Aspiring director inspired by asparagus

Kirsten Kelly
Kirsten Kelly's film "tells the story of a community ... that still has a tremendous amount of inspiring values and a wonderful, simple quest for family, God and work."

Like many of us, Kirsten Kelly ’95 looks back on her hometown with fondness. In Oceana County, Mich., Kelly grew up in a closely knit community where people know one another well and help one another out in tough times. After a successful career doing theater and directing in Chicago and after graduation from the new Juilliard School of Directing, Kelly has turned her sights back to the hometown that catapulted her into adulthood to capture what made her childhood so special — asparagus.

Oceana County is home to the Asparagus Festival and proudly calls itself the National Asparagus Capital. Two towns, Hart and Shelby, alternate hosting the asparagus fete. The National Asparagus Festival, like Kelly’s birthday, has been an annual celebration for 30 years.

Kelly recalls the asparagus festival with fondness: “It’s been there my whole life. My Dad’s an asparagus farmer, so I grew up picking it and eating it and participating in the parades.” Kelly even lent her talents to an asparagus dance troupe called the Oceana Stalkers. “I was nine years old, and we did this interpretive asparagus-growing dance to the tune of the ‘Great American Hero,’” she laughs, “Yes, there’s footage, and, yes, it will be in the film.”

“The film” to which Kelly refers is her own documentary. Asparagus! [Stalking the American Life] is Kelly’s brainchild and a production of the company — Spargel Productions, LLC — she and her co-producer and co-director, Anne de Mare, founded. Appropriately, spargel is German for asparagus.

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“I’ve always wanted to do a documentary about asparagus and the uniqueness of my county,” says Kelly, “The whole festival and the crazy things people are doing are really fun and about community and not over-corporatized.” Kelly’s role as an insider has also bolstered the film, offering her access to organizations and people she would not normally have. “I’m getting amazing footage,” she says, “people that I grew up with are opening up to me and letting me see different sides of them.”

Kelly’s favorite experience as a documentarian was her hosting of a Mrs. Asparagus tea. Mrs. Asparagus is the queen of the festival — a farmer’s wife who is chosen in the Mrs. Asparagus pageant where she is asked such questions as, “If you had to serve asparagus jello, how would you get people to eat it?” The Mrs. Asparagus tea brought together pageant winners ranging in age from 30 to 80. Kelly was ready to hear the details from these women — the pageantry, the folksy wisdom. What she wasn’t prepared for was the way in which this community honor had changed each woman’s life. Not monarchs of a kitschy community function, these women were the experts on cooking shows, called on to promote the lifestyle of the farmer, honored guests of the governor, spokespeople for an endangered community.

“A majority of Americans buy produce based on price,” says Kelly, “Asparagus in Oceana County is high labor — hand picked. It’s hard to make a living. Community is that much more important.” And it’s community that draws Kelly to the film. “[The film] tells the story of a community very attached and committed to a sense of family — a very poor community that still has a tremendous amount of inspiring values and a wonderful, simple quest for family, God and work.”

Kelly’s role as an insider may help her see this, but there’s a down side, too. “If anything is really horrible in the film, I’m going to get stoned,” she laughs. “Ethically, all I can do is represent the community truthfully and keep that sense in the editing. It’s such a big story and yet so personal for me; I’m constantly trying to figure out when I need objectivity and when it’s beneficial to have my personal attachments.”

Spargel Productions has been putting this film together on a shoestring budget with help coming from many places — including Calvin alums and faculty. The film crew was loaned a van by Scott Meyer’s Meyer Chevrolet, Rick Treur has served as a research consultant and Carl Plantinga of Calvin’s communications arts and sciences department came to the Asparagus Festival to do some auxiliary shooting.

And Kelly is optimistic that this community effort will be noticed in the film world. “We plan to go to Sundance [Film Festival] and bring a busload of folks from Oceana dressed as asparagus if we need to,” she laughs. She’s not joking.

As for the first screening? Expect to see the film debut at the National Asparagus Festival 2004. Kelly says, “We’ll roll out the green carpet and see who comes!”