Young and Restless
The passion of Landon Van Soest ’04 is to make films exploring social and environmental justice around the globe.
The adventures Landon Van Soest ’04 and Jeremy Levine ’06 had in the making of Walking the Line (2005) were just about as wild as the movie itself—something most documentary makers can identify with.
The film tells the story of Arizona vigilantes patrolling the chaotic U.S.–Mexico border to protect their private property—but in their minds, America—from illegal Mexican immigrants, often at gunpoint, while humanitarian organizations and individuals try to prevent migrant deaths and find themselves on the wrong side of the law for doing so. In 2004 the duo spent two months cutting back and forth across southern Arizona and northern Mexico, putting some 3,000 miles on a rental car. Says Van Soest, they “met a long list of eccentric characters, went on overnight armed patrols in the freezing desert, sang karaoke with one of the vigilante characters. We slept on the floors of anyone who would put us up for the night, in the car during thunderstorms, and in a community college dorm.”
The idea for the film, Van Soest says, “besides being an absurd concept, struck at the heart of a crucial social issue. It seemed like we could use the novelty of the vigilantes to open up discussion on something vitally important to our country and the world”—immigration and immigrants’ rights versus the rights of current U.S. citizens, workers, and landowners.
It worked. The film—which grew out of IC associate professor Ben Crane’s Documentary Research class and emerged after literally “hundreds of ideas”—has screened nationwide at a dozen festivals and universities and won awards here and in Europe, from the Human Rights and Human Dignity Award at a festival in Austria and Germany to best student film honors at the Boston International Film and Video Festival.
Social and environmental justice issues have always been Van Soest’s “primary interest,” says the recent cinema and photography graduate. “Filmmaking,” he says, “is just an excuse for me to explore them.”
In high school he was riveted by an Imax film about climbing Mount Everest; as a Colorado native, he says he has “a soft spot for the mountains.” He says he “figured whoever made the film wasn’t sitting in some office—he was out on Mount Everest and probably had 50 other incredible experiences. It [seemed] like the best job in the world.” At that point he was already generating dozens of films, shot on a hand-held home video camera, on the subculture of skateboarders, but he was anxious to do more—particularly if it concerned traveling to far-flung locales.
At IC Van Soest snatched up opportunities to study overseas. He did a Semester at Sea and spent another semester at Kenya’s School for International Exchange, which he calls “easily the most enriching educational experiences of my life.”
In Kenya as a senior Van Soest heard about how the introduction of Nile perch into Lake Victoria by British colonialists, in an attempt to jump-start the local economy, destroyed some 300 other fish species and left most locals impoverished and hungry. Van Soest spent four months researching the topic. “Much like the [Arizona] vigilantes,” he says, “the fish provided an attention-grabbing entry point to explore a wide range of pressing social issues—neocolonialism, development, AIDS, food security, environmental sustainability, and resource management.”
He returned to Ithaca to graduate, then moved to Brooklyn and worked briefly for the Sundance Channel while raising money for his planned Nile perch doc. He applied for and received a Fulbright scholarship to further research and shoot the story. Then the reality of competition in the world of filmmaking hit him between the eyes. “Unexpected things? Trials and tribulations? Two words: Darwin’s Nightmare,” explains Van Soest. That’s the name of the film on the same perch that came out soon before he returned to Kenya; it was screened at top festivals and even landed a theatrical distribution deal in the United States and Europe—a rarity for any documentary. When Van Soest mentioned his new film idea to others, people gasped or laughed and asked why he was remaking Darwin’s Nightmare. That film, he says, became his nightmare. When he went to see it, he saw his own months of work playing out on the screen: “I felt,” he says, “like I had the carpet pulled out from under me.”
But after six weeks of preparation and shooting this past fall in Kenya, Van Soest says the competition turned out to have been for the best. As he dug deeper he learned that unlike what he calls the perch’s “pessimistic” depiction in Darwin’s Nightmare, the fish has actually led to a financial boon for many. “In fact,” he says, “most people still see the Nile perch as a godsend in an otherwise completely impoverished area.”
Van Soest has also came up with a handful of stories on related themes concerning the lack of resource management in Africa, which he may either weave into the perch story or feature in a separate film. His film, or films, from Kenya, he says, will reflect his newfound conclusion: “It’s popular in the West to blame ourselves for the ills of Africa, but the West is a symptom, not a cause” of those ills.
Van Soest will stay in Kenya through midyear. Levine, his partner on Walking the Line, has been informally helping him on the Kenya project (Levine plans to work on documentaries after graduation). Next year Van Soest plans to drive from Alaska to the tip of Argentina on the Pan-American Highway with three friends “in a sort of collective social and artistic adventure”—which, one can bet, will result in at least one new Landon Van Soest film.