Tracing Tea : Director, students share across the globe

Photo Courtesy Of Sophie Ibbotson/Tracing TeaField-workers, above, pick tea leaves at the Glenburn Tea Estate in Darjeeling, India.

Max Lovell-Hoare is on what can only be described as the world’s most ambitious field trip.

The documentary film director and his crew will drive from Darjeeling, India, to London, England, through 18 Asian and European countries, to investigate tea, travel and culture, and they are taking a seventh-grade class from Mountain View’s Graham Middle School along for the ride.

Rest easy, parents, you didn’t forget to sign the permission slips.

The students are not actually going to India or Kyrgyzstan or anywhere else along the route.This is a virtual voyage.

Physically taking a class along is about the only thing that Lovell-Hoare is not trying with “Tracing Tea,” a project that, he admitted with a grin, “you’d have to be truly mad to do in the first place.”

Lovell-Hoare and his team are sharing material along every step of their journey with students in teacher Tom Sayer’s social studies classes at Graham. The students will not just hear about other cultures this year, they will hear from them, by way of movie clips, photos and interviews conducted by the film crew.

An Englishman who divides his time between Los Altos and Britain, Lovell-Hoare is a veteran of long expeditions – for one of his earlier projects, he traveled from London to Doha, Qatar. Lovell-Hoare’s unfazed attitude toward great distances meant that from the first stages of planning two-and-a-half years ago, the question was not whether to embark on an expedition, but rather what sort of mission it would be. The criteria were simple.

“We were looking at having an expedition that would have a positive impact on as many people as possible,” Lovell-Hoare said. “Not just the people on the expedition themselves.”

The project took shape with that goal in mind. Lovell-Hoare wanted to highlight the contributions of neglected cultures, especially in Central Asia. One original idea was to tour the “-stan” countries south of Russia. In the interest of doing as much good as possible, the film would have to be able to draw in a wide audience, beyond netting people already interested in the various nations.

Tea was the answer, both for deciding the route and as a hook for viewers. In the name of tracing tea, Lovell-Hoare and his team could wend their way from the eastern border of India, home of the world’s most famous tea producers, all the way to London, home of the world’s most prolific tea drinkers.

Each of the nations in-between is somehow involved in the historical or modern tea trade as a producer, consumer or trafficker. Tea’s omnipresence would open the movie to a vast, interested audience.

“It’s the biggest beverage in the world – Coke would love me for that,” Lovell-Hoare said. “So everyone, even if they don’t drink it themselves, knows someone who drinks it. And it’s certainly not contentious. If we were tracing rum or something we’d start having issues, but this is a product everyone can get with.”

Tea also afforded Lovell-Hoare the chance to make the most radical decision of the planning: incorporating a vehicle representative of the country where tea was born. The 15,000-mile journey would take place not in Jeeps or SUVs, but in little, three-wheel auto rickshaws or tuk-tuks, common as taxicabs in India.

Just another attraction for viewers, Lovell-Hoare said.

“It adds a voyeuristic element for people: are these little vehicles going to make it 15,000 miles?” he said. “There’s a sense of trepidation for the guys on the journey.”

Part of the team took a preliminary trip along the route earlier this year in a four-wheel taxicab to make sure the tuk-tuks were viable over those roads and distances.

Though the project is named “Tracing Tea” and the tuk-tuks rolling through the Himalayas will be quite a sight, the film will be very much about the cultures involved with the tea. Tea is a lens and a focal point for investigating countries that often get short shrift in the media.

“We’re taking in 18 fabulously stunning, important countries with a great heritage,” Lovell-Hoare said. “Through the medium of tea, people will be able to see where these countries are coming from, from a cultural and historical heritage prospective, and from a nonpolitical and nonreligious perspective (on our part).

“There’s more to these countries than the 30-second sound clip on the latest political machination.”

