AFI Docs 2021 Interview: Lydia Cornett on Capturing A Sense of Community in “Bug Farm” and “Party Line”

Before taking her first film class, Lydia Cornett had been on track to play the violin professionally, hailing from a family of musicians and well on her way to studying at a conservatory, and while she wouldn’t look back after picking up a camera, she has found that her training in one art had prepared her well for the other.

“There’s a component of music that’s about shared communal experience,” says Cornett. “It’s a lot about physicality and being in a group and about creating something in real time that can only exist in that moment and I think there is something about that experience that I’m really drawn to observing. I’m always trying to bridge my musical experiences from childhood with this observational way and trying to document these spaces of community and collectivity and joy.”

Cornett’s work is being showcased at AFI Docs, where her versatility and sharp observational eye are on full display in the shorts section. With “Party Line” and “Bug Farm,” the filmmaker has crafted two lovely portraits that capture the unique intersections of various cultures that can happen in America while signaling a potential shift in the country. In “Party Line,” Cornett heads to her local precinct during the run-up to the recent presidential election in “Party Line” to take a look at the impossibly long wait for early voting, bringing out voters of all political persuasions and last-minute lobbyists for their causes and the potential for scuffles to break out of frustration or inflamed passions is about as high as busting out into dancing when bands from the area seize upon the captive audience. The wild scene is rivaled by what the director finds in Florida with a visit to Ovipost in the small town of LaBelle for “Bug Farm,” embedding herself in the lives of the people who work there and have found opportunity to use what they know from other industries to apply it to cultivating insects for consumption, a business that draws unique personalities to say the least.

The symbiosis of social strata and varied attitudes towards the task at hand that are present in every frame of one of Cornett’s films do in fact remind of a conductor presiding over a symphony orchestra where those playing various instruments come together as a whole with a sound as mellifluous as it is deep. Between the two AFI Docs selections, which are online this week as part of the virtual fest, and “Teaching in Quarantine,” another short made during the pandemic checking in on how various instructors’ routines were thrown for a loop by the COVID-19 outbreak, the filmmaker has been able to make some sense of these strange times and she recently took the time to speak about where she’s decided to train her lens of late and why.

How did “Party Line” come about?

I moved to Columbus, Ohio in August of 2020, right in the middle of the pandemic in a very charged political climate in the midst of the west coast being on fire, so [it was] a really crazy time. In some ways, the film came out of just a very personal and visceral reaction to being in line, having to wait three hours of cast an early vote because there is only one early voting site in my county in this new state that I’m calling my home and really feeling that this situation was pretty unbelievable for so many reasons. People from all walks of life, from different parts of the county – from Columbus to farms way outside — were coming in to make sure votes were counted because this county, as many counties did in this time, was facing all of these allegations of fraud ballots and other various attacks, and I really felt this urge to want to come back and observe those who are waiting in line with me and document this moment that I never felt could happen in the same way again.

I imagine you didn’t have too many expectations about the day, but were there things you knew you wanted to capture?

Usually when I’m working on a project, [it involves] a long relationship with the character or extensive research, but this was my most “I’m just going to show up and see what this feels like and what happens” [film]. I was one of many cameras in the space because there were many news crews that were more interested in the more [traditional news] interview approach, just getting shots of the vastness of the line, so I could really just fit right in as a fly on the wall and talk to people casually about what I was doing. I could not predict all what I documented because I just knew there was this collective energy that I wanted to film, but the specifics of the film I ended up getting were just coincidental and me reacting in real time.

The experience of coming back [from] filming was actually really moving because when I looked at my footage, I felt I captured these scraps of representatives at work in many ways. Instead of the collective exhaustion that I think a lot of us are feeling in 2021 after the election, as we’re coming out of this pandemic, there was no exhaustion or negativity in that line. It was so much energy about soliciting votes and really trying to revitalize and reenergize [during] a world-changing election season. I was pretty positively moved by witnessing those moments and I tried to create this narrative about the ways that an unconventional public space can take these forms and contradictions can arise, but there’s still this unlikely community that’s formed by this event.

That seems to be a natural segueway to talking about “Bug Farm” where you find another interesting collection of people. How did that come about?

