PEOPLE – Oysters And Me: From Mud To Film

04 Nov 2002

Sarah Cohen, 30, is a friendly young businesswoman. Her small business in Washington DC, Route 11 Potato Chips, makes delicious French fries in Pop Art-style packaging inspired by the brightly coloured iconographic cartoon culture of the Fifties (with a preference for sexy heroines). The fact that her path crossed with Slow Food’s has nothing to do with this business, however, but with her other great passion – cinema. Sarah and her friend Jennifer Bishop, in fact, were responsible for writing, producing and directing Oyster Guanaca, a short film which won an Honourable Mention at the first edition of Slow Food on Film. This worldwide short film contest dedicated to the love of good food was held last April in Bra, the little Piedmontese town where the movement’s head offices are situated. Oyster Guanaca is a real pearl of “slow neo-realism”: filmed in black and white, just over 12 minutes long, it tells the story of an El Salvadorian washer-up in a Washington restaurant, who, despite his teasing from his colleagues, decides to give his wife a large quantity of oysters for her birthday.

In the moving closing scene, the washer-up sits at the table, surrounded by his cheerful family. It’s a beautiful day outside, the room is bathed in sunlight and the place of honor is taken by a tray of oysters. The family eat happily, and the man turns to face the camera, which backs up slowly to show his content expression, as if to say: “You see, I was right. Look at us. What other gift could have made us so happy?”. It’s a delightfully effective celebration of the simple pleasures of a convivial table.

I met Sarah Cohen at a Slow Food USA event at the American Center for Food, Wine and the Arts in Napa in August, where her film was shown – with great success – to accompany a brief presentation of Slow Food on Film.

I took the opportunity to chat with her.

– How did Oyster Guanaca come about?
Oyster Guanaca is loosely based on a true story.

– Is it the only film you’ve made?
Yes, it was my one and only film.

– Tell me about your work as a filmmaker.
My first job out of college was as assistant to an Academy-Award winning documentary filmmaker, Paul Wagner. He got a commission to do a documentary on the history of the White House, which I worked on for tow and a half years. I learned a lot about the process of filmmaking from Paul. After that job ended, I went out to Washington State and helped my family start an oyster farm. After a year of working in the mud, I returned to Washington D.C. to figure out what I wanted to do next. While working at my family’s hotel in DC, I met Jennifer Bishop who also had an interest in film. We both took a film class at the local University and they supplied all the equipment, film and processing for Oyster Guanaca.

– The actors in your film are all real dishwashers. Tell me the story of how you involved them in the project. And where did you get the idea for the story?
We were asked to come up with a story for our film class, and I thought back on my oyster farming experience. I was sending oysters back to fancy restaurants in DC by United Airlines, and every other order, there was a dishwasher in my family’s hotel kitchen who was also placing orders for oysters for his own enjoyment. It just struck me as very, very interesting, since oysters have always had the reputation for being an expensive indulgence. Jennifer and I wanted the film to be as authentic as possible, so we thought it would be interesting to use real dishwashers. None of them had any acting experience, but they were willing to stay after their shifts at midnight to participate. We paid them $50 for each shoot.

– What’s your relation with food? Why is it important for you?
I grew up in a family that was obsessed with food. My mother is a great cook and definitely passed down an appreciation of good food to my brothers and I. The enjoyment of food and eating with friends is an important part of life for me.

– Tell me about your job with the Route 11 Potato. What is it? What makes it so unique in the ‘potato world’?
I started Route 11 Potato Chips in 1992. We’re a small chipper and we try and make really great potato chips. We’re unique in the ‘potato world’ because of our smallness, our ease to experiment and introduce new products. We’ve got a good reputation and ever growing brand recognition. I’ve always wanted to make enough money making potato chips to finance another film. I think I get closer to that possibility everyday.

– Tell me something about your next film: what is is about?
I think the next film will probably be about ‘chipland’, since I’ve been living and breathing it for the last ten years. There’s a great story here. It won’t be a documentary, but it will be another project loosely based on reality. I’m getting ready to start a treatment for it.

Stefano Sardo, a novelist and screenwriter, is the director of the Slow Food on Film festival

Adapted by Ailsa Wood and John Irving

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