About the Film
Hayley Downs was born in rural Central Florida to a Cracker dad and southern belle mom. Not the Disney World Florida or the Florida where your grandparents moved when they retired. It’s the Florida you don’t send postcards from. In Hayley’s Florida there is wild boar hunting, gun toting, hard drinking and swamp cabbage. Although encouraged to embrace her Florida Cracker lineage, at 17 Hayley flees in search of “true culture” in the city, reinventing herself as an urbanite. After a series of dramatic personal tragedies, she discovers that the home she rejected is actually an authentic culture and the key to her survival. The film weaves Hayley’s 10 year+ self-filmed story of love, addiction, illness, death and redemption with verité sequences of Florida Crackers as they trap alligators, gig frogs, and hunt wild boar, continuing to live in close partnership with the land despite environmental and cultural devastation from out-of-control development and suburban sprawl.
Swamp Cabbage is an exploration of our complex relationship to the natural world though Hayley’s unlikely return to her Cracker roots and her discovery of the importance of authentic culture, food and where we lay our head. One-part diary film, one-part cooking show and one-part environmental adventure, Swamp Cabbage looks and feels like a fast-paced, quirky, irreverent, lyrical, wild ride filled with dark humor, tension, and unexpected truths from an underexplored and often-stereotyped region.
Swamp Cabbage began in May 1999 when Hayley Downs and Julie Kahn, both Floridians interested in Slow Food and dismayed by the paving of Florida, decided to document Hayley’s father’s wild game feast. As the duo traced the sources of the game to the wild boar, alligator and rattlesnake hunters, they realized the potential of the project not only to amplify the voice of an under-explored and often-stereotyped region, but also to address broader contemporary issues of conservation and community.
Swamp Cabbage begins with a no-holds-barred punk rock romp through Hayley’s eccentric upbringing in DeLand, a small town in Central Florida. Hayley’s childhood is a hypnotizing minefield of backwoods-meets-suburbia. In Hayley’s world, sinkholes regularly open in the earth swallowing neighbors’ homes; her childhood swimming lessons include alligator avoidance drills; the Space Shuttle Challenger explodes over her junior high school; infamous Florida serial killers haunt her childhood dreams, and on the day her neglected pet rabbits disappear, her family eats “tiny chicken” for dinner.
Hayley rebels against her parents by becoming a born-again Christian. At 15 she is invited to the uber-exclusive born-again survivalist camp, Pioneer Plunge, where she slaughters a hog in the name of Jesus. Traumatized, Hayley rejects Christianity and finds new religion in Coleslaw Wrestling. At 17, she flees to Miami, finds a job at a rough bar and discovers a taste for alcohol and cocaine. At 23, she elopes with her boyfriend, Emilio, insisting that they film their own ceremony by passing a Super-8. So begins Hayley’s habit of filming significant moments in her life – appropriate or not.
Everything changes a few years later when Hayley’s Cracker father is diagnosed with cancer and she moves home to help. She becomes addicted to his painkillers. She discovers her husband’s affair with her best friend. Her father dies and her husband moves in with her ex-best friend. She spirals downward until she meets Marlan, a sweet Brooklyn cellist unlike anyone from her past. They plan to marry, but he is diagnosed with cancer and the insurance company refuses to pay. They move into his mother’s attic. Marlan recovers; they marry, but weeks later he is sick again – this time requiring chemotherapy and drastic surgery. Marlan recovers again and they return to “normal” life. But nothing is the same.
So where does a half-Cracker stuck in Brooklyn turn to make sense of it all? Florida. Seeking solace in the landscape that she carries like an ache, Hayley embarks on a journey home to the wild, unpredictable, beautiful world she ran from as a teenager.
What was once outrageous somehow begins to make sense – and she realizes that nothing is ever as it seems. Hayley “gigs” frogs and then fries them up with the Daughtrey Family in Lake Okeechobee and chases wild boar through ancient gnarled orange groves on Cape Canaveral with Johnny Tanner, NASA’s unofficial hog trapper. She eats raccoon stew in the Ocala National Forest with Mark Reno, Janet Reno’s brother and glides over what is left of the Everglades “River of Grass” in a skiff with Glen Simmons, a 93 year old Cracker. She visits Pioneer Plunge, the scene of the ritual pig slaughter, and realizes that far from fanatical, the Plunge was actually initiated by back-to-the-land hippies seeking to forge a connection with the earth and teach teenagers to value the food they consume. She and Marlan prepare to return to the hospital for the results of his two-year check up and voice their deepest fears of its return. Her mother, after 10 years of grieving the death of Hayley’s father, reunites with a high school classmate and contemplates marriage. Hayley even contacts her reviled ex-husband and, after not seeing one another for more than six years, she captures a surprisingly emotional reunion in which she realizes there are two sides even to that story. Ultimately Hayley learns that the world she once ran from is the one that helped her to survive.
In Swamp Cabbage, food and community are the remedy for the hardships of vanishing authentic culture, compromised health, toxic relationships, and loss of human connection. Hayley’s story is the story of Florida and the story of Florida is the story of us all.