October 13, 2016
Associate Professor Bryan Sebok and his students serve up a new film about Portland’s lively food truck culture.
In 2013, Bryan Sebok set himself an audacious goal: to eat at a different food truck every day for one year.
Over the past decade, mobile food establishments—often operated out of trucks or trailers and popularly called food carts—have become ubiquitous in Portland. Sebok, a recent transplant from Texas, wanted to know why.
“I had just moved from Austin, where the food truck scene was also exploding,” Sebok says. “I knew food trucks were cool and offered people something different than the restaurant experience. So I just threw myself in.”
At the time, Sebok, associate professor of rhetoric and media studies, was about to embark on his first sabbatical since joining Lewis & Clark in 2009. He was looking for a project that would complement his academic interests and also involve the college community. So he began recruiting students to help him document his culinary quest.
Three years later, the project is finally finished. Food Truck: The Movie premiered in July at the Madrid International Film Festival. In the end, two dozen Lewis & Clark students were involved in the production of the 90-minute film, which won the prize for best narrative documentary.
Sebok is a film buff and a scholar of the industry—his office in John R. Howard Hall is cluttered with movie posters, copies of Variety, a film reel, and a set lamp. But he’s also an experienced filmmaker. He honed his production skills making low-budget, behind-the-scenes documentaries about feature films. Prior to joining the Lewis & Clark faculty, he ran the University of Texas’ Film Institute, which trains students to make feature films on a shoestring. He produced the institute’s first narrative feature, Dance with the One, which premiered at Austin’s South by Southwest festival in 2010.
Sebok has shared his experience and enthusiasm with students through courses on documentary filmmaking, cinema studies, and digital media. He’s also helped place students in internships at the Cannes International Film Festival. But Food Truck was a new opportunity for Lewis & Clark students: a chance to have a hand in making a feature-length documentary.
Sebok recruited a crew of undergraduate interns from his rhetoric and media studies courses to work on the project. “I structured the production like a class,” he says. “Every day in the field, we would talk about what we would do, why we would be doing it, and how it would fit into the broader structure of the film. We would also discuss any ethical questions posed by that day’s filming—how we would manage our presence relative to the businesses we were filming and what our responsibilities would be to them.”
As part of the project, students gained skills in project coordination, social media marketing, filming techniques, interviewing, and storytelling. Many have been able to parlay these skills into careers after Lewis & Clark (see related article on page 27).
“I teach documentary at Lewis & Clark, so it was really helpful to interact with students who were familiar with my class work,” Sebok says. “They came to the project with an understanding of the choices filmmakers need to make: How do you structure content? What’s the perspective of the film? How is it going to present either an argument or a personal perspective?”
Xander Blair B.A. ’13 was part of the initial group of student interns who joined the production, working the camera, scheduling interviews, and scouting business owners to be featured. “Bryan is a good balance of filmmaker and educator,” he says. “If a student wants to try something, he’s excited to let them run with it. He brought in people he wanted to see learn and grow as filmmakers.”
Alia Al-Hatlani B.A.’14 worked on the camera crew and later took on social media and graphic design duties for the production. “Being around someone like Bryan who’s genuinely enthusiastic about the project really makes a big difference,” she says. “There was always a sense of camaraderie.”
At first, the production focused on Sebok’s daily-meal mission, visiting food trucks and interviewing their owners. “Our usual setup was for Bryan to have the microphone and a student to run the camera and carry the gear,” Blair says. “We filmed all over the city. We must have spent two weeks in downtown alone, shooting at the huge food cart lot there.”
And while Sebok did plenty of eating—he wound up visiting more than 400 carts in the course of his research—he always knew there would be more to the film than his conversations across the window with food truck owners.
Getting the Right Mix
In terms of subject matter, the timing for the film was right. Food trucks—and street food, in general—have become an international phenomenon in the past decade, thanks to media-savvy entrepreneurs like Los Angeles’ Roy Choi and TV series like Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race. Chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants have jumped in the game, and slick, high-end food trucks now draw crowds in Paris and Madrid.
Then there is the cachet of Portland itself. The city, home to more than 500 food trucks, is renowned as a global capital of street food culture. Food trucks have been present in downtown Portland since at least the early 1990s, but they started to proliferate in the mid-2000s, fanning out from the city’s center to the entire region. Unlike many American cities where street food vendors are required to stay on the move, Portland allows them to operate from trailers parked in one spot indefinitely. As a result, they often cluster together in parking lots, referred to locally as “pods,” many of which have covered seating and other amenities for customers.
“It was always going to be more than me eating,” Sebok says. “I started interviewing experts—not just people who are food truck owners, but also real estate developers who had developed pods, sociologists who study food, urban planners, city officials, and food cart bloggers and authors.”
The thing about shooting a documentary is you’re finding the story while you’re in it. Even if you have an outline or an idea in your head, it’s really difficult to stick to that, because you’re always learning new things.Alia Al-Hatlani B.A.’14
Sebok and his crew also explored the legal and economic reasons food trucks have flourished in some cities and not in others. For example, he and intern Alex Schwartz B.A. ’14 traveled to Washington, D.C., to connect with a group of lawyers at the Institute for Justice who work to identify and challenge protectionist laws that keep street food vendors from operating in cities across the country. Funds for the growing project came from one of Lewis & Clark’s Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grants, from the college’s Faculty Development Program, and from private investors.
