I met producer/director Aaron Woolf in the summer of 2014 at the Grange Hall in Whallonsburg, New York. Our daughter was in a musical there, and Aaron and his wife Carolyn had brought their five-year-old to see the performance. In the small world department, Carolyn approached my wife with the words, “Miss Hoover?”, and we discovered that she had been Sarah’s 7th grade student 25 years before. That summer Aaron was running for Congress in the 21st District of New York, which stretches from Saratoga Springs to the Canadian border. A political newcomer, Aaron had spent a good portion of his life in the Adirondacks, whose small towns and wilderness make up most of the District.
He cares deeply about the people there—their shuttered mills and hard scrabble farms, the hikers and the well-to-do residents with houses that ring the clear water lakes and the folks whose trailers tuck into the mountain hollows and make the counties some of the poorest in New York State. In the 1970’s, Aaron’s parents bought their own tumble down camp in Elizabethtown, the seat of Essex County, and some of his happiest memories are of scaling the rocks on the place, building forts with whatever he could find, and tramping through the snow. In between movie projects, Aaron opened a grocery store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and a later restaurant in Elizabethtown, and his family somehow weaves both communities into their home.
Aaron spent his early years in Roland Park, and when he was old enough, he would skip out of Gilman School early and head downtown—looking for adventures and new places and people to meet. He began making documentaries not long after he finished Middlebury College, drawn to stories ranging from beauty pageants in Venezuela to the global face of human trafficking. His films are amiable and big hearted, even as they invite the viewer to face some significant current problem and get to know the individuals who struggle through it. His works provoke concern and conversation and further inquiry.
He wrote and directed King Corn in 2007. The film follows Ian Cheney and his best friend, Curt Ellis, on a yearlong odyssey to understand where our food comes from… by growing it. In what The Washington Post calls “Required viewing for anyone planning to visit a supermarket, fast-food joint, or their own refrigerator,” the city-slickers learn to drive a combine, cash in on government subsidies, and homebrew high-fructose corn syrup. The film’s Peabody-winning findings, shared with theatergoers in 60 cities and in a PBS national broadcast, may change the way audiences eat. Following the success of King Corn, Aaron and his partners created Big River, which follows the journey of water flowing from those big farms, the pesticides the run-off carries, and the implications for life downstream.
Aaron will join us at Redeemer next Wednesday (5/29), from 7:00-9:30 p.m., using his films and the power of story to shed light on the human dimension of some of today’s most important policy decisions. Bring a bag of popcorn and join me in welcoming Aaron back to Baltimore.