Filmmaker Spotlight: Brendan Van Meter and Stephen Ritz of Green Bronx Machine
Brendan Van Meter, Beaconhouse Media
Meet Brendan Van Meter and Stephen Ritz behind the 2014 1st Runner Up and People’s Choice Award Winner, Green Bronx Machine. The energy and passion the Green Bronx Machine sends out into the world is contagious. Read on for your dose of Green-Bronx-powered inspiration.
When did you first start making films? What is it about film that drew you?
Brendan: I’m a lifelong filmmaker. I started at home with my brother, Ryan, continued through Chaminade high school’s ETV program and on through college at RIT’s School of Film & Animation. Ryan introduced me to Diane Hatz in 2010 and along with lots of help from my team, I directed the video production for the first TEDxManhattan in 2011. This was probably my first introduction to the Food Movement and the catalyst to the growth of my company, Beaconhouse Media.
How did you learn about the project and people you highlighted in your film?
Brendan: I first learned about Stephen Ritz and Green Bronx Machine the same way lots of people learned about him: through the screen at TEDxManhattan 2012. The difference is that I could look over the top of my screen and see him jumping around the stage as he said things like “the biggest 6th grader you’ll ever meet.” He kept all my camera operators in constant motion and my focus had to stay on screen. Stephen received a standing ovation and we jokingly say it was love at first bite!
Stephen Ritz, Green Bronx Machine
When I saw the Urban Farming NYC and Welcome to Green Bronx Machine videos, I knew there was a local story of national importance worth telling in their words. Remarkably, our film is just a starting point. Since filming at that location, Stephen and his students have gone on to install BOTH indoor and outdoor academic learning gardens that have transformed the entire community; in fact, they’ve outfitted numerous schools across the Bronx and America! For them, it is all about the work and all in the delivery. The program is literally putting food on the table, putting people to work, inspiring students and teachers and changing destinies, lives and outcomes.
The fact that we won the People’s Choice Award speaks to the energy, enthusiasm and Amer-I-Can spirit that they are spreading. The mission and work of Green Bronx Machine are impacting people, schools and communities around the world while branding the Bronx and Stephen’s students in a unique way. It shows people moving up the food chain from consumers to producers! To see the interest and support speaks to a whole new reality and more importantly, entirely new possibilities for people and communities everywhere. Stephen is right when he says this is about growing citizens moving those who are “apart from” to becoming “a part of” in ways that benefit all of society. That was the story I was determined to share.
Robin Romano filmed the interview segments, but unfortunately passed away in November 2013. He was a documentary filmmaker, still photographer and a champion of human rights who was “recognized as a global expert on child labor and spoke frequently at conventions, conferences, and as a guest lecturer at universities.” Robin, Stephen and the boys actually became very close and enjoyed working together both in the studio and in the field. They had hoped to create a running series highlighting their work.
His passing was devastating to all of us. That we were able to incorporate his footage into this piece and create a film that was recognized and so well received is a fitting tribute.
Watch Green Bronx Machine:
What do you hope people walk away from your film thinking about?
Brendan: Stephen and his students are truly making a difference. Our film was a simple one: short takes from on the spot interviews while doing their work. It was in-the-moment with a message that anything is possible. Their movement, as local as local can get, was born in a classroom and with a simple desire to impact lives. It teaches us that folks anywhere and everywhere can be the solution.
Stephen’s enthusiasm for his work, his students and the improvement and empowerment of his community is unparalleled and an inspiration to everyone. Food is a problem for so many people in our country and around the world. I hope more people will see how food can be a solution, how it can change lives and how it can change what sometimes seems like predetermined outcomes. I hope this inspires people to find, start or build up solutions in their community.
Stephen: We want people to walk away thinking about how they can get involved, how they can make a difference, how transformation is absolutely possible — and how it is up to individuals at the most local and granular levels to initiate and be the change they want to see in their lives. If all my students are willing and able, so should everyone else! We are the folks we’ve been waiting for! This movement, spirit and moment are replicable and the work is damn worthy!
What are the main themes you’re trying to bring to life in your film?
Brendan: Our themes are hope, optimism, people power, self-determination and change: that committed people have the ability to change their own and others lives. There is a joy to what Stephen and his students are doing; a spirit, a sense of resilience and endless resourcefulness. We wanted this film to be as authentic and genuine as possible – entirely unscripted; a slice of what they do and why. When Stephen says he is CEO – Chief Eternal Optimist – of Bronx County – he means it.
Stephen: Many folks look around and ask, “Why?” We believe, “Why not?” We believe that people should not have to leave their neighborhood to live, learn and earn in a better one – we’re taking ownership. This film shows that. We intended to represent “the real.” Our hope and goal is to inspire people to perspire and to aspire – that we will create an actionable moment for everyone, everywhere! We wanted to convey our positive insurgency and passion!
What inspires you?
Brendan: What inspires Stephen is the work, his students and his family – all of his family from his own to his extended student and community family. And he believes they are just getting started. His work, vision and mission are growing support that is absolutely inspiring to all of us! With that brings tremendous responsibility and commitment and they welcome that. It all starts with people and it all starts with planting seeds.
Stephen: I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve my community. Collectively we are working on a platform of collaboration and coalition to affect and effect changes top down and bottom up; locally, nationally and internationally. This is about cultivating minds and harvesting hope. Students who show up to school on a daily basis inspire me. Teachers who teach students that where they learn matters – regardless of zip code – inspire me. Parents who encourage students and read to them at night inspire me. People who encourage others to dream of life as it could be and should be inspire me. Veterans, senior citizens, volunteers, farmers, homesteaders, equity warriors – people who want to make a difference inspire me. Every single morning and every single breath inspires me! We’ve got work to do! How can we inspire you?
What’s next for you – what other projects are in the works?
Brendan: We dream of a larger documentary and reality show documenting the growth and challenges of the students, program and possibilities. We’d love to film an updated short sharing what we’ve accomplished thus far, all based on the first film. Meanwhile Stephen speaks nationally and internationally looking to grow his work and impact working around his local school and work commitments. We are all excited about the Green Schools National Convention and Greenbuild 2014. I’m going to continue to work with Stephen Ritz and Green Bronx Machine to spread their mission. I will also continue working with Diane Hatz, TEDxManhattan & Change Food.
Stephen: We have several projects in the works: from building community gardens to building out schools – locally, across the country and abroad – to creating online and digital platforms to teach the technology and share best practices. I’m thrilled to be working with the US Green Building Council, Center for Green Schools and Green Schools National Network. Green Bronx Machine is soon to be featured in an Office Depot spot highlighting exemplar teachers and my work was recently featured in Katrina Fried’s Welcome Books Publication, American Teacher: Heroes in the Classroom highlighting top teachers in America.
How can people get involved?
Stephen: At the end of the day, this is about raising healthy children and healthy communities rooted in the absolute fact that it is easier to raise healthy children than to fix broken men. Youth who have access to one kind, caring and competent adult in their life are more likely to succeed. We urge you to be a kind, caring, competent, dedicated adult in a child’s life. Do something spectacular – you’ll feel better! Feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org – we always have a project going on and there is always something to be done. We like to say Green Bronx Machine is coming to a city near you soon – we are!
We want to thank everyone who has and continues to support us – the love has been amazing. We congratulate and salute all the entrants for amazing work – collectively we watched and discussed every entry – we were truly inspired and therein lies the true victory for everybody. Continue to imagine and invent life as it could be and should be: Remember, together, we can all prosper!
Brendan and Stephen are based in the New York City area. Stay connected and follow their work at greenbronxmachine.org, stephenritz.com and beaconhousemedia.com