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Vol. LXIII, No. 12
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
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“Making Connections Around The World:” Halpern’s Farming Journey Captured In Film

Dilshanie Perera

Although he brought a video camera with him when he set off in 2007 to work on organic farms across the globe, Josh Halpern didn’t intend to make a film about his nine-month journey. “But I got such beautiful images, and met such amazing people who had all this wisdom,” he remarked. “My sense is that I received a number of gifts on this trip, and I wanted to share those.”

His film, WWOOF ‘n Wander, made its debut at the library’s Environmental Film Festival, and will be screened this weekend at the Whole Earth Center, where Mr. Halpern is also the produce department coordinator.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, is an organization that connects organic farmers in about 90 countries with volunteers willing to help in exchange for food and lodging. Mr. Halpern began his trip in Hawaii, before going to the Philippines, Thailand, and India.

Born and raised in Princeton, Mr. Halpern graduated from Princeton High School in 2000, and from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a degree in film in 2004. He was inspired to embark on his organic farming adventure after hearing about the experience of a friend (“it just struck me as so cool and brave”), and after having worked in the produce department at Whole Earth and developing close relationships with local farmers in the area.

“Just raising an awareness of where your food comes from is so critical right now,” Mr. Halpern said, noting that prior to going on the trip, he had never planted anything before.

“My father’s garden was my original introduction to the outside world,” Mr. Halpern explained, adding that his parents “had always taught me to appreciate nature and experience it for what it was.”

“In certain ways, the conventions of society and culture come and go, but nature and the earth fundamentally exist, and that’s one of the things that was so palpably true when I was traveling, that these were ancient relationships with the earth that these farmers were cultivating,” he reflected.

His first destination was Hawaii, where he spent the summer working on three different farms, tended to animals, broke his wrist after falling out of a tree, and befriended the farmers he lived with. From there, Mr. Halpern became the first volunteer to work at the first WWOOF farm in the Philippines.

Choosing locations was motivated in part by a desire to visit sacred spaces around the world, and to explore other cultures’ views about death. Much of Mr. Halpern’s early work in film had explored his family’s reaction to the death of his father, Princeton University professor Manfred Halpern, whose magnum opus on transformation will be published later this year.

His travels took him to Batad, in the Philippines, which features monumental rice terraces that have been “in continual use for the past 2,000 years” and are also a UNESCO world heritage site; to Sagada, also in the Philippines, where coffins hang from limestone cliffs; to the cremation ghats at Varanasi in India.

“To see that there are different relationships, not only with the land and this life-giving force, but also with the cycles of life, and with death —  not being afraid of it, and being genuinely committed to furthering one’s relationship with these forces — was really very moving,” Mr. Halpern observed.

Mentioning that chance played a role in shaping the experience, Mr. Halpern said that even when it didn’t seem likely, he would always catch the plane leaving for his next destination. “I kept making it to the next place, and catching the plane even though I was scrambling, and taking these trains, and buses, and jitneys, and tuk-tuks, and all these forms of transportation. You just have to keep going and see what happens.”

The screening of WWOOF ‘n Wander will take place this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Whole Earth Center at 360 Nassau Street, and is free and open to the public. It will feature a question-and-answer session with Mr. Halpern, and free local organic popcorn. Call (609) 924-7429 to reserve a seat.

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