F&W's #FOODWINEWOMEN series spotlights top women in food and drink in collaboration with Toklas Society. Follow the hashtag on Twitter (@foodandwine). Here, Academy Award-nominated director Sandy McLeod discusses her upcoming documentary, Seeds of Time.
Perhaps you consider yourself well-informed on the environmental threats facing our food system—but spend a few minutes with agricultural activist Cary Fowler and you'll discover some new reasons to be alarmed. That's what happened to filmmaker Sandy McLeod. After meeting with Fowler, a man who has made it his life’s work to protect crop diversity, she realized there was a huge gap in her knowledge. She’d never thought much about seed banks—or seeds, for that matter—or how climate change might begin to impact how we eat. “I thought, my God, we really need to know about this,” she said. “We need to understand what’s happening with agriculture, because it’s going to get harder and harder to grow food.” Over the next eight years, McLeod followed Fowler around the globe documenting his efforts to prevent crop extinction—among which includes creating the world’s first global seed vault, atop an Arctic Norwegian mountain—and to increase awareness about the importance of seed banks and crop diversity. Her resulting film, Seeds of Time, hits theaters Friday, May 22. We spoke with McLeod about her path to agricultural activism, the realities of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, and the experience of trying to convince the world that seeds are a sexy subject matter.
You have a diverse film background. How did you end up making a documentary about seeds?
I first read about Fowler and his mission to protect crop diversity in a New Yorker article that friends had recommended. One morning I was sitting at breakfast reading the piece, about this guy I’d never heard of named Cary. As I was reading, my husband was on a work call with someone named Cary, and he had the phone on speaker. I got to a line in the article that said that the Gates Foundation had given Fowler $30 million, and I heard my husband ask the guy on the phone, how much did you get from the Gates Foundation? The guy said $30 million. My jaw just dropped to the table. So when my husband hung up, I asked him, was that Cary Fowler? He looked at me, dumbstruck.
My husband agreed to introduce me to Cary, and after an eight-hour interview I knew I wanted to do a film about his mission. He was doing amazing work as an individual, on a global scale—what he was doing could potentially affect just about every plate in the world. As a cancer survivor, he was also up against tremendous odds because of his health. He seemed almost like a metaphor for the whole issue.
Going into the filmmaking process, did you have any concerns about financing and garnering interest for a film about seeds?
No! Not at first. I was so enthusiastic about the issue, I was sure that I could get everyone else worked up about it, too [laughs]. But in actual fact, I couldn’t. I went to the people you can normally get funding from for documentaries, and they said, you know, agriculture is just not sexy. When I called my lawyer to tell him I was going to do a film about seeds, he said, “I’m sorry, I can’t understand you, it sounds like you’re saying seeds. Can you spell that for me?” So it was a tough sell. But I have a real stubborn streak. I just kept slogging away. And eventually I came across some angels who understood what I was trying to do and who wanted to help, and after that things started to move a little more easily.
Why do you think it’s so difficult to get people invested in this issue?
We’re so disconnected from our food. A lot of people don’t know what a zucchini looks like unless it comes out of a frozen packet. We certainly don’t think about the fact that it has to be grown from seed. When I saw how vulnerable we are, how our crops are all susceptible to the same pests now that climate change is upon us, I thought, we need to make this connection to where our food comes from. We’ve been lucky in this country. We’ve never known what a famine is and hopefully we never will, but we could lose everything if a global crisis struck. It would be great if we could get in front of the curve instead of waiting for some horrible thing to happen.
What challenges have you faced as a woman director, both on this project and more broadly?
I started out at a time when there were almost no women in the film industry. I’ve had to stand up for myself and be spunky and be willing to hang out with men who are resistant, sometimes, to what I say and what I want to do. Over the years that has changed some, but it hasn’t really changed enough. With this film, some men criticized me for not making it “hard-hitting” enough, for not scaring people more. I don’t take a masculine approach to the subject. I didn’t think scaring people was a good way to get them to pay attention. I think people are fatigued with that approach. Unfortunately, men still hold the purse strings, for the most part, and are higher up in the ranks.
In some ways, though, that has made me fight harder to do the kinds of stories that I wanted to do—as opposed to the stories people thought I should do. It’s made me be more independent. It’s made me more determined. As a woman in this industry, you have to stick to your guns as much as you can. To listen to the people that you trust. To pick your mentors carefully. Things won’t get it handed to you. That can happen, but more often than not it’s 90 percent grit and hard work.