As filming progressed, more members of the Lewis & Clark community became involved. In addition to filming, students helped with copyright clearances, music rights, and postproduction. Dan Balmer B.A. ’80, instructor of jazz guitar at Lewis & Clark, assembled a group of musicians for a daylong jam session to record the movie’s upbeat, jazzy score. “We wanted to give the score as much variety and as many moods as we could,” Balmer says.
As the team’s outreach grew, so did the vision of the film. “The thing about shooting a documentary is you’re finding the story while you’re in it,” says Al-Hatlani. “Even if you have an outline or an idea in your head, it’s really difficult to stick to that, because you’re always learning new things.”
In the end, Food Truck argues that mobile food is changing urban livability, culinary culture, and access to low-cost, high-quality foods. It also highlights the importance of diversity in food truck culture.
“We have immigrants, we have aspiring chefs who are formally trained but don’t yet have the resources to open a restaurant, and then we have entrepreneurs who think in terms of business,” Sebok says. “The focus of the film is on how food trucks represent the American Dream in practice.”
Sebok and his crew of students and film professionals—including an editor and an animator—assembled a finished cut of the movie in 2016. In early June, he presented a screening at Rose City Food Park, a cart pod in Northeast Portland that’s featured in Food Truck, to raise funds for the documentary’s distribution.
“It was so much fun,” says Al-Hatlani. “Nothing compares to the feeling of getting together with a group of people you’ve worked really hard with and actually seeing the product on the screen. It’s incredible.”
The filmmakers weren’t the only ones feeling a sense of accomplishment. Ramy Armans, an Egyptian-born former retail manager who appears in the documentary, started Ramy’s Lamb Shack in 2013, expanded his business to multiple trucks, and is now working on opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant. He was one of several food truck owners who attended the screening.
“The first time I saw some of the footage, I almost had tears in my eyes. It showcased my business since almost day one,” Armans says. “Bryan was so good at showing how we started. I actually had hair! I was skinny and good-looking! What happened?”
For Sebok, the work is far from over. He traveled to Spain in July for the premiere of Food Truck, and is applying to more domestic and international film festivals. And as the story of the documentary continues, it will surely involve more members of the Lewis & Clark and Portland community.
“The question I had when I started this project was, ‘How do I make a real-world film that gives students a substantive role in the process and honors their collaborative labor?’” Sebok says. “I think we’ve been successful in engaging students and business owners locally in the hope of having them represent something about the collaborative spirit of the [Portland] community more broadly.”
—Ben Waterhouse B.A. ’06 is a Portland writer, editor, and frequent food truck customer.
Many of the interns who worked on Food Truck have moved on to their own careers in film, television, and multimedia:
Sofia Alicastro B.A. ’14 interned in the marketing department at the Cannes International Film Festival and has gone on to work in marketing and production at the Sundance, Tribeca, Mill Valley, and Seattle International festivals, as well as at Netflix.
Alia Al-Hatlani B.A. ’14 worked in production on a television pilot filmed in Portland, then moved to the fifth season of the sketch comedy series Portlandia, where she worked in the art department. She now does social media and graphics work for a Seattle fashion designer.
Xander Blair B.A. ’13 pursued freelance video production for local businesses and nonprofits after graduation and now works in production and logistics for Polara, a professional photography studio in Portland’s inner east side.
Frances Li B.A. ’13 is a motion producer at Capture This NYC, a video and photography studio in New York specializing in fashion industry work.
Sam Kleiner B.A. ’15 interned at the Cannes Film Festival, the Weinstein Company, and Magnolia Pictures. He is now a marketing and publicity coordinator at Cinetic Media, a film finance, sales, distribution, talent management, and corporate consulting agency in New York.
Several Lewis & Clark alumni are active in Portland’s mobile food scene:
Chris Bailey B.A. ’08 opened Para Llevar, a business offering deliveries of pozole—a Mexican stew of pork and hominy—by bicycle, after participating in Lewis & Clark’s entrepreneurship program. He developed a recipe that he’s now selling as a shelf-stable, meatless soup starter under the brand Pozole to the People at New Seasons Market and other Portland-area grocery stores. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if not for the experience with the bike cart,” Bailey says. “Our goal is to get pozole to all the people!”
Adam Dunn B.A. ’07 is co-owner of Savor Soup House, a food truck serving soups and sandwiches in downtown Portland.
Patrick Fleming B.A. ’92 and Brannon Riceci B.A. ’92, owners of Portland’s Boke Bowl ramen restaurants, recently opened Boke Dokie, a downtown food cart serving fried chicken sandwiches. “It was driven by our customers’ reaction to our fried chicken,” Riceci says. “The response has been so positive that Pat decided to start messing around with other ways to serve it. Most folks love sandwiches, and Pat refined ours for several months before we decided to give it a try. We were shopping for a small space when the opportunity to buy our cart came along, so we decided to go that route rather than take on a bricks-and-mortar expansion with the associated expenses.”