“Tracing Tea” is better suited to provide a fresh view on some of these cultures than any other recent film project. Lovell-Hoare said that “Tracing Tea” would be the first Western team to legally film in Turkmenistan in approximately 20 years – since its separation from the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan has been similarly reticent about foreign moviemaking for a few years. But both countries are on the route.

Despite the hassle of ingratiating themselves to the governments and the continuing fear that something could go awry, the project would not be the same without those countries – or, more specifically, the people in those countries. They are central to Lovell-Hoare’s agenda of spreading tolerance and worldliness and … not having an agenda.

“In Europe, there’s a backpacking culture where you get people from all countries going and experiencing other countries,” Lovell-Hoare said. “And when people are more keyed in, they are less subject to the extremes of common inference and can get along as global neighbors more cooperatively. If this helps in a small way, then great!”

Education is the primary goal of the documentary, which aims to draw attention to cultures overlooked by the world or overshadowed by their governments. In addition to educating an abstract audience at some point in the future, Lovell-Hoare also opened a real-time link with classrooms in the area.

When “Tracing Tea” was in its planning stages, Lovell-Hoare met with Bernadine Fong, the former president of Foothill College, to discuss possibilities for the project. The film’s educational potential intrigued Fong. She put Lovell-Hoare in touch with instructors in Foothill’s Krause Center for Innovation (KCI), a development center for teachers, to see how teachers could use the project, especially the interviews, photos and raw footage “Tracing Tea” would get.

“It was on the grounds that students need something exciting to key in with,” Lovell-Hoare said. “So we’ll be providing the excitement and they’re providing the curriculum and the educational know-how to bind the two together.”

The Krause Center is providing plenty of excitement, too. Gay Krause, KCI’s executive director, said that teachers are enthused about the project because they know students will be, too.

“Young people are so much more interested in real-world examples and ways of learning,” Krause said. “So all the teachers are very excited.”

Gayle Britt, a program director at KCI, has been working closely with teachers to design a curriculum that makes use of the expedition while adhering to California’s social studies standards. Seventh-graders in this state study world history in their social studies classes, making that the logical starting point for the school side of the project. Programs for elementary and high school classes are also in development, but the start of the middle-school program will coincide with the actual expedition.

“The middle-school one is our beta test,” Britt said.

The first run will take place at Graham Middle School under a teacher singularly qualified to supervise the maiden voyage of “Tracing Tea” in the classroom.

In addition to his duties as a world history instructor at Graham, Sayer also teaches students in GMS-TV, the school’s video production class. The two fields will converge in his social studies class thanks to “Tracing Tea.”

“(Sayer) has in mind that they’ll get footage and students will do newscasts using the film,” Britt said.

Lovell-Hoare added podcast production (incorporating his interviews) and interactive panoramic pictures to the list of materials the students will use for a real-world feel of the regions they will study.

Sayer is delighted to have the production team’s work at his disposal.

“This is a little different than when I was in social studies,” he said, laughing. “We can really connect the students to the team in the field, and beyond that with the people they encounter. Making a street scene real … or just seeing people’s faces where there were conflicts in the past makes everything more real and interesting for the students.”

Sayer is sure that using the video and interactive interviews is going to lead to greater depth in students’ learning.

“Kids care so much about little details when they work on (videos),” Sayer said. That is perfect for teaching seventh-graders about Hindu and Muslim cultures, with which “the students don’t have as much experience.”

Much of the Asian route is through Hindu- and Muslim-dominated cultures.

Sayer, who had done two terms with KCI programs before, is still a bit shocked that this opportunity found him.

“I was surprised,” he said. “It just fell in my lap and this is something so up my alley (and the students’) when they can make video and podcasts.”

Lovell-Hoare, Britt, Sayer and everyone else involved with the project reiterate that the main objective of “Tracing Tea” was to bring the world closer together. With Sayer’s class already immersed in images from halfway around the globe, even though the film crew has barely started its journey, they are already succeeding.

Schools »

Read More

Sports »

Read More

People »

Read More

Special Sections »

Special Sections
Read More

Photos of Los Altos

Browse and buy photos