Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Film Fest '09: Three Essential Documentaries About Food

Hypothetical situation: let’s say you’re teaching a junior high health class. Your arms are broken, so instead of giving notes, you’ve decided to show three movies that thoroughly explain the modern food industry. (Presumably, one of the kids will work the VCR. Or DVD player. Or whatever newfangled thingamabob they use these days.) What would those films be?

This past weekend made the decision much easier for me, because the Husband-Elect and I caught an early screening of Food, Inc. in Manhattan. Without exaggeration, it changed the way we’ll eat from here on in. (Not too shabby for a Saturday matinee.) So there’s Movie #1.

Afterwards, we rented King Corn, a 2007 documentary about the kernels’ influence in America. It was really well done, and an easy choice for Movie #2.

And frankly, Super Size Me is a no-brainer. Some might be all, “Spurlock, you MTV punk! Shave yer ‘stache, stop making like a Gen X Michael Moore, and get real!” But I love the guy, making his McDonald's exposé a shoo-in for my #3 pick.

Together, I consider these films the holy trinity of documentaries on food production. Michael Pollan figures heavily into two of them, and McDonald’s is a major player in all. If you get the chance to teach that junior high class (armless or not), I might watch them in this order.

(Due warning: Spoilers ahead. If you want to see these movies and be surprised, skip this post.)

1. King Corn (2007)
Directed by Aaron Woolf

Premise: Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis are two New England 20-somethings who travel to Iowa to plant a single acre of corn. They come in as blank slates, clueless about farming and agriculture in general. What they learn over the course of a year is shocking to anyone who isn’t part of the system already: their crop isn’t edible, it’s processed to create animal feed and corn products, and it’s impossible to make a profit entirely on their own. Instead, government surplus demands and mammoth corporations conspire to keep them relatively powerless and almost completely broke. Ian and Curtis leave Iowa as new men - with $28 in their pocket and loads to talk about later.

What’s great about it: Affable, curious, and creative, it’s impossible not to like the filmmakers, which goes a long way considering their approach. They’re just guys learning about corn, not experts with an agenda. Even better, the movie is perfectly plotted, with a natural progression and easy-to follow explanations. The dangers of what they’re doing only become apparent as the process itself gradually dawns on them.

Key scene #1: The guys rent their acre from a genial older man named Charles Pyatt, an Iowa corn farmer who seems to be doing pretty well through the course of the film. Six months after wrapping, they revisit Charles to find he’s gone broke and is selling all his possessions. It’s heartbreaking and perhaps, a sign of the times.

Key scene #2: Curt belly-slides down a mountain of corn that looks – no lie - like it might be bigger than Yankee Stadium. For this New Yorker, it was pretty friggin’ trippy.

Key scene #3: Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon, and the guy who set so many of these farm policies in motion, was still alive (though 40,000 years old) when they made this. Ian and Curt find him for an interview, and you learn he meant well. It’s just that he grew up during the Great Depression, and never wanted to see Americans go hungry again. Something to consider.

2. Food, Inc. (2008)
Directed by Robert Kenner

Premise: On average, there are 47,000 food products available in each American supermarket. From the eggs we have for breakfast to the burgers we wolf down for dinner, they come from a handful of mega-corporations with three goals: ship food fast, cheap, and in whatever borderline condition customers will accept it. Oh yeah - and under no circumstances reveal how it’s all accomplished. Because apparently, the first rule of processing food is: don’t talk about processing food.

Of course, there are repercussions. First, the potential for disease is ever-present, since FDA regulations are ineffectual and most food comes from the same places. Second, the production methods themselves are dangerous, dirty, and inhumane – and that’s just for the animals. It’s even worse for the workers, many of whom are illegals receiving rock-bottom wages for thankless work. Third, the surplus of calories (Thanks, corn!) is making Americans obese and wildly unhealthy. But you knew that.

Oh, also? That’s just the first 15 minutes.

What’s great about it: It’s scattershot, overwhelmingly one-sided, and after the first hour, you might want to banish the unsubtle HEY, THIS MUSIC SIGNIFIES A THING WE DON’T LIKE back to Hell where it came from. But man, is this an effective film. The testimony and footage are so convincing, it’s hard to imagine how food corporations could possibly respond. (PR nightmare!) Even more vexing though, are our own roles in the mess. What are we doing to ourselves, and how can we stop it?

Key scene #1: About halfway through the film, after the audience has seen hundreds, if not thousands of featherless, headless chicken carcasses, a live fowl has its throat slit at Joel Salatin’s Polyface farms. At that point, it’s the most natural thing in the entire movie. Still, there were several audible gasps in my theater. A few minutes later, full-grown pigs are herded squealing and terrified into a slaughterhouse box. They come out dead. No one at Film Forum made a sound.

Key scene #2: Any video of Barbara Kowalczyk’s little boy will pretty much kill you.

3. Super Size Me (2004)
Directed by Morgan Spurlock

Premise: 30-something Spurlock eats nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days, just to see what happens. And what happens is this: he gains 25 pounds, loses his sex drive, and sees his metabolic functions go haywire. Along the way, he learns a ton about the connection between food, marketing, and obesity, especially for kids.

What’s great about it: If King Corn is about the source of our food issues, and Food, Inc. is about their scope, than Super Size Me is about their potentially cataclysmic effects on our bodies. Check it: a third of Americans are clinically obese, and another third is overweight. Some of the blame can be pinned on us individually, but there are so many factors working against us (because foodcorps are after money only) that it’s difficult to know what’s what. And that’s the director’s point: how do we stay healthy when bad food is inescapable? When it’s our only option at the corner store? When it’s the only stuff in school lunchrooms? When it’s advertised to us FROM BIRTH?

Also, it’s a well-paced movie with a light touch. Just thought I’d mention it.

Key scene: After he downs his second super-sized meal from Mickey D’s, Morgan promptly opens his car window and barfs it right back up. Mmm ... I’m lovin’ it!


American Dream (1990)
Directed by Barbara Kopple

The 1990 Oscar winner for Best Documentary, American Dream examines a Minnesota meatpacking labor dispute during the Reagan administration. Evenhanded and well-observed, it’s neither pro- nor anti-union - just tremendously insightful.

Le Sang des Bêtes (1949)
Directed by Georges Franju

Blood of the Beasts is oh-so-French in its arty juxtaposition of serene farmland with monolithic slaughterhouses. Still, if you’ve ever wanted to know exactly how animals were – and sometimes still are – killed, watch it. It’s unrelenting and will ensure there’s no disconnect between what your food is and where it comes from. Due warning: for a 60-year-old film, this mother is GRAPHIC.

And that does it. Readers, anything you’d add for your armless junior high lessons? Please fire away in the comment section.

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