YOGHURT UTOPIA (or: How a maverick Spanish psychiatrist and his patients broke out of the asylum and into big business)

4 July 2016

Every one of its 300 workers - from milking shed to packing plant - will tell you that the Fageda Cooperative makes the finest yoghurt in all Spain - if not, the world. Last year alone they made 1.4 million yoghurts every week.  In Catalunya, only Nestle and Danone sell more.

But Fageda isn’t in business to make yoghurt. For over 30 years, its sole mission has been to provide fully-paid, flexible employment to anyone from the region diagnosed with a mental health problem but who still wants to work.

The pioneering Fageda Cooperative is the subject of our forthcoming feature documentary, Yoghurt Utopia - currently crowdfunding for post-production finance on Kickstarter – and the vision of one remarkable man.

Back in the 1970’s, a young Cristobal Colon (literally Christopher Columbus, in English) began work as a therapist in a large asylum in North-eastern Spain.  Under Franco, psychiatric care had yet to progress beyond the 19th century and Colon was one of only four doctors overseeing 900 patients.  Treatment meant either solitary confinement or complete abandonment in a maze of dilapidated buildings.

Cristobal concluded that the patients weren’t being treated at all; they were being hidden - shut away from sight and medicated into docility. Under the pretext of care, society was exiling the mentally ill and denying them even the hope of return.  After all, everybody knew that once you entered the asylum, you didn’t get out.

The work of Gilles Deleuze, Franco Basaglia and the eminent Catalan exile, Frances Tosquelles all served as a theoretical basis for Colon’s clinical endeavors.  Increasingly, Colon gravitated toward the need to instill a sense of meaning and purpose in his patients, expressed through the idea of task-based work and occupational therapy.  However, his realization that contrived activities such as basket-weaving could not hold the same meaning for the patient as doing real, useful work and his increasing frustration with purely asylum-based treatment threw him into conflict with his less-revolutionary, more-evolutionary minded colleagues.

Eventually Colon had enough and quit.  But, remarkably, he persuaded the local health board – now freed from Franco’s ideological shackles - to release 15 patients into his own care.

The young doctor had a plan.

Work could be the key to winning back his patients’ place in society, restoring their sense of pride and dignity – and thus aiding their treatment.  But to test his theory, the work they undertook needed to be meaningful enough for society to see value in it; proper jobs for decent pay in a bona fide business.  In other words, they would have to start their own company.

So the young doctor turned entrepreneur – and discovered he had a talent for it.  A myriad of small-scale contracts for casual laboring, gardening and even religious icon painting followed until, eventually, land was found in the middle of a nearby forest and turned into a farm.  Cows were bought and after a few years the yoghurt factory was built.

30 years on and the Fageda Cooperative is one of Catalunya’s best-loved and most successful brands, held up as a beacon of enlightened mental health provision and a model of sustainable, socially responsible capitalism. It has even featured in the Harvard Business Review.

But the lessons of La Fageda go further still.

To best treat his patients, Colon had to cast a doctor’s eye over the workplace and design a business capable of prioritising its uniquely sensitive workers’ wellbeing whilst still making the profits needed to keep the lights on, pay the wages, employ a team of onsite care staff and fund investment.  In examining the world of work, Cristobal diagnosed much of the malaise facing today’s 21st century workforce – and set about finding a cure.

For the past two years, we have been following life at the Fageda Cooperative as Colon continues to confront the harsh realities of business without compromising his commitment to care for his workers. Never an easy course to steer, these last months have been further complicated by rumours in the media of Colon’s intention to retire - rumours that prove difficult to deny, as they happen to true.

Life at the Cooperative may have been more turbulent than usual but the lives of the workers are never short of incident.  Alongside Colon and the business, we’ve also been spending time with some of the workers, capturing a frank and 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. Mental illness is not a constant and a job at La Fageda is not a magic wand. 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 experiencing mental illness – is an indomitable spirit.

My fascination with the Fageda stretches back to its earliest days – many years before I picked up a camera and became a filmmaker. My Catalan mother and family grew up barely a mile away from this pioneering business. Throughout my childhood, I spent my summers in the same village and saw for myself local people’s attitudes change towards the Cooperative - from suspicion to acceptance and finally to pride.  Thanks to the Sundance Institute, TV3 in Spain, encouragement from the RSA among others – and a helping hand from all our Kickstarter backers, Yoghurt Utopia will be able to share the inspiring story of Cristobal, the Fageda Cooperative and its workers with a global audience.