Josh Rothstein wants to help the world see what he sees.
Ever since toying around with cameras as a child, the filmmaker and photographer has been driven to communicate a message of compassion.
His career has been eclectic: He has photographed significant figures from Steven Tyler to John Legend, and directed projects for companies from Puma to MasterCard. As a filmmaker, he trailed Leonardio DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire as they prepared for their roles in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, and followed Hugh Jackman, as he readied to host the Academy Awards and promote The Wolverine for HBO’s “First Look” series.
That chance meeting with Jackman—as well as a feature he directed about the plight of Darfur refugees—led him to follow the actor on an eyeopening trip to Ethiopia. Ultimately, that experience inspired a six-year-long project: Dukale’s Dream, a film chronicling a coffee farmer’s trajectory in that developing nation.
Here, Rothstein explains why an openness to evolution is key to both documentary filmmaking and personal happiness:
Live The Process: How did your interest in filmmaking emerge?
Joshua Rothstein: I grew up in a very musical household, so people were creating around me from a young age. My family also shot a ton of Super 8 footage and documented a lot of audio from my childhood. So, the concept and tenants of documentary filmmaking (without defining it as that) were always a strong undercurrent.
In the mid-80s, when video came out, my brothers and I started making movies. We had one of those early cameras with the large VCR you had to strap over your shoulder, but that didn't slow us down. We documented everything around us and began to explore "narrative" realms, as well. For a period of time, our house was like a little movie studio with our friends and neighbors cast in everything from Saturday Night Live-type comedy skits and talk shows to gangster and war films.
Looking back, these were formative years for me as a filmmaker because, although we were just kids messing around, we spent a lot of time focusing on the details: wardrobes, locations. Eventually, I started to explore acting classes and did some theater work, but I invariably found myself behind the camera, gravitating more towards documenting these productions more than performing in them.
Then, in college, I studied film formally and also still photography. Ultimately, I used this technical foundation to execute my projects with more confidence and precision.
LTP: Have you always had an interest in documenting the plights of people in developing nations?
JR: I have always had an interest in documenting the plights of people, in general. In the past few years, this has grown into an interest in understanding nations where humans are most at risk. My first three documentary films, however, explored topics in my own backyard.
The first documentary I made, for example, focused on my parents’ highly dysfunctional divorce, a war that raged on for many years and still does to this day. I created a portrait of the chaos by cutting together Super 8 footage and audio surreptitiously recorded of us during this tumultuous time. It was a way to draw some power from a narrative that I couldn’t control.
The second documentary was a loving portrait of a 96-year-old woman who I befriended while volunteering at a nursing home. My third film, and first feature, The Excellent Theopolis, was about the life a formerly homeless African American blues musician, who who was trying to reconnect with his family in the finals months of his life.
Each film was an exploration of a storytelling approach, focusing on compassion and rooted in a desire to shed light on individuals or issues of struggle. I am always interested in communicating the moments of joy, as well. I am a strong believer in highlighting stories of perseverance and heroism within these plights!
In 2008, I had the chance to work on a documentary called, 3 Points, about the genocide crippling Sudan and Chad in the Darfur region. The stakes were high. I felt a great duty to communicate a powerful story and do justice to the people I had met. I was nervous, but, thanks to my past experience, felt privileged to be in a position to amplify the urgency of the crisis.
It’s hard to always grasp how fortunate we are as Americans living in 2015, but it’s a big part of what I keep in mind when communicating stories about social injustice. I am enormously grateful for the life that I have, for the privilege of living on this planet. I have had moments of adversity that have shaped me. That perspective can be a powerful conduit for the ideas I am most passionate about love, kindness and compassion.
LTP: How did Dukale’s Dream become a reality?
JR: I first met Hugh Jackman in 2009, when he was rehearsing to host the Oscars. For fifteen straight days, I photographed and filmed him, capturing his incredible work ethic and preparation process, as well as developing a rapport with him. During our time working together, I told him about a recent trip to Darfur where I was directing a feature documentary about displaced refugees.
A few months later, I received a phone call inviting me to film Hugh and his wife Deborra-lee as they traveled to Ethiopia as ambassadors for World Vision Australia. At the time, I was not a coffee drinker or knowledgeable about fair trade products, though I had worked for a yerba maté company years earlier, so I had learned about the value of shade grown crops for local communities and environmental sustainability. I also had some basic knowledge of community development.
From a visual standpoint, the Ethiopian setting is a photographers dream: beautiful people, great variation in agriculture and landscape and extensive animal life. The Ethiopia I experienced felt quite safe and hospitable. Once in Addis Ababa, the trip was very spontaneous: We navigated obscure locations on maps, made unexpected pit stops and finally made the fortuitous last minute decision to drive eight hours to the Kochere region to meet a young coffee farmer named Dukale.
Upon meeting Dukale, I was immediately taken with his open spirit. Given how strange and overwhelming it must have been for him to have camera crews and visitors surrounding him, he was extremely poised. Despite our language gap and vast cultural differences, he was incredibly generous with his time and shared a glimpse into his everyday life.
Being invited into Dukale's world was unlike anything I had ever experienced. It was hard to understand everything that was going on with his farm and household, and how all the moving parts fit together. At first glance, the farm seemed quite humble, but was in fact advanced and sophisticated.
As I filmed Dukale and Hugh working together on the farm, I began to get a glimpse into how the coffee industry in this region operated and just how intertwined business and life were. It was humbling to comprehend how a simple product was the economic lifeblood for an entire country.
