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"Hearts of Glass"

Documentary film "Hearts of Glass" directed by Jennifer Tennican tells the story of Vertical Harvest in Jackson, which grows produce year-round and provides meaningful employment to people with disabilities. 

A coworker shows Ty where to prune a lower branch from a tomato plant at Vertical Harvest and compliments him on his break.

“For Ty’s ability, in this nation only about 12 percent are working,” the trailer for the award-winning Jackson documentary explains. “You’re scared of things that you don’t understand and you don’t know, and to stop that, you have to have experience, you have to have that integration, inclusion.”

“Hearts of Glass” tells the story of how a Jackson upstart hydroponic greenhouse grows produce year-round in a challenging mountain environment, providing meaningful employment to people with disabilities, according to JenTen Productions.

A seven-stop state tour brings the film to community colleges and the University of Wyoming starting Monday at Central Wyoming College and ending Oct. 9 at Northwest College. A panel discussion with director Jennifer Tennican, Vertical Harvest employees and local experts follows each free screening. The tour offers the first screenings in the state since the film’s Wyoming debut in June in Jackson.

The film won Best Feature Documentary at the Black Hills Film Festival in South Dakota and has traveled to film festivals across the country since it debuted in January in Northern Colorado at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival, which described it as “a breath of fresh air — inspiring, heart-warming and joyful.”

“Hearts of Glass” director Jennifer Tennican started filming the beginnings of Vertical Harvest in the spring 2016, even though she’d just finished another documentary.

“I thought, well, this is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to document this,” she said. “From a technical standpoint, from an innovative standpoint, nothing like this is going on in the world with a purpose-built vertical farm on a remnant piece of land with the amount of technology in it and then the employment model.”

Learning and inspiration

“Hearts of Glass” documents the first 15 months of the high-tech agricultural startup through tumultuous highs and lows. Tennican was swept up in a story of sustainable food production and inclusion that she hopes will broaden perspectives and inspire. Viewers will get to know nuanced, interesting characters with disabilities.

“Maybe they’re not exposed to that in their daily life,” she said. “Maybe they don’t know what people are capable of. I think that’s one of the things you see, that progress of people over a 15-month time period.”

The film brings awareness of the challenges that people with disabilities can face with meaningful and fair-paying employment, as well as what supported employment looks like, despite the myths, she said.

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“I think it’s reinforced the value of sort of a business or corporate culture that appreciates inclusion and diversity and how that can be good for everyone,” she said.

“It’s positive; everybody grows from the experience,” she added.

Views of Vertical Harvest's state-of-the-art technology and machinery provide a backdrop of the film. The technology is jaw-dropping and can sometimes be problematic — as viewers find out in the documentary, Tennican said. The film tells a story of sustainable, local food production and challenges ideas where you can grow food, when you can grow food and who’s growing it, she said.

“I think we want the film to encourage creative, outside-the-box thinking about addressing social and environmental issues,” she said. “A hydroponic high-tech greenhouse might not be right for every community. But I would like to remind people that you can’t have innovation without risk, and the first time you do something, I’m sure it always costs more money to figure it out. So you need people who are committed in that way, who are willing to be innovators.”

Discussion

The film tour, funded in part by Wyoming Humanities, features a panel talk after each screening with Tennican, who’s been creating community-focused films since she moved Wyoming in 2002. Her other award-winning films include “Far Afield: A Conservation Love Story” and “The Stagecoach Bar: An American Crossroads,” which were distributed nationally by American Public Television and featured in numerous film festivals.

People with and without disabilities are part of the panel talks following the screenings.

“It’s just nice I think when you’re not only talking the talk but also walking the walk around inclusion,” Tennican said. “I think more and more disability is being considered part of diversity, but it’s kind of been the latecomer to the diversity party.”

She hopes to see a mix of people in the audiences — like students, community leaders, people with disabilities, those who hire or work with people with disabilities, economic development agencies and people involved in agriculture — to share stories, challenges and ideas, she said.

“Part of the benefit of the screening,” she said, “is using it as a catalyst for conversations about what’s going on locally.”

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Follow reporter Elysia Conner on Twitter @erconner

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Star-Tribune reporter Elysia Conner covers arts, culture and the Casper community.

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