Chris J. Russo, Chiah Rodriques and Sue Taylor on Growing Awareness in “Lady Buds”

On giving the female pioneers of the cannabis industry in California their due.

When California voters passed Proposition 64 in 2016, making cannabis legal 20 years after it had been approved for medical use, it gave rise to a gold rush in the state not seen since the 1850s and while family farms in the Central and Northern parts of the state that had long tended to marijuana crops undercover were contemplating the implications of doing business openly, never having to look over their shoulders again for DEA agents, they had a new adversary to contend with in deep-pocketed businesses looking to dominate the burgeoning market as it took shape. Among those seeing opportunity was the filmmaker Chris J. Russo, although unlike others, she wasn’t looking towards the green in whatever form it took, but rather in the direction of the women that had been cracking open the door for years while others were now rushing to gain a foothold in the industry.

“Lady Buds,” premiering this week at Hot Docs, takes audiences to Humboldt County where the financial implications of a corporate takeover of an industry that was largely built on the backs of mom-and-pop farms is staggering, but more devastating is what it means for the culture that has grown alongside the plant, cultivated by hippies with a strong belief in community and wellness and suddenly finding it all unsustainable when competition that can afford to take early losses drives down prices and quality to capture market share. As Russo captures by following six women in the industry, it’s an issue of equity as much as economics when cannabis has provided a living for the marginalized and often provided a form of medical care when either the costs of health insurance were out of reach or simply more effective than commonly prescribed medication.

Through the stories of farmer Chiah Rodriques, marketing maven Karyn Wagner, activist Felicia Carbajal and entrepreneurs Pearl Moon and Dr. Joyce Centofanti, known in Humboldt as “The Bud Sisters,” and Sue Taylor, who is put through the ringer when trying to open a dispensary in Berkeley, “Lady Buds” engagingly outlines an ecosystem that was given as much care and consideration over the years as the crops themselves by those who saw the early potential in cannabis and didn’t wait for the world to come around on it only to see it upended by instantly being thrust into the mainstream. With the film now making its way into the world itself, Russo, Rodriques and Taylor spoke about the years they put into the project, navigating an industry that’s still very much evolving and capturing this unique moment in time.

How did this come about?

Chris J. Russo: Back in 2016, I’m in California and I saw that legalization was on the ballot in [the state] and I started to look into it and noticed that there was a lot of women — entrepreneurs, operators, cultivators — in this space and I was really intrigued as a filmmaker because it’s kind of unprecedented in any other market. I was pleasantly surprised to find that, so I interviewed a bunch of women, [asking] “Wow, why is this industry drawing so many women?” And it just unfolded from there. The women started to invite me to their farms, and the story built out to the one year leading up to legalization in California, and then the one year following legalization in the lives of these women who were coming out of the shadows to enter the legal regulated market.

When this industry has operated under the radar for so long, is it an easy decision to let a filmmaker in?

Chiah Rodriques: It was a little bit scary at first, especially because like you referenced we’ve been in the shadows for so long, basically hiding what we’ve been doing, so it was a little nerve-wracking at first to allow people not so much into the garden, but more just the filming itself, knowing that at some day we might be on TV and everybody’s living rooms across the United States and across the world.

Sue Taylor: Not for me, because I work with seniors in medical cannabis, so I was always out in the open what I did. Inviting Chris and the cameras into my home, the only people I protected were the people around me who weren’t as comfortable with it, but everybody was quite open to it. And I was open to it because it was such a male-dominated industry and here was an opportunity inviting women into this industry to create a balance when [in terms of coverage] it was out of balance — all males, and all white males at that — so this was a great opportunity that Chris was so intuitively capitalized on.

Chris, how early did you get a jump on this?

Chris J. Russo: I started filming early 2017, and how it worked in California was they weren’t going to enact the law for another year, so I was filming the entire year with all of the women in the film prior to actually the state recognizing it and their businesses were ramping up to be ready for the onslaught of retail and being ready to open the businesses. Everybody was very optimistic at the beginning, and then once the legalization actually turned on and big businesses were coming in, and changes starting to happen with the regulations, that’s when things started to get more challenging and I captured two to three years of this quite historic moment that was unfolding in California.

