In our latest YPC Spotlight, Eric Ebner takes to the orange chair to share his love for adventure, telling a great story, and his hometown.
Eric is an award-winning filmmaker who was raised in our very own Marshall, MI. His latest documentary, Opening the Earth: The Potato King, had its World Premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in February and is currently on the festival circuit.
Without further adieu, let’s get Eric in that orange chair and fire up this conversation!
YPC: Hey, Eric! Thanks for joining us for some coffee and taking to the orange chair, to share a little bit about your background and this latest chapter in your life.
Eric: Thanks for having me! I appreciate the support.
YPC: To kick things off, where are you originally from?
Eric: Well, I was born and raised here in Marshall, then lived in San Diego for just over 8 years. I left San Diego about 3 years ago, since then I’ve spent the majority of my time in Peru, with stints in Mexico and back home in “The Mar.”
YPC: What was one of your favorite things about growing up here in town?
Eric: Well, besides everything? That’s tough to answer. I think the support system that I had from my family and friends is something that’s always helped me. It’s easy to take risks in your life when you can always fall back on people who love and support you. Not everyone has that in their life, and it seems to be more common than not in Marshall.
YPC: What did you do after graduation?
Eric: I always wanted to do something creative, but that wasn’t paying the bills. So I worked as an immigration paralegal for a bit, then I got a job with a large diabetes company in San Diego. It was an extremely mindless, corporate existence, but I was making good money. I was living a good life but was unfulfilled creatively and professionally. I never let myself forget that it was just a stepping stone for when I could really take the plunge and follow my own passions.
YPC: So What led you to the world of storytelling and film-making?
Eric: I enjoyed photography and was good at it, but it just wasn’t enough. It seemed like I had tried all the mediums except videography, so, eventually, I just borrowed a video camera and dove in. I made a little portrait piece on my friend trying to be a hip-hop artist in San Diego, and everything seemed to fall into place in my mind. It’s like I had done so much mental practice over the years thinking about what kind of stories I would tell when I got the chance it all just poured out. I hadn’t achieved anything noteworthy yet, but I really had confidence that I could. A friend of mine and I decide to quit our jobs in San Diego and go on a surf trip throughout Mexico and Central America. I was very intentional about how I approached this trip, as I wanted it to be the beginning of the next chapter in my life. I invested in some camera equipment, and a few weeks into our journey I met Glen Horn, who is the subject of “The Bull”. The rest is history.
YPC: And a solid history it is. We were honored to have you and your film The Bull be part of our first annual Wolf Tree Film Festival last year. Could you tell our audience a little more about The Bull?
Eric: Absolutely. The Bull is a short documentary about a 69-year-old man named Glen Horn, who lives in the middle of a desert coast in Baja California, Mexico. The location is a secret surf spot among the surfing community, and Glen is a legend. He was raised in San Diego as a youth and is the perfect embodiment of the adventurous surf mentality. His connection to nature and philosophy are really inspiring to me, and I related to a lot of what he had to say. I worked on the film for about 9 months in secret, knowing I had something special. But I didn’t realize how special. My goal was to be accepted into one surf film festival. At its first film festival, The Bull won Best Documentary. At the second, it won Best Picture. Now it has been shown in over 15 countries and has won awards in the US and abroad. It’s been quite the ride and it was awesome to be able to show it at Wolf Tree.
YPC: What kind of impact did the making of this film and hanging out with Glen have on you?
Eric: Well, first and foremost, I learned so much technically in creating the film. From shooting underwater to editing a long-form video, it was a huge learning curve. You have to understand that, at this point, I was still very much an amateur filmmaker. But I wanted to understand the process from the inside out, so I taught myself every technique and skill that I needed. I really knew what I wanted the end product to look like, and I took all the time I needed to finish it. On a personal note, it was just so inspiring to see someone taking charge of their life and putting the rest of the BS to the side. Glen is so confidently focused on what he wants out of his life, and he just goes and does it. He doesn’t talk about it, he does it. His calm and contentment is contagious, he’s a great role model.
