I moved to Southern Humboldt County, near Garberville, in 1995. I came here to be part of the back-to-the-land counterculture and to participate in the forest-preservation activism I’d been involved in around the Pacific Northwest. I bought a trashed-out piece of land and began restoring and developing it. It is where I still live today, in the heart of the pot-farming community.
Most media portrayals of the Humboldt/Mendocino counterculture focus on whatever lurid and sensational bits the reporters can find. Even the most well-intentioned reports usually only skim the surface. I felt someone needed to tell a more humanized, in-depth story.
Though I’d always been fascinated with the idea of making documentaries, it wasn’t until fairly recently that I took the prospect seriously. A film about the world right in my backyard, with all of its amazing history, characters and daily dramas was there begging to be made. But, how to make a film about a culture where people won’t even give you their last names or tell anyone what they do for a living?
The culture of secrecy was a necessity in the face of decades of law enforcement raids and social stigma, but it made the prospect of a documentary seem impossible. I had no interest in making another film with people in ski masks looking like terrorists, since that’s not how people dress and act. I wanted to show life as it really is lived here on a day to day basis.
I began developing a concept for hybrid documentary whereby I’d do regular audio recordings of the subjects and then cast actors of similar demographics to play the parts, using the actual dialog from the real growers. The actors would be from the grower community, so would be familiar with the culture and we’d use real gardens as sets throughout the season. I was fleshing out this concept in the winter of 2009/2010 when Proposition 19 gathered enough signatures to qualify it for the California ballot.
Proposition 19 set out to legalize recreational marijuana, making California the first place in the world that would have formally legal marijuana use. This could have massive consequences—good, bad or otherwise—for the Humboldt pot farmers. Overnight and for the first time ever in Humboldt, people started talking openly about marijuana. I realized I could make the film I always wanted to make.
I began “casting” for participants, first asking some of the organizers and activists, friends and neighbors I knew and then discussing it on our local community radio station KMUD. After being on one of the talk shows, Jory called in with her number, saying she’d be into it. Later, activists Kim and Syreeta came on board and then Blossom and I met through a mutual friend. Four made a good number. Enough to give some diversity of opinions, but not too many people to be overwhelming.
I filmed steadily throughout the summer and into fall, doing 80 shoots in all, sometimes several per day during busy times like harvest. The driving shots, which often required steering with my knees on dirt roads while holding the camera, are indicative of the ruggedness of the area and the distance that separates people. Sometimes two homesteads five miles apart as the crow flies will require an hour of driving to get from one to the other.
Though I’d never shot video or recorded sound before, I did all directing and shooting myself, learning as I went along. I’d originally hoped to be able to hire a director of photography and sound person, but lack of funding and logistics made this impossible. Any crew would have to commit to living here for the summer and being on call for the growers’ fickle schedules and unexpected turns of events, something not possible on my out-of-pocket budget.
In retrospect, a three-person crew would have disrupted much of the intimacy I was able to achieve one-on-one with people who know me personally as a neighbor and trusted community member. I believe this makes up for the occasional rough patches in picture and sound.
Given that this took place in 2010, my original focus was on the election, legalization and how the community would adapt if Proposition 19 passed. I filmed organizing meetings, person-on-the-street interviews about legalization, election-day interviews at the polling station and spent the night filming in the KMUD studio as news of the election progressed.
When Gretta Wing Miller, the film’s editor, reviewed the footage she saw another story: almost a “how-to” about growing marijuana that would give a peek inside a hidden culture. It took some kicking and screaming, but she eventually convinced me that she was right and One Good Year is the result. While growers talk about how they feel about legalization, it does not significantly inform the main narrative.
This will be disappointing to many in the marijuana activist community who prefer more didactic films with hard-hitting pro-legalization messages. In my opinion, those films, while necessary, have already been done. I wanted to show marijuana from the point of view of the people who grow it responsibly and have built an entire culture where marijuana farming is intertwined with a back-to-the-land lifestyle and countercultural values.
I believe this film is still highly political, since it shows growers as real people with families and communities supported by cannabis farming. All four characters in the film completely break every single stereotype of who pot farmers are and how they live. By being seen as real people, their voices can become a valid part of the legalization debate. As I spell out in more detail in the film’s FAQ page, leaving farmers out of the discussion leaves out important perspectives on how to make legalization work effectively for everyone.
Ultimately, I’m hoping the work of this film continues beyond the theater or DVD, that it starts new conversations in Humboldt County and in the wider world. Seeing others speak freely and proudly of what they’re passionate about will help to empower others to do the same.