With “Bug Farm,” I’ve always been fascinated by insects and their resilience as a species and their value in the world’s ecological balance. There’s this book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, which was really influential for a lot of reasons, but she really outlines this history of industrial agriculture versus insects as these two opposing forces where insects were just seen as the species that is ruining our agricultural industry and [how] insects have been targeted and then tried to be eradicated through various chemical forms, which ended up having far worse effects for the rest of the biosphere. I was really interested in that when I was researching insect farms because to me, [they] were this really new way of thinking about insects. Instead of being a threat, they were really seen as this environmental solution, as alternative protein, so I was just curious about this niche industry, which in my research was written up as everything from this boutique, edible delicacy industry to sort of this Silicon Valley/New Agey thing. I wanted to get a lot deeper into a real farm where people on the ground were working with insects every day, so I could really understand what was happening here and what did this work mean to the people who were working with crickets, cockroaches and super worms.

I connected with Ovipost, the farm that’s in the film because I talked to a lot of different insect farms and this one was majority women-operated. I was interested in what is the connection between gender or even personal identity and working with insects, and I was really then pretty amazed when we got to the farm and there was a really strong connection between a maternal form of care and the work that happens every day at this farm. Members of the farm team were very different from one another, but all able to extend this form of care to the bugs they were working with every day and from witnessing that, that really became the central focus of the film.

Visually, this is so striking and I imagine standing there, it might not have been all that interesting to look at. What was it like figuring out the framing on this?

Because it’s a short film, and there are four primary characters that I’m trying to highlight, I knew that the observational storytelling method, which is what my past work has been grounded in might need to be accompanied with something else because I really wanted to make sure that you do get a sense of the characters and their motivations and their disparate backgrounds. We shot observationally for one or two days and it wasn’t really working. As amazing as [observational filming] can be as a storytelling structure, sometimes you can feel really distant from the people you’re seeing on screen, so we moved towards doing more interviews and then also falling in love with these macro shots of the bugs in close detail. Those macro shots became these almost musical interludes with voiceover, [which] were a totally new stylistic choice for me that in tandem with the observational scenes in the film were really important to getting into some of the deeper emotions and motivations of Maria and Tequila and Porcha and Dorinda. It was really a way to get their voices to shine through in a different way than the scenes in which we’re just observing them.

Was there actually a bit of a breakthrough moment when you started thinking something special’s happening here?

Since we shot this pre-pandemic, it was really when we spent significant amounts of time with the four main characters that ended up being the primary voices in the film. When Tequila would tell us about her automation technology for the bugs and how she’s trying to use the experience and expertise of farmhands who have worked with livestock and with insects for years and trying to inform her own practice of technology manufacturing with this knowledge, something about the intersection of experienced farmers and agricultural practices that are very longstanding combined with this technology side so that farm production and insect production can be optimized was really interesting. Then there are also these really amazing character moments with Dorinda and Porscha, who [both] really enjoy just performing for the camera, almost doing like a standup routine. There were just really amazing moments with them, and there is something really interesting here, both in their perspectives and personalities of these individuals, but also in how they’re all coming together in this really unique way.

One of my favorite scenes is when neither one of them changes out of their native language, but the conversation just flows without a break.

Yeah, there’s these ways that everyone on the farm checks up on one another, even if it’s a little awkward sometimes or even if there’s a small language barrier. There’s this way that everybody is really interested in connecting and making sure people are okay and doing well.

What’s it like getting both of these out into the world?

I really thought it was a mistake when they e-mailed me, so it’s a really cool way to connect with a festival so meaningfully. [laughs] And I think “Bug Farm” was something that feels like I made so long ago, but to be able to pair it with “Party Line,” which I shot myself in two days, it was a much different scale, [which] is really exciting. It gives me some confidence for future work and makes me hopeful that the documentary world is open to different forms of storytelling and different scales of production, so it’s definitely an honor to be able to share both of these films with the world right now.

“Bug Farm” and “Party Line” are available to watch online as part of Shorts Program 1 and Shorts Program 5, respectively, at AFI Docs, running from June 23rd through 27th.