And I knew that [covering] the bureaucracy and the laws was going to be important, but what I was really interested in was the intimate stories of the women who were following their dreams and putting everything on the line, their livelihood, to come out in public about cannabis. That was more fascinating to me, and these women will attest that they were very generous with me with their time, inviting me into their homes, telling the story from a very personal angle, which I really appreciated. I feel like most people can relate to personal stories versus it being a [dry] documentation of the laws and legalization.

Sue Taylor: Chris captured us going through the process to get a legal permit, but one thing that Chris got, and that’s exactly what I wanted, was to see the challenges that going through the progress of the bureaucracy being a woman and being a person of color — to see the struggles that we trying to do the right thing and those challenges still were there with us every step of the way. And then Chris also captured us as real people. She came into my home, she came to my son’s home. Sometimes she’d film and I didn’t want her to film. I said, “Go away, go away.” [laughs] And she’d sneak around with a camera and capture stuff, but the film has to be told. Everybody has to see it and we have to be portrayed as real-life people with children and grandchildren, just trying to do the right thing.

Chiah, was there ever a time that you were actually hopeful about what the legalization laws would bring? As an outsider, it was surprising to me just how quickly big business swooped in when I thought the farms doing this for years would have a head start.

Chiah Rodriques: We were really excited about Prop. 64 passing legalization happening in California, like, “Yay, we’re going to be finally legitimate.” We were even excited about paying taxes [because] it was like, “Yay, we get to really do this for real.” But pretty quickly, it was apparent that this wasn’t going to go down easy and we were going to have a hard time competing with big business and it’s been really challenging for other farms, seeing people getting stuck in the quagmire of paperwork. And we were one of the lucky farms, so we felt hopeful from the beginning, “Okay, we got this dialed in, we’re already on our way, and things were going really good,” but it was a mixed bag. [What] we’re always trying to promote is that the small heritage farmers that have been here creating this legacy for 40 or 50 years in California, especially in the Emerald Triangle, and really deserve a platform. They really deserve a voice, and it’s time to recognize them for the industry that they have built for all these years.

Chris, was there any point where something happens that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Chris J. Russo: It really became a story about big business versus small business. I had a relationship with cannabis for my whole life, so it was intriguing for me to come into the community, to meet these people behind the Redwood Curtain up in NorCal and go to these farms and demystify what the plant really is. That was exciting to me, but what it really turned out to be it was [this] corporate takeover of what used to be a counter-culture community of outliers. I know that sounds dramatic, but that’s really what this was. It was like the regulations were set up to pretend to protect the people that were in the space for decades, but they ultimately were rewritten and invited big business in, and I’m not saying that there’s no room for capitalism in our society, but I do feel like the regulations came at a huge cost for the people that wanted to do the right thing and be a part of society and live their lives out in the open, and enter the legal market. So the biggest surprise was how the people in the legacy community of cannabis were treated and how capitalism really overtook a culture that was thriving in small towns for years. I found that interesting and sad. But the story’s not over.

Still, you’ve gotten to the finish line with this film. What’s it like putting it out into the world?

Chris J. Russo: I’m pinching myself, it’s amazing. I’ve been working on this film for four years, as Chiah and Sue will attest to, and you’d think making a documentary is easy because you have a camera, and you can just start filming. You can greenlight yourself, but then I realized, “Oh, this is really hard. We’ve got to raise money, I’ve got to find people to help me travel, I’ve got to edit it,” so I’m thrilled to be here and really excited for everyone to see the film. The fact that all of Canada will be able to see the film [this week] is unbelievable.

Chiah and Sue, is it interesting for you to see your lives reflected on screen like this for what were some obviously eventful years?

Chiah Rodriques: Yeah, it’s quite interesting. As you’ll see, it gets really intimate and there was a lot there and a lot of filming, so it was really impressive to see it all condensed down into the main points. It’s really wonderful.

Sue Taylor: We gathered at my son’s house to watch it, and [Chris] was able to pull together the meaningfulness of my entire journey because I didn’t come from the cannabis sector — [I started out as a] Catholic school principal and [then served on the] Commission on Aging for Alameda County, so to see the journey that my family and I have gone through for those five years — and it’s actually 12 for us [since] we began long before she started filming us, it was just like, “Wow, did she capture every moment of it?” And we got up and we danced. When she really captured it, I felt it was a sign of almost completion because she got it from beginning to end in that permitting process. So we were just delighted it when we saw the film. We just pulled it all together and said, “We forgot that, oh my God.”

“Lady Buds” will screen virtually at Hot Docs, geoblocked to Canada, from April 29th to May 9th.

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