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Documentary Filmmaker Chronicles the Lives of Local Taco Truck Operators

Walker Evans Walker Evans Documentary Filmmaker Chronicles the Lives of Local Taco Truck Operators
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Many locals have learned that if you want the most authentic mexican food in town, you visit a taco truck, preferably one on the West Side. But what goes on behind the scenes doesn’t always make it to the forefront of these businesses. Filmmaker Robert Lemon has been shooting a new documentary about the relationships surrounding these food trucks, their owners, their customers and their neighbors to capture the good and bad of what can happen when cultures intertwine.

We spoke recently with Lemon for a Q&A about his project:

Q: First, can you tell us a bit about your background as a documentary film maker?

Documentary Filmmaker Robert Lemon

A: I grew up with a video camera in my hand from the time I was 10 years old. I started my junior high news program when I was 13 and focused on videography through high school. I planned on going to film school and got side tracked with academia. So for twelve years I hadn’t touched a camera. Then a few years ago I realized film was the motivation I was missing in life. So I enrolled in a few film courses to get me up to speed on the digital world of filmmaking. Then I decided to shoot a short documentary to see if I still had any skills left from when I was a kid. The short doc I directed ended up in a number of film festivals and still plays occasionally at academic conferences, museums, and fundraisers. After my small success, I decided to go back into film. However, I’m using my knowledge and insight from my past 10 years of academic design and geography to help shape the narratives of my films. Besides this documentary I’m shooting here in Columbus, I’m also helping produce a short narrative in San Francisco called Hero Mars.

Q: So what drew you to the subject of Taco Trucks?

A: I came to the Ohio State University in the fall of 2004 to do my masters in city planning. At the time I also worked for the department of development in community services. I was working on the West Side of the city with Bonita Lee. She had told me that taco trucks were moving into the neighborhood and they were a high point of contestation amongst community groups. I found this interesting and started studying the social relationships around them.

Q: After watching the trailer for Transfusion, I’m reminded a bit of the Columbus documentary Flag Wars, which tells the story of long time Near East Side residents and the newcomer gentrifiers working to restore Olde Towne East. Does your documentary carry similar tones or cover similar topics?

A: Flag Wars is one of my favorite documentaries. Not necessarily for its content, but its overall production. (I watch films for their ability to tell stories that are visually engaging; the subject should be interesting to me if it’s well produced.) I didn’t come here to do a film on race on the east side of the city. I originally came here to do a story on the food trucks on the west side of the city and how things may have changed over the past 10 years. I have traveled around the country and have seen taco trucks in a number of settings, but I’ve never seen a taco truck in a black community. I started filming around the truck to see what people’s attitudes of the truck are. My film isn’t about gentrification, but about the relationships people build around food and how food is laden with social, racial, and political meanings. It’s a coincidence that I’m filming near Old Towne East and Flag Wars does cross my mind from time to time.

But it is also important to remember that in documentary filmmaking, hundreds of hours of footage is shot and the audience only gets to see 60-90 minutes of it in an extremely edited version. It’s the director’s filtered version of reality.

Q: Would you say that food plays an important role in the exchange of cultures or introduction of new cultures, and if so, why?

A: I’m finishing my PhD in human geography at UT-Austin where I study food, culture and urban space. I’ve found that “culture” is an extremely difficult word to define and talk about. My approach to studying culture is to start by talking with individuals. Often individuals in a given area (who share similar demographics) tend to share similar attitudes. It is really peoples’ shared attitudes towards new things and other people that shape interactions amongst community groups. Food can play a big part in this because the places where people eat food create social nodes, the dinner table for example. People in general like to eat, but not all people like to try new things. Additionally, the interesting thing is that food also changes. Most of the taco trucks in the city have adapted their menus to attract North American customers. The trucks have added burritos (which are from California), and even one truck now serves lasagna. So yes, food is a gateway for exchange of culture, but the food itself is also not easy to define, as the definition of what is “authentic” is completely subjective to who is eating the food.

Q: What is the current status of the film?

A: The film is still in production. I have very little left to shoot and hope to be done filming by the end of September. I have shot around 40 hours of footage in Columbus and have 12 hours of footage from San Luis Potosi, SLP, Mexico. I may have to return one more time to Columbus if needed. I hope the film will be done with editing and released sometime in January.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Up until now I have been using my own salary to pay for the film. If people would like to donate to the production and editing of the film, there is a donate button on my website. The estimated cost of film right now is $15,000. I will also probably be doing a Kickstarter campaign in the near future. Regardless, I have enjoyed working on the film in the city and will make sure it’s completed in a timely manner. I have more items on the burner I need to complete, so this needs to be done! Finally, I would just like to thank the people in the City of Columbus for their hospitality.

More information can be found online at www.transfusionfilm.com.

Photos via TransfusionFilm.com.

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