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Documentary chronicles work as challenges as 'Reversing the Mississippi'

"Reversing the Mississippi" director Ian Midgley with documentary subject Marcin Jakubowski.

"Reversing the Mississippi" director Ian Midgley with documentary subject Marcin Jakubowski.

About five years ago, filmmaker Ian Midgley sold his things, left his Los Angeles home and started driving around the country. “I was just looking for people who were doing different things, living in different ways than things I’d heard of before, people who were creating their own realities,” he says. “I went up the west coast and I stopped in Humboldt County, then I filmed a lot of people around the Mount Shasta area. I talked to a buffalo farmer who was kind of raising buffalo like American Indians would back in the day, then up to Portland.” On a second trip, he visited North Carolina, New York City, Detroit, New Orleans, Texas, Las Vegas and Denver, among others. But it was while spending time at an off-the-grid community in New Mexico that Midgley learned of Dr. Marcin Jakubowski, an inventor living on a remote farm in rural Missouri who was pioneering something called the Open Source Ecology movement. “So what that means is he’s sourcing simple materials that people can find mostly anywhere, different parts of machines, the most basic building blocks for machines, and he’s designing machines like tractors, brick presses, solar panels, wind turbines – the kinds of things you’d need to start your own small society.” The idea is that they design these machines and make them easy to build, Midgley says, “and then put the blueprints online for free with instructions and documentation, videos of how the machines have and haven’t worked and that type of thing for anyone to replicate so that people can use these plans if they want to start their own society.” The more practical application, however, is for people who want to start their own business, says Midgley, “or if they want to build a house out of the mud on their property, they can build one of these machines for a lot cheaper than it would be to use industrial building materials." However, Marcin’s leadership abilities weren’t quite measuring up to his engineering brilliance. His crew was feeling unappreciated and uninspired as they worked day and night in meager living conditions. Marcin needed a mentor. Flashback to Midgley’s time in New Orleans, when a friend told him about Nat Turner and what he’d been doing in the Lower Ninth Ward. Nat Turner drove a school bus to New Orleans from New York City after Hurricane Katrina. He gained national attention for transforming an abandoned lower Ninth Ward grocery store into a community youth education center, Our School Blair Grocery, where he teaches kids to grow and sell vegetables and provides a sanctuary for children in a troubled neighborhood. Like Marcin, however, Turner is having issues of his own. His own team is growing restless, money is low, and he needs some new machinery for his program to truly take flight. So Midgley began wondering what could happen if he brought these two together. Setting up a meeting with Dr. Jakubowski would be harder than Midgley thought, however. “I ended up having to kind of apply to do almost like a work program with him to have access to him to meet him and spend time at his farm in Missouri,” he says. Eventually, Nat Turner would make it to the Factor E Farm to meet Marcin and build a DIY tractor for his school in New Orleans. Reversing the Mississippi shows the results of this joint effort. While Midgley says it’s a good film for all audiences, “I think it’s especially good for young people to see who are thinking about what they’re going to do in the world when they get out there to make a difference, and to see kind of the difficulties and what it takes and the strength one needs to really make an impact in the world around you. And the impact may seem really small, but just doing that can have a huge ripple effect.”

The film makes its world premiere as part of the New Orleans Film Festival Monday, October 19 at 7 p.m. at the Prytania. For more information visit http://www.neworleansfilmfestival.org.  

Brian Friedman writes about New Orleans for NolaVie.