The Luckiest Nut in the World

This is the first of a summer series highlighting a few film shorts from the Full Frame Archive, a collection within the Archive of Documentary Arts, with the goal of preserving masters all past winners of Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The Full Frame Archive has grown to 74 films since 2007 and continues to grow; DVD use copies of these films can be viewed in the RBMSCL’s reading room. A complete list with descriptions, as well as titles of award-winners not yet acquired, can be found in the finding aid.

“This is a film about nuts,” a chorus of animated nuts declares to a bouncy, vaudevillian tune in the opening frames of Emily James 2002 short The Luckiest Nut in the World, winner of the 2003 Full Frame Jury Award for Best Short. More specifically, it’s a film about globalization and the nut industry. The luckiest nut himself, a tariff-protected, guitar-playing American peanut in a ten-gallon hat, segues into a country tune to explain the economic injustices faced by the nut industries in Mozambique, Bolivia and Senegal under policies of trade liberalization.

“We’re gonna tell you some stories that’ll make it clear
Why these problems won’t disappear
By making trade free indiscriminately
It’s only makin’ things worse,
It’s not a blessing, but a curse
And it’s happening more every year. . . . “

Born and raised in the U.S., Emily James earned university and film degrees in the U.K, where she has built a career as a filmmaker known for her humorous and often musical treatments of serious political issues. I interviewed James by email earlier this month.

The Luckiest Nut was commissioned by the BBC’s Channel 4, at a time when massive protests against the WTO, IMF, and World Bank were circling the globe. “[They] have a tradition of commissioning sets of short films from new directors, in order to develop and nurture new talent. This was commissioned as part of a strand that they called Alt TV, which was for ‘authored’ documentaries. Sadly, the strand no longer exists.”

The aspect of this film that ended up pleasing her the most, however, turned out to be the educational uses it was put to. “My favorite thing isn’t actually in the film; it was a campaign called ‘Trade Rules are Nuts, Let’s Crack’m!’ that Christian Aid developed to take the film into schools to teach and talk about the effects of trade on developing countries. It’s now relatively common to build a campaign around a film, but at the time this was quite rare, and I was proud that the film was so useful for the purpose, and that it reached so many young minds.”

The idea of narrating a film in song came to James for an earlier project. “In my second year at film school I was making a film (Wag the Dogma) and was stuck for how to do the voice over. As the film was playing with film form, I wanted to do something unexpected, and landed on having the voice over sung by a busking band. David Schwieter, who was a composing student at the film, worked with me to write and perform the songs. I loved the effect, and really enjoyed the humor of it. He and I went on to make A Brief History of Cuba in D minor, which was a musical cabaret about the history of Cuba, and then The Luckiest Nut in the World. At which point, I felt I’d fully explored the area, and wanted to play with different forms . . . so I moved on to puppets” (Don’t Worry, a satirical investigative current affairs series with puppets).

Emily James has just premiered her first feature-length documentary, Just Do It. “It’s a funny film about climate change and activism . . . and those don’t come around too often,” she says. “It will make you laugh, it may make you cry, and I hope it will inspire you to get up and do something.”

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Post contributed by Tanya Lee, Full Frame Archive Intern.