On Movies: Documentary takes stand on child hunger

Kristi Jacobson, codirector of the child-hunger documentary "A Place at the Table."
Kristi Jacobson, codirector of the child-hunger documentary "A Place at the Table."
Posted: March 04, 2013

A Place at the Table is a documentary - a documentary about hunger in America. But if it were a feature film, one of its main subjects - Barbie Izquierdo, a young single mother from Philadelphia's Hunting Park section - would be a star.

She has a speech late in Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush's film, which opened Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse, that will inspire, and give you goosebumps, make you cry.

It starts like this: "You are where you come from. It is a quote that is said very often. If your mother was a single mother, you will be a single mother. If no one in your family was a high school graduate, you will be the next one to follow in those footsteps. Have you ever been surrounded by the people you love, like your children, but feel completely alone? Have you ever been in a home with open doors but feel trapped? Have you ever been in a neighborhood with constant yelling screaming, gunshots, and fighting, but are so accustomed to it that it puts you to sleep?"

Izquierdo, who struggled to feed her two children, who couldn't qualify for food stamps because she made a couple of dollars more than the eligibility cutoff, goes on:

"I know what it's like to have your children look at you in your eyes and tell you that they're hungry and you have to try to force them to go to sleep as if they did something wrong."

An Oscar-winning screenwriter couldn't have crafted a more powerful speech. But it is clear from the look in her eyes, the quaver in her voice, that she is totally real.

Jacobson and Silverbush found Izquierdo when they began research for their film. They'd read about Mariana Chilton, a public health professor at Drexel University who founded Witness to Hunger, a program to give voice to women in the national dialogue on hunger and poverty. At one of the meetings, the filmmakers met Izquierdo.

"It turned out to be profoundly important to us," says Jacobson. "We were getting the chance to hear not just from Barbie, but from 20, 30 other witnesses, other women."

A Place at the Table, then, describes Izquierdo's struggles, but also the experiences of two grade school girls and their families - one in Colorado, one in Mississippi - who are "food insecure." That is, they don't know where their next meal is coming from. The film also features interviews with politicians, activists, authors, educators, and Jeff Bridges - the Oscar-winning actor who also happens to be the founder of the End Hunger Network, a nonprofit organization, established in 1983, dedicated to feeding children around the world.

"The Dude called us," Silverbush says, happily referencing one of Bridges' most revered roles, in The Big Lebowski. "We had known about his activism on the issue and had sought to contact him and have him involved, as anyone would who was developing a film about a subject where someone like the Dude is the guy on the issue."

But they never connected. Not until T-Bone Burnett, the prolific songwriter and producer, who came onboard to score A Place at the Table, told his buddy Bridges about the project.

"So, in conversations they talked about the film, and literally Jeff Bridges called up the production company and said, 'What can I do? Can I lend my voice in any way?'

"And, you know, there are moments where, as filmmakers, you might 'need to do' something against your better judgment, against your filmmaking instincts" - like drop a big star into your lineup of talking heads. "But this is not one of those cases. Because he was truly, is truly, an authority on the issue.

"We didn't need to figure out how to make it work. It was really evident, and organic."

A Place at the Table paints a grim picture of a country where a convergence of factors - poverty, politics, farm subsidies, poor dietary habits and rural and urban "food deserts" where healthy, nutritious food is hard to come by - have led to a true hunger crisis. But Jacobson and Silverbush are hopeful. Their film is advocacy journalism. And there's a website - www.takepart.com/place-at-the-table - and a social network campaign to go with it.

"I don't think we're fighting a losing battle," says Silverbush. "I actually think that in the time since we started, the world has shifted . . . . There seems to be, on the part of the population, more awareness and concern about all issues pertaining to food. And in that sense, I actually think that the people who will go see this movie are more prepared for it in a way that will help it resonate, and hopefully help it land.

"The moneyed interests and the corporate interests that stand to gain from the status quo, ultimately will not win against an informed and passionate electorate."

A Place at the Table, which was executive-produced by Philadelphia Eagles owners Jeffrey Lurie and Christina Weiss Lurie, premiered last year at the Sundance Film Festival, and also screened in the fall at the Philadelphia Film Festival. One of the happy consequences of the film is that Izquierdo has found her passion, her cause.

"The film has changed my life completely," she affirms, seated alongside Jacobson and Silverbush when they visited town last week. "Not only has it given me confidence and motivation and given me so much more drive than what I've had, it's literally changed my life. One of the big things in the film that I talk about was my dream to go to college.

"And because of the film," she says, beaming, "I have a scholarship."

Izquierdo was given a full scholarship to Esperanza College of Eastern University, the Hispanic institution "that's in the community where I was living when this whole issue started."

It's early days, but Izquierdo already has plans.

"I want to study criminal justice, and psychology," she says. "I want to be able to help people, whether it be the offender, or the victim. I want to help people gain the mentality that no one taught me, which is no matter what hardship you have, you can turn that into something positive . . . .

"I plan on continuing to make changes."


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies  

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