Yogurt Utopia is a film about an extraordinary place; a yoghurt making business in a forest in Spain, where all of the workforce have experienced mental health problems. Anna Thomas FRSA & David Baksh Co-Director explain why they chose to document this remarkable business.
Started 35 years ago by maverick psychiatrist Christopher Columbus, every one of its 300 workers - from milking shed to packing plant - will tell you that the La Fageda cooperative makes the finest yoghurt in all of Spain, if not, the world. Last year they made 1.4 million yoghurts every week.
But La Fageda isn’t in business to make yoghurt. La Fageda’s sole mission has always been to provide fully-paid and flexible employment to any local diagnosed with a mental health problem who wants a job.
And one remarkable man made it happen.
Back in the 1970’s, a young, idealistic doctor, CRISTOBAL COLON (literally Christopher Columbus, in English) began work as a therapist in a large psychiatric institution in the town of Salt, near Girona. He was one of just four doctors charged with the care of over 900 patients. Treatment for the patients alternated between solitary confinement and complete abandonment in a maze of dilapidated buildings.
Shut away from sight and medicated into docility under the pretext of care, Cristobal concluded that mental illness wasn’t being treated at all - it was being hidden. He saw society washing its hands of mental health patients whilst denying them the hope of ever regaining admission. Everybody knew that once you entered Salt, there was nothing for you outside to go back to; so nobody did.
Colon quit. But, remarkably, he persuaded the local health board to release 15 users from the asylum into his own care. He had a plan.
Work was the key to restoring their sense of dignity by winning back the respect of those who had previously shunned and abused them. But it had to be meaningful work that society would value - proper jobs for decent pay, not weaving raffia coasters and placemats.
So the young doctor turned entrepreneur - and found he had a talent for it.
Land was found and turned into a farm. Cows were bought and eventually a yoghurt factory was built.
35 years on and La Fageda is one of Catalunya’s best-loved and most successful brands. Its fine yoghurts, jams and desserts are outsold in the region only by corporate behemoths Nestle and Danone. It is held up as a beacon of enlightened mental health provision and a model of sustainable, socially responsible capitalism. It has featured in the Harvard Business Review and become a model of alternative treatment for mental illness to be emulated by the many visitors from around the world.
But the lessons of La Fageda go further still. To best treat his workforce, Colon had to develop a business model that put its workers’ welfare first whilst still making the profit needed to pay the wages. In doing so, he diagnosed much of the malaise facing today’s 21st century worker – and then set about finding a cure.
The La Fageda co-operative is an alternative model of sustainable capitalism where sales and profits are not ends in themselves but the means to enable the workforce to enjoy a happy, fulfilling and healthy work/life balance.
Backed by the Sundance Institute and TV3 Spain, Yoghurt Utopia is a film about this extraordinary place. No one has had access to the one thing that makes this enterprise so extraordinary; the workers and the staff who look after them. I have this access because I am half Catalan, speak the language, and my uncle was a psychiatrist who knew Colon well.
Our mission is to inspire a more enlightened and practical attitude towards mental illness. We will follow Colon’s determined struggle to integrate the wildly individual idiosyncrasies of his workers into a successful business and society, watching him realise his vision of alternative care for those who have experienced a personal crisis.
The film we are making combines an intimate character driven story with the compelling macro narrative of Columbus and the future of his business. As a small two-person crew shooting with fast lenses and minimal lighting we have spent an unprecedented amount of time with the workers of La Fageda allowing us to capture a unique, human and non-sensational insight into what it means to live with a mental illness.
We are creating an unsentimental portrait of a remarkable collection of people, often at odds with the world and themselves, battling with life in an attempt to live it.
Sometimes the results are harrowing, sometimes hilarious. During the last year, we have seen many ups and many downs. Mental illness is not a constant; relapses and crises can and do occur and we have seen their devastating effects on camera. But we have laughed with our cast as much as we have cried and learned that the one thing all our characters share – beyond mental illness – is an incredible and indomitable spirit.
The yoghurt factory is located in the Fageda forest, a spectacular national park in Spain and a source of inspiration for artists and the Fageda workers alike. We’ll feature their artistic impressions of La Fageda and use the forest with its changing seasons as a metaphor throughout the film. In this way, we will capture a full portrait of the place and its people revealed on film through music, art and poetry of the people of La Fageda.
We have filmed 80% of the material and are looking for finance to edit and complete the film. We launched a crowd funding campaign on 6th June. Please make a pledge or spread the word so that we can share this wonderful story about mental health & a soulful organization across the world!
Learn more and support Yoghurt Utopia crowdfunding campaign here.
Anna Thomson FRSA is an experienced director of documentary, drama-documentaries and short fiction who has worked for top production companies such as Lion Television, Wall to Wall and DSP on productions as varied as the award winning “Days that Shook the World” series, "Al Murray's German Adventure" for BBC4 and "Comet: A Great British Air Disaster" for Channel 4.