Heather Elder Represents
Reps Journal

Dan Goldberg Presents: Belly Button - a Short Film on Mexico, Mole and Legacy

Mexico is known for its rich history, vibrant art, and tantalizing food. Dan Goldberg has long been enamored with Mexican food, and as a former sous chef, appreciates the unique ingredients that go into each dish, making up the deep flavor profiles. In particular, he has been intrigued by Oaxacan food and has been wanting to travel to the state to tell stories of the people who contribute to the milieu. Dan wanted to highlight Indigenous stories, as they create the bridge between tradition and modernity in a unique anthropological study. Through personal research, Dan heard of a local woman Maria and her daughter Marichelle (Mari), who cook traditional dishes for their community. 

Dan’s relationship with food and cooking has gathering at the heart of it. Believing that the table is never long enough, he resonated with Maria and Marichelle's story and was inspired to tell it. Navigating a language barrier, Dan and his tight-knit crew connected locally with their guide and the two women in a trip that would explore tradition, food, and how the two support each other. Read on to learn more about this project, and how it inspired a 6-part series. 

How were you introduced to Maria and what inspired you about her story?

I knew I wanted to focus my film on Oaxaca, so I started by reading articles and stories online about people who live in rural and indigenous communities and their unique ways of cooking for their community. Maria Luiza Araceli Canseco Mendez had a short story written about her. I saw pictures of her and thought, 'I would love to tell her story.' I knew she was a cook in her small community, helping people during weddings, quinceañeras, and anyone in need of food. So, I contacted a guide and told him what I wanted to do. Initially, he gave me a list of well-known chefs, but I insisted on finding Maria. I thought her story would be more authentic to what it means to live in this region and gain a better understanding of their traditions. 

How did you build trust with Maria and her daughter during the filming process?

Building trust is crucial, and I really like to talk to people and get to know them before I ever pick up a camera. This was especially challenging on this project because we only had a day together. We started filming at the market but waited until the end of to do the interview to build some rapport. Despite the short time, we focused on getting to know them and showing genuine interest in their food, heritage, and family before diving into filming.

What challenges did you face during filming, and how did you overcome them?

One of the biggest challenges was the unknown, but the hardest part was also the best part. We didn’t have a script and didn’t know what we would find. It’s hard to plan when you don’t know what you are going to see. It’s also when the magic happens! You let go of all the control and just go with your gut. Serendipity happens when you do that. It’s not how I work in the studio, and it can be very difficult, especially when my crew wants to know where we are going next and what we are shooting. Sometimes we just have to see it. Or in the market, you just have to smell it.

Food is not only a visual experience but a sensory one. How did you approach capturing the preparation and enjoyment of mole on camera?

Shooting and cooking in an outdoor kitchen was so much fun. It seemed very slow and relaxing, and it’s how I like to cook. Maria told me the Mole has to boil little by little, and when it’s ready, you can hear it. If you listen closely, you can hear when the ingredients are done sauteing, you can hear the boil, you can hear the tortilla expanding. You can also smell it! We tried not to get in their way, but we also needed to be up close and personal. We got in as close as we could so you feel like you are right there and part of the experience. I want you to be able to smell it, hear it, and almost taste it. I fortunately had a chance to eat it at the end, and it was outstanding. There is nothing like a fresh corn tortilla and fresh mole with such great history.

The idea of legacy is a very clear thread through this narrative. What does that mean to you? In your opinion, how does food further legacies?

Food is my love language, and there is no better gift than to teach someone to cook, especially traditional recipes that may be lost forever if they aren’t passed down to the next generation. Food plays a vital role in preserving cultural heritage. I plan to go back and shoot a cookbook for Maria & Mari so they can pass it on to their community for future generations. Food is deeply ingrained in their way of life, from making tortillas to brewing traditional drinks. It connects them to their ancestors and ensures the continuity of their culture. My mom taught me how to cook at a young age, and it’s important for me to teach my daughter the same.

What are some standout moments from your filming experience?

The smell of the market I will never forget. From vibrant mangos, limes, pineapples, chocolate, coffee, smoke. It’s sensory overload, and I love every moment of discovering a new market. Most of the time, we would ask people if we could film them, and other times we were rolling and weaving in and out of the chaos. It’s loud, hot, and hectic, but so much fun!

While in Mexico, I was inspired to shoot the next subject of this film series about Mezcal. While filming for that, the men who are featured in that film invited me to a dinner party. We ended up inviting Maria, Mari and her family to the party and it was so special to see the local community come together to celebrate a good meal. 

What do you hope audiences will take away from watching your documentary, particularly in terms of understanding the intersection of family, culture, and culinary traditions in Mexico?

I want to show how these indigenous communities not only survive but thrive on farming, cooking, creating, and feeding their families and communities. Food in Oaxaca is more than just sustenance; it is an expression of history, culture, and identity. Whether it’s a simple meal shared among friends or an elaborate feast prepared for a special occasion, Oaxaca cuisine is always infused with love, respect, and reverence for the land and its people. Like my family before me, I believe that carving out time to gather for meals, drinks, and conversation is what it’s all about. That food not only gives us comfort but hope. Each meal is a constant reminder that cooking and sharing a table with the people you love—with your family, friends, or strangers—is one of the most potent and universal occasions in which to connect in the world. These stories of sharing a meal, are the kinds of stories I tell.

Below are a few frames from the next part in the series, Mezcal.