Christopher Columbus journeyed to America using hempen ropes and sails. The United States Declaration of Independence was drafted on hemp paper. Hemp was a major agricultural boon to World War II domestic war efforts.
These are just a few of the more patriotic points made in the locally produced documentary film “Bringing It Home,” which premieres Thursday in Durham. The film examines the issue of industrial hemp farming and argues that federal law prohibiting the cultivation of hemp on U.S. soil is one of America’s most puzzling and misguided public policies. Despite having no psychoactive properties, industrial hemp is classified as a controlled substance under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act.
Filmmakers Linda Booker and Blaire Johnson – both graduates of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies – began the project in 2010. The story would eventually lead them to film in the United Kingdom, Spain, Washington, D.C., California, and back to North Carolina. Booker, speaking from her home in Pittsboro, said she wasn’t a hemp advocate when the project began.
“I’m naturally a little bit of a skeptic on things, and like a lot of people, I didn’t really get what hemp was,” Booker said. “I thought it was just a stoner hippie issue. But it really didn’t take very long for me to get engaged and interested.”
While hemp is illegal to grow in the U.S., hemp products are not illegal to sell. In fact, American consumers purchase around $450 million worth of hemp products annually – mostly apparel and nutritional products like hemp oil. But all the hemp used for these products must be imported, mostly from Canada. The U.S. is the world’s largest importer of hemp. China is the world’s largest exporter.
The film begins with the story of Asheville home designer Anthony Brenner, who made headlines in 2010 when he built the nation’s first “hemp house,” made from environmentally friendly hempcrete – a building product similar to concrete. Brenner would later design his own hemp-based home to provide a safe indoor environment for his daughter Bailey, who has a rare genetic disorder that makes her sensitive to synthetic chemicals.
From here, the film explores the many industrial uses of hemp, focusing in particular on its utility as a building material, clothing fabric and food supplement. The filmmakers traveled to Spain and the U.K. to speak with hemp advocates and farmers. Footage from Berkshire, England, shows vast fields of hemp farmed as a cash crop, and several experts are consulted to extol the virtues of the plant.
“Bringing It Home” employs the usual techniques of the documentary film to tell its story – interviews, statistics, animations – and it covers a lot of ground.
Booker said the goal was to make the film relatively short, as part of the team’s education outreach campaign, so that it could be presented along with discussion events and panels. For a 52-minute film, it’s ambitious in scope, breaking down the various political, economic and historical aspects of the issue.
“The best analogy I can come up with is that it’s kind of like when a sculptor has a big chunk of marble in front of them, and they whittle and chip away to make something of it,” Booker said.
In developing the project, Booker and Johnson worked with the Durham-based Southern Documentary Fund (SDF), a nonprofit that provides feedback and helps filmmakers secure funding.
Rachel Raney, executive director of the SDF, said “Bringing It Home” is a good example of the kind of work that’s coming out of the Triangle’s booming documentary filmmaking community.
“This is a tough film to pull off,” Raney said. “It’s a really complex, multilayered topic. They knew they wanted to get this film in hands of the people working in this issue.”
Indeed, the film seems to be coming out at an opportune time. The hemp issue is being vigorously debated at the state and federal level, with several states having already passed legislation legalizing industrial hemp cultivation. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has continued to block such state initiatives, but the U.S. House of Representatives just last week approved a version of the highly contested Farm Bill that includes new rules on hemp farming.
“I think it’s incredibly timely,” Raney said of the film. “And that often happens in documentary films. You can start something when its not on anyone’s radar, then the stars align and everyone catches up with you.”