Last Monday, I met and chatted with filmmaker Les Blank. His office happens to be near the natural grocery store where I shop, so I decided to visit to buy a DVD called “All in This Tea” for John who is a fan of tea. There is no sign for his office. I rang a doorbell, near an entrance to an old record shop (like the one where Jack Black worked in the film “High Fidelity”). A person appeared asking me if he was expecting me. He didn’t wait for an answer as I mumbled something about buying a DVD. I was ushered through the old shop, while a record store person yelled “ding dong” up a flight of stairs to signal my arrival.
I walked up and saw a man with a white beard, working alone at his computer in the corner of a cluttered attic above a record shop. I could barely contain my excitement when I met him because I am such a fan. We projected his amazing film “Burden of Dreams” on our deck in Austin, along with a beautiful film called “Concerto for Two Harpsichords” by Mireille Fornengo. Blank is one of the greatest US filmmakers in my mind.
We yelled over the din of a vacuum cleaner for a while. We talked about my Shamans film project a bit. The tall Mr. Blank showed and gave me picture postcards of his son and his son’s art cars, which were the subject of a film. He also gave me some free art car and motorcycle stickers. I can’t remember the last time someone gave me cool stickers. It was probably in primary school. One sticker was of a motorcycle contained in the body of a big fake burger. He asked me if I like durian (the fruit). He told me about a building that resembles a durian in Singapore. I told him about my friend artist Jenifer Wofford, who’s durian art to me looks like futuristic durian spaceships (or dangerous meteor-like objects hurtling through space). I believe the fruit is the subject of a future film.
John and I watched the documentary “All in This Tea” at home. It is a wonderful film that helped us learn about tea production in China. Through the main character the tenacious David, we journeyed to China to seek out the best quality organic teas grown on family farms. I found myself craving and wanting to head straight down to Teance in Berkeley to drink some high quality Oolong tea. Some of his challenges were dealing with a time-consuming bureaucracy, convincing people that worm poop is a nutritious plant food, the language barrier, and finding teas that were not laden with pesticides. Often times the casually dressed, English-speaking David raised his voice at the suited Chinese business men when he was frustrated. It’s a manner I have often observed in Asia used by some foreigners who seem to believe that this will somehow make the listener understand what he is saying. (I have regrettably caught myself doing this.) Usually, the listener looks flustered and embarrassed due to “losing face” in front of others.
The film gave a little historical information on tea in China, showed us how to appreciate tea, and explained why Lipton is such an ubiquitous brand. It was interesting to see old images of a colonial-era British trader and tea seeker being carried around China in a sedan, and the contrast of the intrepid voyager David in modern day China followed around by his Chinese entourage. I was happy to see footage of China’s peaceful and bucolic landscape in this film before being bombarded with coverage of the Olympics and Beijing on TV.
After passing through the thick bureaucracy and groups of suits, David took us to the misty landscape where the tea leaves are grown, and met the people who cared for them. I learned that the taste of the tea tells you so much about how the leaves lived their short time on earth.
The reward was discovering the small organic tea family farms in the vast countryside, the craftsmanship of the artisans, and their fine teas. Was David able to successfully get the prized teas out of China and into the US? See what happens in “All in This Tea” on DVD or in theatres.