YPC: How can we see The Bull?
YPC: Tell us about your new film “Opening the Earth: The Potato King.”
Eric: Opening the Earth: The Potato King is a story about Julio Hancco, an ageing guardian of biodiversity in the Andes Mountain of Peru. Julio lives at around 15,000 ft above sea level, has no running water, and owns no modern farming equipment. Yet he is able to grow over 350 varieties of potatoes. The biodiversity that he maintains may be crucial to the survival of our species, which we take time to explain why in the film. Unfortunately, Julio is getting older, and his culture is disappearing along with farmers like him. Similar to youth here, many are drawn to the cities to make more money, and they are leaving their traditions and the farming practices behind. So the film is about a man who becomes known as The Potato King, but also what he represents, and what we could lose if a culture like this disappears.
YPC: How did it all come about? Finding a story and opportunity like this seems like a needle in a haystack!
Eric: My brother Aaron and I had wanted to do something together for years. And we talked about a film or film series often, even before either of us had experimented in videography. Peru is an incredible country and the access that Aaron and his organization [the Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development] have to these communities is incredibly rare. We knew a lot of the themes we wanted to touch on, but we didn’t have the story to tell. Maybe it was the power of intention, but at the time I was wrapping up my surf trip in Central America, and Aaron sent me a message. “I’ve found the story.” Aaron had been working in Julio Hancco’s community for years, but had just recently gotten to know him. Once he learned about how Julio rose to be The Potato King and how much influence he actually has, we had our story. We set up a Kickstarter and raised money from friends and family, many from the Marshall area. I was in Peru filming before the Kickstarter campaign even ended, and we were off!
YPC: We understand the film had its World Premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) this past spring, which must have been a wild ride. At the upcoming Midwest Première on August 17th at the Franke Center, what do you and Aaron hope the audience takes away from it?
Eric: Yeah, it was wonderful. SBIFF is the biggest film festival in the Los Angeles area, so it was a huge accomplishment for our team. We are really excited about bringing it back to our hometown, and I think people will really identify with it.
What we want the audience to take from the film is the appreciation of indegenous culture and traditional knowledge. This culture lives so simply and so in tune with mother nature, and modernization is slowly destroying it all. This traditional knowledge that has been passed down for centuries is, in some ways, more advanced than our scientific knowledge, and is more responsibly used. These people have been adjusting to climate change for decades – hahaa, spoiler alert, it exists – while we are just now starting to take it seriously. There is real value in what these people know and how they work. If we lose that, the whole world suffers.
We also want to challenge the viewer’s preconceptions about what poverty is, what development is, and really what happiness is. Instead of viewing these communities as backward, we should look to celebrate and learn from them. They have a lot to teach us about humility, consumption, and how a simple life can be a great life. It is a wonderful culture and is really inspiring. I’m really proud of this film and I think we did the message justice.
YPC: Tell us about your brother Aaron’s non-profit organization in Peru.
Eric: The organization is called the Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development (AASD), and works with high altitude farming communities in the Andes Mountains. The AASD is not a normal, top-down development organization. They believe that these communities are more capable of eliminating their problems than any development expert. They listen and work with the communities and farmers, and provide support to their own projects and ideas to improve their quality of life. They have been working with these communities for over 10 years, and the results speak for themselves.
YPC: When you’re traveling and seeking out new stories to share, what do you miss about Marshall?
Eric: Ahhhh, jeez. One thing that always frustrates me is when people focus on obstacles instead of possibilities. When someone has a new idea, a lot of people will look for all the reasons it can’t be done, and ignore how you can overcome those challenges. The small, creative community in Marshall has accomplished a lot for a small town. I’ve been shocked at how cooperative and supportive the community has been. Everyone wants everyone else to succeed, and is willing to help. You need that kind of attitude to achieve difficult things, otherwise everyone would do them.
YPC: What is something you have experienced outside of Marshall that you would like to see us have or embrace?
Eric: Easy. Celebrating diversity. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault that we lack diversity compared to other Michigan cities, but I think we as a community need to embrace it when we get the opportunity. We have it great here, let’s share it.
