The excellent new documentary Dog Days shines a light on the unglamorous world of Washington, DC’s food carts, many of which ring the National Mall and sell boiled hot dogs. It tells the story of “the micro-entrepreneurial world of street vending in our nation’s capital, and explores how two unlikely business partners navigate the cultural, economic, and regulatory barriers standing in their way.”
Dog Days premieres next weekend as part of the twentieth annual Austin Film Festival, where it’s an official selection.
I was fortunate to screen an advance copy of Dog Days last week. I found it to be a smart, measured, and informative look at a difficult profession that’s made no easier thanks to long-stalled regulatory reform.
If you enjoy watching food documentaries for their frequent bromides, smug narrative, or overblown shots of food porn, look elsewhere. But if you want to see the challenges small food entrepreneurs face on a daily basis—with long hours of hard work as their only guarantee—then you’ll love Dog Days.
I sent about two-dozen questions to filmmaker Kasey Kirby, who replied by email. An edited transcript of our conversation appears below.
Reason: What’s your background—and that of your fellow filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson?
Kasey Kirby: Laura and I both have graduate degrees from American University in Film/Video (MFA/MA respectively). I wandered into film after studying accounting/finance in undergrad and working for two years in Chicago as an auditor.
Reason: Why Dog Days? What’s your interest in street food?
KK: I was interested in the story largely because I made a similar transition professionally [to that depicted in the film] in plunging into an industry I didn’t have any experience with and trying to keep my head above water. In addition, as we learned more about street food vending, I became interested in the story of why exclusively hot dogs existed on the streets for so long, when so many other cities had much more vibrant options available.
Reason: When did you start work on the project?
KK: We started shooting the film in the early part of 2009, and continued to shoot off and on for the next four years in between other projects.
Reason: Why did you focus on vendors in Washington, DC?
KK: Laura and I have shot two films together in Rwanda and I also travel abroad quite a bit with other clients, so I started to feel like I knew more about communities in other parts of the world than I knew about my own backyard. For that reason, it propelled both of us to want to invest in a more DC-centric story.
Reason: Mobile food vending is hip now thanks mostly to mobile food trucks. So why did you decide to focus your documentary largely on non-mobile, unhip subjects like food-cart entrepreneur Coite Manuel, an out-of-work engineer, and immigrant hot dog vendors like Siyone?
KK: We began shooting when there were only a few food trucks on the scene, and we loved Coite’s idea of bringing new food to the streets, but working with existing vendors. We also felt like there was a largely untold story there about an immigrant population of vendors that have been selling food on the streets of DC for over 20 years.