It has taken over six years to complete this film from the first day of shooting to the last day of editing. As a documentary filmmaker, to have the opportunity to tell a story that is truly unpredictable is both the greatest challenge and privilege. So many times throughout this process, just as I thought we had finished the journey, a new storyline or development would emerge and we would continue documenting the process. The project took on a life of its own.
Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that the film was originally commissioned to be a short fundraising tool. Once we returned to New York and started to edit the initial footage, it became apparent that there was a real connection between Hugh and Dukale. Plus, Hugh began a genuine soul searching process after Ethiopia. Over the next few months, Hugh spoke at UN Climate Week and started to strike up conversations with local coffee shops and neighbors about the importance of fair trade coffee.
All of these events were foreshadowing the next chapter in Hugh’s journey, the creation of his own coffee company, Laughing Man Coffee & Tea. With an aim towards helping farmers like Dukale, Hugh’s company was created to trade directly with growers around the world and sell their goods to American consumers.
Fortunately, through a partnership with World Vision Australia and the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, our audience will have an opportunity to donate money to purchase clean cookstoves for other farming families like Dukale’s too. Clean cooking has profound health implications and can empower families. We have also created an educational initiative to provide school supplies and scholarships for Dukale's community and beyond, as well as a pilot program with the Harlem Village Academies to craft a curriculum based on the messages in the film that will be utilized as a teaching tool for students in the U.S. The goal is to teach students about social entrepreneurship and ultimately to connect them with students from farming communities in Ethiopia.
LTP: How much time did you spend in Ethiopia filming?
JR: I traveled to Ethiopia three times. The first time was to shoot with Hugh and Deb. The second time, I returned to shoot b-roll and an interview with Dukale. The third time was three years later, after Hugh had started his coffee company, and I traveled back to do an update on Dukale and his community and to share the good news.
LTP: Was there any particular moment or incident that was particularly impactful for you?
JR: The unlikely meeting of Hugh and Dukale and the immediate connection and camaraderie between these two was the key ingredient. Without this, there would be no Laughing Man coffee and no story to tell.
Looking back, the moment that will probably always resonate the most for me was the when Hugh was invited into Dukale's hut to try his coffee for the first time. Hugh really is a bit of a coffee addict and he had been dying to try it, but, of course, did not want to be rude. It was such a genuine, touching moment of hospitality; it was quite emotional for all of us. While I was shooting this moment, I knew that there was something special happening. The coffee ceremony itself really turned out to be quite symbolic of an amazing and most unlikely future partnership. In making a documentary, you never know which moments are going to be significant. Fortunately, this one just keep growing and growing.
LTP: When and where can people see the film?
JR: The film will be available on VOD (Video On Demand) July 14th and will be available throughout North American on a multitude of platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, iNDemand, Time Warner, Comcast and many others. It is also currently available for community and in-home "sneak peek" screenings through theatrical on-demand partner, Tugg.com.
LTP: Why is it important that films like this get made?
JR: It is important, in this globalized age, that we have greater understanding and sense of compassion for our neighbors, both near and far. Global poverty is arguably the most important issue of our time, as it is inextricably linked to both the environment and terrorism.
So, I feel it is vital that we all start to play a far more active role in considering these connections and what we can do as individuals to help. It is in all of our best interests. In this film, we have the opportunity to connect some dots. Ideally, this message about buying fair trade coffee is just the tip of the iceberg, inspiring viewers to consider how the products they buy in their daily lives can make a positive impact on the planet.
Overall, there has been very little pop-culture messaging clearly articulating the message of consciousness consumerism to a broader audience. We hope to help move the needle on the awareness.
LTP: What are some positive effects you’ve already gleaned thanks to this project?
JR: Of late, with the film finally coming out, I have had moments where I get a great sense of satisfaction with all that has gone into the process. The work of getting the message out, far and wide, is not done yet, but I have moments, during Q & A’s and such, where I feel incredibly proud. Discovering at screenings that viewers have been genuinely moved and inspired to do something is a incredibly gratifying.
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
JR: Happiness for me is spending time with my kids and wife, especially in nature. I am definitely a city guy too, as I love being surrounded by multicultural experiences. However, my greatest moments of serenity happen when I am in quieter places surrounded by Mother Earth. I’m also at peace when shooting, working on set and interacting with people and dealing with all the production madness. I am truly in my element and quite happy during these times. I enjoy what I do for a living, and I feel blessed and grateful to be able to make a living, which is happiness unto itself!
LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how do you do that every day?
JR: Pursuing this type of social cause work is an important of my journey as a human being for sure, and is a big part of how I am trying to "live the process.”
However, living the process for me is an active pursuit to be present in the smaller moments too. I do yoga as much as possible. I meditate daily—well, whenever possible. And, as a seeker and student of mindfulness, I try and make an effort in my everyday life interactions to transmit positivity and kindness.
Lastly, a big part of living the process for me is continuing to be open to the unexpected. I used to often feel like I was always chasing my tail, exploring all these different paths, but I've come to accept that the diversity of opportunities that emerge throughout life are part of the lesson of impermanence. We are constantly changing and absorbing new information and new ideas. So, in my everyday life, I try and just let this process happen and be at peace with it. There are moments when I am an active part of the process and other times when I'm just along for the ride.
Editor's Note: other interviews you might enjoy either A Moment With Crystal Moselle or A Review With Damon Gameau.