The State We're In
Yep, it is broke, and Turk Pipkin wants us all to fix it
The new advocacy documentary One Peace at a Time opens with a track off of Bob Dylan's 1989 album, Oh Mercy, called "Everything Is Broken" –a title that 20 years later feels like a statement of fact, not opinion, about the current condition of our planet and its people. But for Austin filmmaker Turk Pipkin, it's more like a clarion call. In 2006, Pipkin –who also boasts stand-up comedian, author, and actor on his résumé – began screening Nobelity, the documentary he made with his wife and collaborator, Christy, which asked nine Nobel laureates to say where they saw the planet headed. "The whole point of Nobelity was to make a movie about smart people looking at global problems," says Pipkin. "And I realized, well, if you make one on global problems, you kinda have to make one on global solutions." Three years, many continents, and even a broken leg later, he's done just that, turning his camera on issues such as clean water, nutrition, and health care in One Peace at a Time, which opens in Austin on Friday.
Austin Chronicle: I was really struck by something said in the film by Jody Williams, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and anti-landmine activist, which was to "pick an issue and take the first step." I'm curious where your first step started – were you already involved in activism before these films?
Turk Pipkin: Christy and I have always been involved as political activists and also working with nonprofits. ... But from the point of view of "Okay, now I'm frustrated with where the world is going, and I really do want to pick an issue that's important to me," I think those words rang [true] pretty much just as you see in One Peace at a Time the first time I visited the Mahiga school in Kenya and saw these kids with no water. I'm from West Texas, where water is a big issue and is going to be a much bigger issue everywhere in Texas, and [after visiting Mahiga], that really became sort of my issue. I thought at the time it was water, but I'm realizing now it's also this community, because we built the water system and we got involved more deeply with the classroom, and now we're building a high school.
AC: It's clear from the film that that community in Mahiga, Kenya, is especially dear to you.
TP: It's interesting, because there are a lot of other places where we've gotten involved – the Kallari project in the Amazon, and we did a bunch of wells in Ethiopia. But these kids – I don't know, I really love these kids, and their parents reminded me a lot of parents in the States, and the only difference was a lack of opportunity, really, and a level of deep poverty that they're dealing with.
Now that we're building a high school there [with Nobelity Project partner Joseph Mutongu], we've been a lot more deeply involved with education issues in general. When you're building a high school, you have to figure out what it is that a high school needs [laughs].
AC: It seems like this film is part of an emerging trend of advocacy documentaries, or social justice documentaries, like An Inconvenient Truth, Flow: For Love of Water, and the forthcoming The End of Poverty.
TP: Clearly there's a trend. We've been riding the wave at the front end on the filmmaking side; Nobelity was released in theatres the same day as An Inconvenient Truth. ... I think that the switch to more specific issue advocacy and program advocacy in these films reflects a much larger movement, as documentaries often do, in that there are just a lot of really amazing things going on in the world. And they don't get covered on the news because most of them are actually [about] good news, and good news is only for Thanksgiving weekend, and only if Tiger Woods doesn't have an accident. The news cycle is this limited thing, and the chance that something that is about optimism, or about charting a better way ahead, get[s] in there is very slim. So documentaries are a way of reaching out.
AC: Something I found astonishing about your film is that there are awful statistics you expose your audience to, but you manage to maintain a sort of optimistic, can-do attitude throughout the film.
TP: The numbers are pretty staggering. If you look at the biggest concentration of hard-hitting numbers in the movie, it's probably the nutrition segment [which breaks down the number of people who die from hunger per year, per day, and per minute]. And that's a very powerful piece – that's Explosions in the Sky [playing on the soundtrack], by the way, a fabulous Austin band. The numbers are really, really shocking. But the food crisis – it's been a long learning curve. We spent about 30 years kind of realizing that growing food in the United States and shipping it around the world to feed hungry people doesn't actually solve the problem. There's a spate of books and writing about that now, about how that kind of aid has contributed to the problem and made it worse. It's hard to see that on the surface – how could shipping food to Africa be a bad thing for Africa? – but the first thing it does is drive down the prices that local farmers make in Africa for their crops and drives a lot of them out of business, and then you have less people in Africa growing food. Obviously, that's a bad cycle to be in. There are solutions there – I mean, the bread basket of Africa is Africa: It's an unbelievably fertile continent, and they have massive numbers of people who are unemployed and need work. It's a matter of organizing them in large-scale small-scale agriculture. It's not about having agribusiness going in there and growing grain the way we do in the Midwest; it's about enabling tens of millions of farmers to grow produce and doing like they do in Bangladesh, requiring anybody who participates in international assistance to grow food of their own and to provide the seeds to do it. Just like everybody in the United States – if you don't grow vegetables in the U.S., you're not paying any attention whatsoever ... to food prices or to the quality of food you get in the store. So it's really the same solution: You have to grow more food locally.
But there are a lot of other aspects to food, and at the same time, you've got the U.N. and the World Food Program out there feeding 100 million people. The really mind-blowing thing – talk about optimism – a year ago, when we were verifying the stats for the film, 86 million people in the world were being fed by the World Food Program, and a year later, it was 100 million. And some of that has to do with the rise of food prices and fuel prices in the last year and a destabilized global economy. But it's not by any means a rosy scenario. It's that there are solutions out there, and it's not a hopeless situation. ... A lot of it comes back down to the Desmond Tutu approach, which is: You have to look at the world and realize these are actually our brothers and sisters and when children are dying, that it's not that different from our own children dying, and if there are solutions and we don't enact them, then in a lot of ways we're complicit, even in our ignorance.
It's a very frustrating global topic and situation, and the only thing that makes it not frustrating is to be part of the solution, to be doing something.
One Peace at a Time screens Dec. 4-10 at the Regal Arbor Cinema at Great Hills. Opening night reception and screening tickets, which benefit construction of the Mahiga Hope High School in Kenya, are available at www.nobelity.org.