YPC: What is your most epic adventure to-date?
Eric: A few months ago I went looking for a man on a small island in Lake Titicaca, on the border of Peru and Bolivia. I didn’t know where he lived, I didn’t know what he looked like, I didn’t even know his last name. But despite all of that, after a twelve-hour bus ride and a two-hour ferry to the island, I found him. I spent three days with him and his family, and I hope to have a nice little short film about it sometime soon.
YPC: Too Cool. Alright, time for some rapid-fire questions. You ready?
Eric: Hell yeah.
YPC: Let’s get right to it. The Ebner siblings are entered into the Hunger Games alongside Katniss. Who wins?
Eric: Hahaha. Well, it wouldn’t be me, I can tell you that. I do a lot of adventurous stuff but, in reality, I’m just a big softy. But I would take my brother Aaron against anyone. Especially if it was at 14,000 feet.
YPC: Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey?
Eric: Neither. Sade hands down.
YPC: Touché. Best film-maker of all time?
Eric: One filmmaker who I really like and inspires me is Brent Foster. He isn’t well known but he makes wonderful little shorts about people all around the world. Look him up if you get the chance.
YPC: Favorite past-time?
Eric: If I can do any sort of sport or physical activity with my friends, that’s the dream.
YPC: What song gets you on the dance floor the fastest?
Eric: Haha, any old school West Coast hip-hop gets me going. My poor friends have had to hear me rapping more often than they would like.
YPC: Hahaa, now we know what style of music to fire up on the speakers downtown! Changing gears, or maybe not (?), what advice do you have for the youth of Marshall as they look towards their next chapter in life?
Eric: When talking about creative projects or goals, my advice is that you need to really be passionate about what you’re doing. Like extremely passionate. If you want to make something really special, it’s going to take a lot of work and work that isn’t always fun. For the massive amount of time you will need to put into your project, the only way it will be worth it, in the end, is if it brings you happiness. If approval is your motivation, you could get some kind words and encouragement, but is that worth hundreds or thousands of hours? I would say no. If money is your goal, a lot of these projects don’t end up making boatloads of money. So based on those measures of success, you would be a failure, even if you made something beautiful. You need to make sure to set your intention to fulfill yourself. Once you do that, everything else is an added bonus.
YPC: What does your next chapter hold?
Eric: I’m in talks about my next project, but the main issue is funding. I don’t necessarily need to make money from passion projects, but I’m at the point where I won’t continue to finance these stories on my own. So there are some really exciting possibilities, but I’m going to keep it close to the vest until something is official.
YPC: We’ll be rooting for you, and if there is anything we or Marshall can do to help support you – you know where to find us.
Eric: I really appreciate it. I think what the YPC is doing is awesome and so important for a town like ours. It really does make Marshall a more exciting place for young people.
YPC: Much thanks, Eric, and thank you for taking the time today to sip some coffee with us, give the orange chair some love, and share your story. You are a prime example of what it means to #BeYoungish, and thank you for opening our eyes to the beauty of different cultures and mindsets through your storytelling. You are a true artist and we are proud Marshallites.
Coming to a Marshall Franke Center near you.
Interested in seeing more of Eric’s film-making or photography? Head to http://ericebner.com/ or, even better yet, join us for the Midwest Premiere of “Opening the Earth: The Potato King” at the Franke Center on August 17th. The event is presented by BluFish Consulting, the Michigan Humanities, and your very own YPC! Doors open at 6pm and the show starts at 7pm, with a Q&A to follow with Eric and Aaron. It’s going to be a great opportunity to hear and see just how talented these two born-and-raised Marshallites are, and learn about all of the great work they are doing.
Please also check out the great work Aaron and AASD are doing in the high mountains of Peru by visiting http://alianzaandina.org/.
To learn more about the YPC, please head to our website or email us. And until the next YPC Spotlight or Fridays at the Fountain concert: #BeYoungish, #ChooseMarshall, and make the next chapter of your story is one for the books!