[Editor’s note: We re-run this 2012 Food List as a complement to Anna Tatarska’s interview with Eric Schlosser on his new film, Food Chains, and in conjunction with our “Fifty Days, Fifty Lists” project, which you can read more about on “Why Lists?“]
As long as our food is attractive, we tend not to question it. But the attractive qualities of food are as over-represented in film as six-pack abs, slim waists and gleaming white teeth. While occasions like the Food Film Festival (New York’s runs in October; Chicago’s November), celebrate the more appetite-whetting aspects of food culture just in time for the holiday seasons, a growing collection of food-curious documentary features trace their roots back to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, describing the more repulsive aspects of an industry that purports to sustain us. Here is a list of such films, including some that simply open the curtain on a variety of fascinating food facts and others that plumb the depths of the human soul as well as the contemporary pantry.
1. We Feed the World (2005, Erwin Wagenhofer)
“A film about scarcity amid plenty,” Wagenhofer’s documentary looks at the food production, modification, consumption and circulation process entangled in the money-driven phenomenon of globalization. Developed countries take the abundance of food for granted, making thoughtless en-mass disposal of it their trademark. Meanwhile, countries that supply those goods very often fight starvation, water shortages or other forms of crisis. Learn how the way European cattle is fed may boost deforestation in Amazon rainforests, or how the purchase of a cucumber might make someone on the other end of the world lose her job.
2. Enjoy Your Meal! (2010, Walther Grotenhuis)
Food transportation is a constitutive element of contemporary food production. This film examines the impact of the factories, very often built in remote parts of the world, on the natural environment and local communities, drawing attention to the consequences of expanded trade, as producers seek to provide year-long access to diverse foods. Fish and shellfish are farmed in ponds that pollute the environment. Large parts of Amazon jungle, inhabited by indigenous tribes (see above), are cut down to create pasture for cattle. Imported sweet peas that Europe loves so much are grown by indigent people in Africa in almost slave-like conditions. The film poses a question: Should food be just a matter of taste, or also a matter of conscience?
3. Canned Dreams (2012, Katja Gauriloff)
In an episodic visual essay, Gauriloff tells a story of the employees of individual companies that provide products that are later meshed into a finished dish like canned ravioli in tomato sauce, sold for one euro in a Finnish supermarket. Their voices and stories are sometimes funny, sometime poignant, sometimes gruesome, but always intimate as the director asks each character about his/her dreams. Sociopolitics are woven in: the difficult assimilation of the Roma in Romania, the problem of corruption among Ukrainian police force, social exclusion of obese people in Western Europe, the Polish emigration plague. Imprints of hands belonging to tomato collectors, slaughterhouse employees, combine harvester drivers and mechanical mill programmers create a metaphorical outline of a multicultural Europe.
4. Meat (Frederick Wiseman, 1976)
Possibly Wiseman’s most searing indictment of an institution (he’s visited a hospital, a high school, army basic training, a welfare center and a police precinct, among others in his life-long project). Monotonous, mechanical work has a destructive effect on the workers of Monfort Meat Factory in Greeley, Colorado. Mechanical repetitiveness of serial movements makes them close to losing their humanity to the machines. This place is heavy with smell of death. It is where animals become meat, carcass, weighed by kilograms. This study of one of America’s largest feed lots and packing plants is a meticulous record of it operational structures, from auctions, where cattle is sold, to the storage and packing of meat, and even pricing arrangements discussed at union meetings. But Meat is so much more than just a documentation of the meat production process. It becomes a disturbing metaphor, a revealing and astounding portrait of the society whose needs drive this venture. Deliberate lack of narration leaves extra space for the viewer’s interpretation of this multidimensional document.
