Tuesday, July 18, 2017

THE TEA EXPLORER, Interviews with Jeff Fuchs & Andrew Gregg

In case you haven't heard elsewhere, there is a new feature length documentary film called The Tea Explorer! It debuts on the CBC Documentary Channel, Sunday July 23, 2017 at 9 PM. EST. 

Here is the trailer 

And guess who had the chance to interview not only the writer-producer-director Andrew Gregg, but the star of the doc himself, Jeff Fuchs!? Noted Canadian writer, photographer, explorer, and tea merchant.  

I first met Jeff Fuchs in November 2009 at a tea event presented by the Tea Association of Canada (now Tea and Herbal Association of Canada) to celebrate Canada's first 12 Certified Tea Sommeliers from George Brown College, Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts.  By now you don't need to guess who was one of the first 12... Yup, me!

The media event featured Jeff in his role as writer of the then new book The Ancient Tea Horse Road.  Naturally, I got my signed copy there.

Fast forward to present day and the film's publicist contacted me here and asked if I'd like to help launch the film. Hmm...Tea, Film, and Jeff Fuchs?  I'm in!

You're already familiar with my fascination with tea. As a major film buff in my pre-kid days, I used to attend TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) religiously for over 10 years.  Long waits in line ups waiting for the box office to open (pre-online ticket sales days), lines at Rush Screenings for sold out performances, did I mention long lineups..? All worth being jostled in a mosh pit of crowds cramming for a glimpse of our favourite movie star or director, along with staying afterwards for the Q.&A.'s.... I was thrilled to be a part of a World Premiere as one of the lucky few who got to see a winner of the people's choice awards, and then see the same film conquer the world and go on to win an Oscar!  Whew, exciting stuff.  I need a cup of tea to calm down.  Perhaps some raw puerh...that was what Andrew Gregg was drinking when I interviewed him!

...ahhh, now where was I?  Oh yes, would I like to help promote the new tea doc starring Jeff Fuchs...? Heck yeah!  I was thrilled when I was able to arrange interviews with the filmmaker and the star, you can read my exclusive Tea Journey Magazine write-up here.

Even better were the interviews themselves.  Andrew Gregg was amazingly enthusiastic about the film, saying it was a high point among adventure films that he had made.  Although he'd been in the Himalayas before, it took this film and Jeff Fuchs to convert him from a coffee drinker to a hard won tea aficionado!  He shot this documentary with one other person (besides Jeff and the locals who guided them), sound man Michael Josselyn.

When asked about low points he said, "We encountered a few snags.... we really wanted to end the film in Darjeeling but we couldn't get film permits, and we couldn't get into Tibet to film." 

As for what was most challenging? "Going up the Sho La Pass.... Somebody like Jeff, half mountain goat, nothing new to him.  No big deal -- Doing the trek up the Sho La was the hardest by far, the most physically demanding.

For a shoot like this, it sounds so trite, but it's hard to know what to pack.  You're in the subtropics in Yunnan, then you're in the snow storms up in Sho La, then in Kathmandu you're sort of in full rainy season, but then up in Mustang you're in dust storms.  It was everything.  It was a true adventure, and other than the true exertion travelling up the pass, it was a pleasure."
Andrew Gregg 

Pinning down Jeff for the interview took a bit of logistical gymnastics but we made it work.  I spoke to him in his home on the Big Island of Hawaii.  He was relaxed and open, just back from a trek up the upper Mustang, some of the new (to him), segment of the Ancient Tea Horse Road he traveled in the film.
Jeff Fuchs
When asked what the mountains mean to him, Jeff Fuchs said when his grandmother took him into the mountains when young he recalls thinking "I gotta be up here, cause I feel differently, I breathe differently. The Chinese have a saying where you are either a water person or a mountain person. I am a mountain person.... Mountains are nature's editors, and in order to be in the mountains or travel in them, you absolutely have to be physically and tangibly in the moment. You can't be theoretical in the mountains."

In  the film, Jeff brings us along to a segment of the Tea Horse Road that's he's travelled and documented in his book and a segment he had not traveled previously, which I noted in my Tea Journey Magazine review article. "Coming back to the same segment, it's remarkable how comforting it is to see, it's like an old shoe that you love to wear. You see it develop and you see it age, and see it get a little more sure of itself....

New segments are extraordinary....  The tea horse road was like a 'do everything' pipeline of trade goods, information, DNA, linguistics, and for me it was a reminder of how this road, we call it a road, the Cha Ma Gu Dao was so vital in opening up and feeding some of these really remote communities.  And a lot of the new segments that I've done in the last three-four years, they do the same thing, remind me that it's the same narrative again and again... opening up the world of remote peoples.  
It feels like home, it's very familiar but it's a place I've never been before.  But the narrative and the story is the same."

Rita: And what does tea mean to you? "Tea is very simple, it's a simple fuel that I physically need....It's a sort of slightly unpredictable friend that I always enjoy the company of.... Japanese teas are so consistent, so perfectly made, even if the weather is off, they can [fix it]...what I love about puerh is that it's a bit of a cowboy tea, even if you know the grower, even if you know the harvest season, everything is slightly different every year and I love that.  So it's a little unpredictable but I'm good with that.... I want to feel the grower's [and] producer's personality in the teas."

Rita: Why do you feel like you need to tell their story?  "I feel like I owe them. A sense of responsibility to not just tell the story but to open the story up so that people understand a little bit more about how tea travelled and how much tea is more than just a luxury 4 O'clock high tea in London type of thing but how it's something... intricate, [a] part of these people's lives. Responsibility because the story has never been written down properly. [The] tea horse road feels like this amazing adventure journey pipeline that's never really been fully investigated and respected for what it did.

I believe tea is something very simple. It should be something simple."

So, what's in the works next for Jeff Fuchs? "More trade routes, but details are secret at this time. Building a permaculture school in Hawaii.  Permaculture is all about growing things without using pesticides and using plants to take care of other plants and building soil. I'm experimenting with tea which is going well. Experimenting on growing tea on the dry side of the island not the typical wetter east side of Big Island where most of the tea farms are. Everyone knows tea loves humidity and rain but everything is changing, you know, climate change and everything. "

In my film buff days, I would have loved to interview Brad Pitt or Steven Spielberg, but as a tea person this project has been the closest thing to it. 

I've seen the film (in the privacy of my own home), and really enjoyed it. It moved me so much that I found myself consulting my pal Google to find out more about the Himalayas, Upper Mustang, Lo Manthang.

Overall it was a beautiful story of humanity.  Covering the origin of tea, adventures in the high mountains with a photogenic, charismatic and tea-obsessed host.

You can read my Tea Journey Magazine article here.

This reviewer gives this film 5 Puerh cakes out of 5.

Thank you Jeff Fuchs, Andrew Gregg, David McCaughna, Publicist for the Rick Mercer Report (for contacting me and providing the photos for use),  90th Parallel Productions and CBC Documentary Channel for making all this happen!

You can follow Jeff's adventures on Jeff Fuchs' Tea and Mountain Journals

The Tea Explorer Facebook page is here to keep updated on the latest.

Don't forget, The Tea Explorer debuts on the CBC Documentary Channel this Sunday, July 23, 2017 at 9 PM EST.