to the Gates Foundation for the final selection.

“Quality factors in, but most important to us was what the story was,” says Plante. Ash and Buccellato “took on a very gigantic issue and overwhelming problem and boiled it down to a story,” says Plante. “They told the story with style and information.”

The filmmakers — who financed the film themselves with some help from the Food Tank — are grateful for the award. But that’s not why they made it.

“The documentary has great power to change the conversation about the issues,” says Buccellato. “If we can be a catalyst for someone to make a donation, or get involved in some level, that would be greatly satisfying.”

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at or 573-04128.

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Kathleen has covered the arts for the Star for 20 years. Previously, she covered business, news and features for the Tucson Citizen. A near-native of Tucson, she is continually amazed about the Old Pueblo's arts scene and feels lucky to be covering it.

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