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“Agave is Life” celebrates the culture, history and uses of agave

June 1st, 2017 under Features
Still photo from the film shows an Otomi woman spinning agave fiber at El Dadho, Hidalgo, Mexico.

Still photo from the film shows an Otomi woman spinning agave fiber at El Dadho, Hidalgo, Mexico.

By NICK WINCHESTER
nick@bigbendnow.com

MARFA — The first Agave Festival Marfa opens tonight with a screening of Meredith Dreiss and David O. Brown’s award-winning “Agave is Life,” a film that documents agave, the 10,000-year-old gift that keeps on giving.

The film screens at 6pm this evening at the Crowley Theater. A Q&A with the filmmakers will follow.

Dreiss, a Research Fellow at The Texas Archaeological Research Laboratory at The University of Texas at Austin and president of ArcheoProductions, and Brown, who spent decades working as a professional archaeologist and anthropologist, sat down with the Marfa Big Bend Sentinel in the lead-up to this weekend’s festival and spoke about their film, “Agave is Life,” Marfa’s role in it, and what they look forward to seeing at the festival.

Both Dreiss and Brown come from academic backgrounds and say they did not want their film to appeal only to an academic audience, like many archaeology and anthropology documentaries before theirs have. “We wanted to do something that makes the story of Agave compelling,” Brown said.

They are happy that it appeals to a wider viewing audience, both agree.

They also make the point that they wanted to avoid making another tequila documentary, so through an anthropological lens, the film presents agave as much more than simply the plant from which tequila comes from.

Agave, native to the desert regions of Mexico and the Southwestern United States, has developed from a vital source of sustenance in early societies, to being an inherent element in many of life’s necessities: food, drink, textiles, fuel, shelter, and medicines.

The agave plant is equally entwined with myth, ritual, and identity as it is with things we consume, and the film, narrated by actor Edward James Olmos, documents how people from across regions of Mexico and the Southwestern United States are protecting these traditions. The Mescalero Apache tribe in South Central New Mexico, for example, grow, harvest and cook the agave plant today using ancient methods. A jewelry maker from the Yucatan makes artisanal necklaces out of waste agave spines from a nearby distillery, while on an Indian reserve in Arizona, one of the last remaining Apache violin makers uses agave stalks and fibers to form musical instruments. In another scene, a man harvests a dried agave stalk from the McKnight Ranch in Jeff Davis County, and carves out a didgeridoo.

Dreiss purchased a home in Marfa in 2002, and now splits much of her time between here and Austin.

When looking for an editor to work on the footage for “Agave is Life,” Dreiss says she had trouble finding the right fit in Austin. Back in Marfa, a friend of Dreiss’s suggested she talk to David Hollander. Both Dreiss and Brown describe how pleasantly surprised they were when they met Hollander and saw his bookshelves lined with Anthropology texts and books on the region’s flora and fauna. Hollander, alongside his wife Jennifer Lane, who Dreiss credits as giving the subject heart, were the perfect match.

As an expert on Mesoamerica, Dreiss’s previous film, “Chocolate Pathway to the Gods,” explored how a foodstuff such as chocolate can become so integral to human life. During her work on chocolate, Dreiss says she repeatedly came across artworks and artifacts that featured the agave plant, which sparked an interest. Dreiss slowly compiled the objects and pieces of research she found until the idea for the film was conceived. “Agave is Life” took a total of six years to make; two years were needed for research, filming took another two years, and a further two years were taken to edit and distribute the film.

Tim Johnson, founder and organizer of the Agave Festival Marfa, came to Dreiss and Brown asking for their involvement in the festival, Dreiss says. They were able to use their network of friends and colleagues to bring fellow scientists Dr. Carolyn Boyd, Dr. Steve Black, Dr. Phil Dering to the festival for talks. Dreiss said she is looking forward to the festival’s many elements: cuisine, music, art, and science. “The festival is a unique series of events, and is uniquely Marfa,” Brown said.

According to Dreiss, the future of the Agave Festival is exciting because this year’s festival just scratches the surface of what is possible to learn about agave. Dreiss would like to bring Mexican and Native American scientists to the festival, and also delve deeper into the rituals surrounding agave.

The Agave Festival Marfa runs June 1-4. For a complete schedule of events, go to https://www.agavemarfa.com/schedule/

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