Featured Changemaker: Getting Vegucated with Marisa Miller Wolfson

Marisa Miller Wolfson knows about the power of documentaries to change lives. One such film changed her life, and she hopes to do the same with her newest project, Vegucated, a documentary that follows three meat- and cheese-loving New Yorkers as they adopt a vegan diet for six weeks and explore the impact of industrial animal agriculture. Marisa kindly took time to tell us a bit about the film, the challenges of filmmaking, and her work as a humane educator.

IHE: How did you first become involved in humane education?

MMW: In spring of 2003 I was laid off from my job in children's publishing, and I wanted to switch careers to animal advocacy. That summer, Carol Moon, who taught humane ed through Farm Sanctuary in New York City, asked me to help book and teach classes at summer camps. I figured that was a great opportunity to learn the ropes, and I enjoyed working with her through the summer. By October, I had started the nonprofit Kind Green Planet with activist mentor Mary Max. Humane education, especially in high schools, became part of our grassroots outreach.

IHE: You’ve said that your own life and work have been inspired by IHE's President, Zoe Weil. Tell us about that.

MMW: I had seen Zoe speak at the Taking Action for Animals conference once and was blown away by her. I love her whole m.o. She's so positive, she encourages critical thinking, she teaches with such compassion, and she's so hopeful. I was lucky to attend a Sowing Seeds workshop some years ago and left changed. I had made mental connections I'd never made before, I learned new activity ideas for working with kids, and I made friendships that I cherish still today. I found the book, The Power and the Promise of Humane Education, super helpful in the classroom. All in all, I just wish I could bottle Zoe's message and her means of conveying it. Instead, I watch and listen to her wherever I can, whether it's on YouTube or her Our Hen House podcast interview or just on Facebook. I think she's a terrific role model for all activists, and I strive to be more like her in my advocacy.

IHE: You’ve been a “professional eco-nudger” (I love that!) with Kind Green Planet (we love that organization!) since 2003. What inspired you to jump from that kind of educating – giving presentations, coaching and mentoring, hosting events, etc. – to educating through filmmaking?

MMW: It was documentary film that brought me to animal advocacy and veganism, and in my outreach, I found film to be the most effective means of conveying truths, sparking meaningful dialogue, and inspiring change. I was also a little frustrated, because my impact with presentations was limited by how much time I had and where I was geographically. With film, you can reach people all over the globe almost at the same time. When I saw Super Size Me, the concept for a potential film clicked: Why not show some of the things we should be eating, not just what we shouldn't, and incorporate the ethical elements of veganism? We could capture the kind of "a-ha" moments that everyone has when they become veg-conscious. My boss at the time, Mary Max, gave me the green light to do it...and with the help of about a bazillion people, we did.

IHE: What was your goal in creating Vegucated, and do you feel that you’ve reached it? (Or is it too soon to tell?)

MMW: I really wanted to show the evolution of someone who is eating bacon cheeseburgers on day one and by week six is questioning everything and enjoying more humane, healthful, sustainable choices. We managed to do that. On a larger scale, I wanted to create an awareness-raising tool that's funny, inspiring, and accessible enough to reach the mainstream. Time will tell if we will reach the mainstream, but feedback has been great so far. People seem to really want to share it with their community because it's so accessible.

IHE: Tell us a little about the film.

MMW: It's the story of three everyday people from different backgrounds whose worlds are turned upside-down when they learn the truths behind modern animal agriculture. All three of the film subjects are funny and likeable, and people will really be able to relate to the challenges they face as they start to put their beliefs into practice. And as people see the subjects learning and changing, they'll learn and be inspired too.

IHE: What’s the status of the people featured in the film? Have their lifestyle changes stuck with them?

MMW: Well, I'm not going to give away the ending here in this interview, am I? Let me just say that they all landed in slightly different places, which reflects truth, I think, and all have made lasting lifestyle changes as a result of being in the film.

IHE: Obviously those who are already vegan (or leaning that way) will love the film. (I already have my ticket for the Portland, OR screening.) What kinds of reactions have you gotten from pre-screenings with those who are content to continue eating animals?

MMW: The response has been great, but that's in large part due to the fact that I workshopped the film with a group of filmmakers in Brooklyn, most of whom were not vegetarian. They helped me hone my message, and I was often surprised by what they found most effective. For example, one of them, a big burly bodybuilding type, was not terribly concerned with the parts about health or vegan bodybuilding, but he was bowled over by a comment that ten-year-old Debbie makes about farm animals having different personalities. He thought about that for a long time.

IHE: And there’s a classroom discussion guide coming out soon?

MMW: Yes, ma'am! Early next year we're launching our grassroots screenings campaign, which will include schools. We're super lucky to have Zoe Weil write the discussion guide. As I was reading her list of discussion questions, I thought, "Yesss! So perfect!" for each one. What can I say? She's a pro.

IHE: A lot of documentaries offer up information that sparks anger, despair, and other overwhelming emotions in the audience, without offering many (if any) practical, positive actions for them to take. How is Vegucated different?

MMW: Vegucated doesn't just show the whys of plant-based eating; it also shows the hows. We see the more humane, healthful, and sustainable options that the film subjects are being exposed to. Viewers can leave feeling empowered, knowing they can easily switch out animal-based foods for these. Also, we don't present the "solution" as all or nothing. We think that every move in a more plant-based direction is worth celebrating. So, if people leave the film feeling unsure about whether they can go 100% vegan right away, that's ok. They know that by starting with small steps, they can make a difference.

IHE: Tell us a little about the practical aspects of creating a film.

MMW: Creating a film is about so much more than shooting footage and editing it together. It's about fundraising, grantwriting, writing and re-writing then re-shooting and re-recording. It's about release forms and contracts, spreadsheets and budgets, research and rights issues, lawyers and insurance agencies and trying not to cry over your Final Cut Pro manuals during a tech meltdown at 2 in the morning. It's about finding good people and retaining great people. A truly wonderful co-producer, editor, composer or intern is worth their weight in gold.

IHE: What advice do you have for other people who are interested in changemaking through filmmaking (especially for those without formal training)?

MMW: Before you consider making a film, pick a topic that you are absolutely passionate about. As evidenced above, there are so many aspects of filmmaking that have nothing to do with creativity that you have to want to wake up every day and trudge through the un-fun bits so you can enjoy the wonderful bits. It also helps to have a realistic sense of how much work and time it takes to make a film so you can plan your life accordingly. Filmmaker mentor Jenny Stein from Tribe of Heart told me once, "Imagine the worst case scenario for how long it will take you to finish the film and then multiply it by five. That's how long it will take you." She was right. Also, activist-turned-filmmaker Howard Lyman told me, "The real editing begins once you start to screen it." He was right, too. It's only because I was obsessive-compulsive about this film and this message that I saw it through to the end.

IHE: What’s your next project after Vegucated goes mainstream?

MMW: Ha! "After"--I like that. I've got so many ideas: a book, a reality show, another film that will be almost impossible to shoot. All unchartered territory but not impossible. If you can dream it, you can live it!

View the trailer for Vegucated below:

Note: People who want to help support Marisa's efforts to fund the high school version of the DVD and a wider release can pre-order a copy of the DVD through the Vegucated Kickstarter campaign.

~ Marsha

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