Although the subject of “Plant Heist” might seem unusual, Gabriel and Chelsi de Cuba could relate to its main subjects in on fundamental way when they were on the lookout for something worthwhile enough to take time away from their work in the commercial world, not unlike the poachers in California who seek out succulents that could fetch big bucks in the international market.
“We were hungry for a creative pursuit and had been brainstorming on ideas of what we could do together as a project,” says Chelsi de Cuba, who teamed with her brother for the production company Sibling Rivalry Creative. “And then this one came as a news article. And [Gabriel] was very excited about it, and I was like, “Let’s do it. What do we have to lose? Let’s try.”
While that attitude has led to some arrests on the California coast for the poachers, it has led to an arresting new short from the brother-sister directing duo, making its premiere this week at SXSW and detailing how demand in China, with its growing middle class and requisite desire for decorative plants to place in their living rooms, has created a thriving black market for dudleya farinosa, a once-thriving perennial in Mendocino that’s become scarce in recent years. The trafficking of these succulents may seem like a victimless crime, but “Plant Heist” reveals its profound ecological and economical implications as it traces the investigation of California Department of Fish and Wildlife Officer Pat Freeling to collar the criminals responsible and shines a light into the international network that facilitates the transfer of the plants.
As this fascinating short film premieres at SXSW – and available here for a limited time as part of the Support the Shorts 2021 platform presented by Mailchimp and Oscilloscope, the de Cubas spoke about finding such suspense in an arcane police pursuit, filming the farinosa and making their documentary debut.
How did this come about?
Gabriel de Cuba: Georgia Pepe, an associate producer on this and a friend of mine, sent me an article in The New Yorker [because] we both like plants, and we talk about it often. We have our little plant collections, and she sent me the article about plant poaching up here in Northern California and I was just like, “This is the wildest thing I’ve heard of in a while and it’s right in our backyard.” Mendocino is not that far away from us, and when I was reading the article, I could see what was going on and from there, I just had a gut feeling, “This is a story that deserves visual storytelling. It just deserves it.” I searched [to see if anything else had made such a film], and [discovered], “No one has tried this yet. We should really attempt to reach out to these people and see if they’ll sit down just for an interview.” At that point, we had no idea how long it would be. Initially, I was like, “We’ll just do a five minute piece on something that’s interesting.” But of course, once you start to talk to people, you get way more information, and it starts leading you down different holes.
It appears this started out with Pat Freeling. What was it like getting him onboard?
Chelsi de Cuba: It was a lot of back-and-forth with [Patrick Foy], the captain of California Fish and Wildlife in the beginning, trying to get the approval to interview. He was hesitant of how we were going to do the documentary, so it was about building trust, and once we got the okay to do that first interview, we met Pat, [who is] just charismatic and loves his job and protect nature. I remember on the car ride home we were just so excited because he was so willing to help get this story out and when that happens, it just propels everything forward. He gave us some other people we should talk to, and they all knew who each other was from being in this circle in the news, so that really propelled everything forward.
All of these people take this really seriously, but is there at least a little sense of humor inherent to this when your making a true crime story about plants?
Chelsi de Cuba: Yeah, most people just didn’t know this is happening. They’re just like, “What?” So it’s just always this big surprise, like, “That exists?” We think about wildlife poaching, but plants are very much wildlife and they’re being poached all over the world, so we really wanted to bring out the bigger picture that this is happening everywhere. This is just one small case, but there’s so many other cases of this happening and what are the effects of that? We don’t know, but we need to pay attention.
Did the process of filming actually clue you into how this happened? You put the audience in the shoes of the poachers, going over the same land.
Gabriel de Cuba: Yeah, definitely. Looking for the plants, the only ones that were available to shoot were oftentimes the most inaccessible, high on cliffs and growing in areas where you would have to be a professional climber to reach to. And we knew from the interviews that like, “Hey, these things were everywhere. They’re not that hard to get to.” So a lot of the easy ones to get to had been poached by the thousands and while we’re walking those trails, searching for dudleya, we wanted to find the biggest plants, and oftentimes all we could find were just small little ones here and there. All the experts told us they used to just cover everything and they take a long time to grow back. So that was eyeopening for us, trying to find these B-roll shots and [realizing it would take] years and years to get to the place where they used to be at when they once were super common.
If they were hard to find, how did you end up with the hero shot of the dudleya that’s used throughout the film?
Chelsi de Cuba: We weren’t able to get them in the wild, but luckily the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum had some rescue dudleya that they had from some of these poachings and they let us use one to shoot. We were trying to make it a character where the dudleya is the part of the story, and we wanted to shoot it in the studio. We had all kinds of different ideas of how that might happen. Some [of those ideas] we trashed and we eventually went with [it presented on] a lazy Susan, just trying to show this plant in the most beautiful way we could outside of nature.
For Gabriel, who I understand moved to California fairly recently, was this an interesting way to explore the state?
Gabriel de Cuba: It certainly is, and I read that article, but I was already exposed to dudleya from exploring California when I first got here. It was surprising to me when I first saw them on the cliff when I was hiking, seeing this beautiful succulent that was flowering and hummingbirds feeding off it. I [thought], “Oh, I had no idea that these giant beautiful, red and blue succulents grew on the cliffs out here.” So I took a bunch of photos and I still have those, but almost a year later, I read that article, and it led us to this. Now, I can’t not hike near the coast and notice every little dudleya I see, and be like, “Oh yeah, there’s one over there. Yeah, they’re doing good. They’re coming back.”
Chelsi de Cuba: We found some [when] we were hiking together actually on Mount Tam and we were so surprised.
Gabriel de Cuba: Yeah, we found some rare dudleya cymosa pumila, which are even more rare than the farinosa, so we know a lot more about dudleya than we ever expected, especially talking to Stephen McCain, the professor, the world’s expert. He had so much more we couldn’t fit in the documentary. He is just an encyclopedia of dudleya and succulents in general.
What was it like finding out you got into SXSW with this?
Chelsi de Cuba: We were both so surprised. I remember I called Gabriel because I had opened my e-mail and he was just like, “I’m speechless.” He asked me, “What?” three times, like, “Are you serious?” So it was very emotional and just a lot of hard work that we had put into this, and it added another element to the whole thing of trying to get through post-production while COVID had just hit, and we had tried to do a Kickstarter that we had to nix because we’re like, “Nobody’s going to donate to a small documentary right now,” So it was complete chaos and after getting that e-mail, it was just this overwhelming feeling of, “We did it. We did it.”
Gabriel de Cuba: Yeah, when we were submitting to film festivals, we were like, “Yeah, South by Southwest, that’s our long shot. But let’s try.” I had a little bit of doubt, and I would agree with Chelsi that COVID did affect the way we felt about post because it was like, “Okay, here’s our small documentary about plants, and something big is happening here. It’s going to be difficult to get people’s attention on this small little subject again.” I think documentary filmmakers feel sometimes, especially when it’s just a passion project and you spend a lot of time on it, when a big world event happens, it does give you pause, and you try to think, “Okay, well, is this the wrong timing?” So getting the news from South by Southwest was extremely emotional because it quelled all those feelings and we were just like, “Okay, all right, good. We weren’t too late. And people do want to watch something like this.”