Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Byron Hurt Dishes About His 'Soul Food Junkies' Journey

Director Byron Hurt on the set of "Soul Food Junkies." Photos from "Soul Food Junkies" Facebook page.

BYRON Hurt’s latest documentary, “Soul Food Junkies,” has been a labor of love. Though it grew out of a tragedy – the death of his father at 63 from pancreatic, it is bearing the director bushels of fruit.

“Soul Food Junkies,” which asks in part whether soul food is killing blacks, had its world premiere at the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) where it won the best documentary prize. The film has also been added to the roster of PBS’ upcoming season of “Independent Lens.” Last Sunday, a special screening of the film was arranged for select backers and supporters at the Performing Arts Center at Baruch College. (See VEVLYN'S PEN review at http://www.ow.ly/cVaQV and trailer below).

On Thursday, “Soul Food Junkies” has its long-awaited New York premiere when ImageNation Cinema Foundation (http://www.bit.ly/nICoq) hosts a screening, panel discussion and performance at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.

Yours Truly, who has known BH since he was in pampers – just kidding, but a longtime – managed to track him down long enough to pepper him with a few questions about the continuing evolution of  “Soul Food Junkies” (“SFJ”).

YT: Congratulations on the success of “Soul Food Junkies” so far. What are some of the feedback/reactions you are getting about the film?
BH: So far the response has been overwhelmingly positive and affirming of the film's timeliness and relevance. Audiences have been sharing their personal stories about family members, friends, and loved ones who are dealing with health-related problems. Many audience members talk openly about how the film resonates with them personally. It has yet to fail to stimulate important, powerful community discussions.

YT: How has your diet changed from the time you began filming “SFJ” to now? Does that go for your family, too?
BH: My diet has changed pretty dramatically since I was a child, teenager and young adult. I would have to say, looking back, that I ate horribly. I even worked at McDonald's as a teenager! Over the past 10-15 years, however, my diet has evolved and I've been very health conscious. After working on this film, I've become even more aware about health and nutrition and what I put, or don't put, into my body. Since the time that the film began, I have transitioned to a mostly vegetable-based diet, with daily exercise.

YT: What kind of healthy eating evangelism are you doing in your circle of friends, family and colleagues or are you letting “SFJ”speak for you?
BH: I let “Soul Food Junkies” speak for itself at this point. I think, because of this film, people expect me to be some kind of food police whenever we're out to dinner, but I'm not. Simply because, I don't think that works. My film is my contribution to the "food revolution," if you will. I will let the educators and health and wellness community use my film to their benefit, as a teaching tool. But I have no plans to challenge every person in my presence to change their diet.

YT: Other than the remarks you make toward the end of “SFJ,” what do you mainly want viewers to take away?
BH: I want viewers to be more aware of what they put into their bodies, why, and the impact it may have on the quality of life, long term. I also want them to pay closer attention to the food they have access to, or don't have access to, in their communities.

Two soul food classics: Barbecue and cabbage greens, left, and fried chicken, below.

YT: Briefly discuss your exercise regimen.
BH: I work out at least 30 minutes per day, every day. I do some form of cardio and weight training during my workouts. I don't overtrain. I give my body rest when it needs it. But at the very least I go for a light walk for 30 minutes every day. I also take those small steps you read about in health and fitness magazines that make a big difference. I take the stairs instead of the elevator. I park far away from the supermarket to increase my steps walking to the market, I walk NYC blocks instead of taking the subway (depending on the distance and time permitting). When I can't make it to the gym, I use fitness DVDs or choose an "On Demand" workout to get my exercise in.

YT: Describe the reception of “SFJ” at the ABFF after the screening? What about after the win for best documentary?
BH: It was outstanding! The audience really loved and appreciated the film. Made a brotha feel good!

YT: During the ABFF awards ceremony when best documentary category contestants were being announced, recall what was going through your mind.
BH: What went through my mind was, ‘I want to win! Please, God, let me win!’ I also thought about my father, to whom this film is dedicated. The day of the awards ceremony, it was the fifth anniversary of his passing.

YT: What were you thinking when your name and the name of your film were announced as the winner?
BH: My first reaction was, "Yes!" And also, "Thank you!" for being selected as the winner. I was also extremely self-conscious and preoccupied with my casual attire because I did not have time to go back to my hotel room and get dressed up after the final screening of my film. So I attended the ceremony in shorts and a T-shirt. That was not my plan and I was very regretful that I did not make sure I had time to change. So I was thinking, "Oh my gosh, I played myself."

YT: What kind of perks does/has the win netted you and “SFJ?”
BH: I won the CNN Best Documentary Award so higher ups at CNN got a chance to see the film. They've been in touch with me about doing a piece about me and the film. There was a small cash prize, and I've been approached by other film festivals. I think the biggest perk is that the film has a certain credibility and profile that it didn't have previous to winning the award. People pay attention more when you say, "the film won the CNN Best Documentary Award."

YT: In what other film festivals are you submitting “SFJ?”
BH: “Soul Food Junkies” will be in the Urban World Film Festival. I plan on resubmitting to Sundance, in the off chance that they may select it, even though it's had its world premiere.

YT: Briefly discuss how “SFJ” was selected for Independent Lens. Do you know the exact date it will air on Independent Lens.
BH: My funder, ITVS (Independent Television Service), submitted “Soul Food Junkies” to both PBS strands, “Independent Lens” and “POV.” “Independent Lens” jumped on the opportunity to broadcast the film and sent me a contract to license the film. I wanted to work with them because they were great to work with for my previous film, ”Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes.” “Soul Food Junkies” will air Monday, Jan. 14, 2013 at 10 p.m. (EST) Check local listings.

YT: Where are you in the distribution process with “SFJ?”
BH: I have a couple of distribution deals that I am entertaining and will make a decision shortly.

YT: Briefly describe your next project to the extent that you are at liberty to disclose details about it.
BH: I am not at liberty to discuss it at this point, but I have my next film project narrowed down to three very exciting topics that I'd love to explore.

YT: Is there something that you would like to add?
BH: I'd like to add that I feel extremely blessed and grateful to have the opportunity to use my voice in a powerful and helpful way. I live a charmed life and am very thankful to be positioned in the culture as a documentarian and activist whom people trust, respect, and support.

Visit http://www.bit.ly/NAZYpD to purchase tickets to the New York premiere of “Soul Food Junkies"; visit http://www.facebook.com/SoulFoodJunkies to learn more about the film.

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