Lawyer turns filmmaker to foster conscious consumerism

By Katie Vloet
U-M Law

When Piper Hendricks was clerking in the Southern District of Florida in 2007, she went to a South Beach theater to see a screening of the documentary “King Corn.”

Years later, she spoke with a Catholic nun in Israel about bananas — specifically, legal allegations of human rights violations at Chiquita.

Together, those two occasions helped lay the foundation for a new career path.

As a lawyer, she had grown discouraged by the difficulties of winning human rights cases against corporations. So she turned her attention to film as a way of being an advocate for causes she believed in.

“I had no idea how to make films. But I knew they were an effective way to reach people,” says Hendricks, who had practiced as a human rights attorney until founding the film nonprofit p.h. balanced films in late 2011.

She still takes on the occasional case, and she says that her training as a lawyer is immensely helpful in her career as a filmmaker.

At p.h. balanced films, Hendricks and her team are working on two short-film series — one called “Your Wallet, Your Choice (And Voice!)” about how the goods you buy as a consumer connect you to other people in the global economy, and one called “Choice Viewing” that highlights businesses that are engaging in conscious consumer-friendly practices.

“How does the rubber on your tires get from a tree in Africa to your car? How does a banana from a farm in Colombia get to your breakfast cereal bowl? How do your cut flowers arrive to your door on special occasions? How do the minerals that make your electronics work get from a mine to your cell phone?” Hendricks asks. “We think a lot of people want to know the answers to those questions, and that they’ll consume products differently once they know the realities.

“We’re showing how we’re connected to different human rights problems around the world. It’s so easy, especially in the United States, to go to the store and buy a chocolate bar and not think about where it comes from,” she says. “People don’t think about if you’re buying chocolate that’s sourced in West Africa, you’re supporting child labor.”

The first short film in the “Your Wallet” series addresses palm oil; future films will deal with human rights violations involving cotton, electronics, cocoa, and more.

She believes the films can make a change in people’s lives, just as she experienced during the post-”King Corn” discussion years ago.

She also saw it happen when she told the nun in Israel about the human rights case against Chiquita (in which the company pleaded guilty to supporting a paramilitary group in Colombia).

“And this darling nun immediately said, ‘Well, I’m never going to buy their bananas again,’ ” Hendricks recounts. “Her conviction, with which she avowed never to support a company that engaged in such practices, stuck with me. It’s exactly the kind of impact we’re hoping to make with our films, on a much larger scale.”