5. Food Inc. (Robert Kenner, 2008)
A wake up call for every consumer, this documentary shows how the U.S. food industry demands quantity, not quality. Hence pesticides, genetic modification, animals bred in terrible conditions and fed with chemically enhanced fodder are a natural occurrence. Broadly recognized and told in an attractive, accessible form, Food Inc. opens a window on production; Kenner was convinced that the producers deliberately hide information about the origin of the products, ingredients and production processes from consumers. To verify this assumption, he visited farms all over the country. His discoveries are mind-blowing for an average citizen. Just a few corporations cornering the market on toast, introducing morally dubious and health-harming techniques in the name of maximizing efficiency. Pretty sells, so what matters is how the food looks, not what’s in it: Overgrown chicken breast, perfect corn cobs, round and beautifully red tomatoes and standard-size carrots are in! People have decided to outsmart the nature and make it perfect against its will, with a little help from chemicals. Getting rid of e-coli threat by rinsing meat in ammonia? As long as it doesn’t kill anybody, sure!
6. The Gleaners and I (Agnès Varda, 2000)
7. Taste the Waste (Valentin Thurn, 2010) The Gleaners and I is a portrait of self, a reflection on the aging process and rare, simple joys of life; but also a portrait of consumerist culture, its decay and disintegration. In her deeply personal, yet socially involved film Varda redefines common perception of the most overlooked part of the food chain: leftovers. Gleaners refers to centuries-old tradition of gleaning—picking crop residue—and shows how with time it became a way of life for various social groups: the homeless, young people, philanthropists, artists. Here, narrative and documentary formulas intertwine, as well as notions of what is personal and what is public.
Taste the Waste goes further and into more contemporary territory. It proves how spoiled we are, but gives us an idea how to redeem ourselves. Tons of edible, valid and perfectly fresh products are thrown away every day, because people do not like beat-up veggies or damaged packages. What happens to them when their shelf-life is over? In many countries, half of the food ends up in the trash; every year UK wastes 15 million tons of food.. Freeganism is a controversial, independent social movement. The idea is to minimize consumption and support frugal lifestyle. Freegans only eat food thrown in the garbage, also ask restaurants, supermarkets and markets for unnecessary goods. Are freegans today’s gleaners?
8. King Corn (Aaron Wolf, 2007)
An extremely serious subject is served up in a digestible and entertaining form with King Corn, which tracks down the (agri)cultural roots of the present corn dominance in the U.S. stores, with almost every product containing its traces; spaghetti sauces, french fries, biscuits, beer, gravy, beef, pork, chicken, sodas to name a few. Corn is what drives this fast-food nation. Its over-presence in American diet is a hidden reason behind obesity and diabetes. Two sympathetic protagonists and authors make the whole project likeable and easy to relate to. Yet, the conclusions are terrifying. With the quality of industrially grown, subsidized corn described by one of the featured farmers as “crap,” knowing that it is permanently present in our bodies makes one flinch.
9. Queen of the Sun: What are the Bees Telling Us (Taggart Siegel, 2010)
From the director of The Real Dirt on Farmer John, Queen of the Sun brings in a variety of points of view and reference on bees and the current crisis we/they face. The authors talk with scientists, farmers and beekeepers around the world. Not only do they show over 10,000 years of history of beekeeping, but also point out how imbalanced is the present coexistence of humans and bees, due to the development of mechanization and industry. Causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a phenomenon of extinction of bees, remain unknown. But it’s a fact: One that, according to many scientific theories, will inevitably lead to famine, and in further future, the extinction of humankind.
10. The Last Supper: The Life of a Deathrow Chef (Mats Bigert & Lars Bergström, 2005)
Named after da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper, this film is nearly as haunting as the famed masterpiece. Swedish artistic tandem Bigert and Bergström presents the whole picture: the history and ritual of the “last meal” concept, enhanced with contemporary footage shot on death row. This tradition stems from funeral rites, during which the deceased received the food to facilitate their journey to the afterlife. With interspersed animated graphics and archival photos, the film features a main protagonist in Brian Price, a cook in Huntsville prison in Texas, who has prepared nearly 200 “last suppers.” What do prisoners on death row dream of? Turns out it’s nothing too fancy: A juicy burger, onion rings and french fries are on the top of the “most wanted” list. Why? Because they bring memories, feeling of safety, therefore prolong last precious moments of life.