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The decade that spanned the mid-1980s to mid-1990s was particularly fruitful. It took heroic resolve to walk out of the Japanese spaghetti western “Tampopo” and not head directly to a ramen bar.
But that was then, before Wal-Mart started selling organic food and Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden on the White House lawn. Before E. coli was a constant in the food supply, before politicians tried to tax soda and before anyone gave much thought to the living conditions of chickens.
Into this world comes “Food, Inc.,” a documentary on the state of the nation’s food system that opens in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco on Friday.
“Food, Inc.” is part of a new generation of food films that drip with politics, not sauces. It’s eat-your-peas cinema that could make viewers not want to eat anything at all.
“All we have are these little canisters of film, and we’re launching them at a fortress,” said Severine von Tscharner Fleming, a filmmaker and farmer who is finishing a documentary on the young agrarian movement called “The Greenhorns.”
In 2004 Morgan Spurlock took a mini-Michael Moore approach with “Super Size Me,” a documentary that showed what happens when a man eats nothing but fast food for a month. (His waistline ends up looking a little more like Mr. Moore’s, and his sex life takes a dive.)
There has even been a feature film. In 2006 the nonfiction book “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser became a narrative (starring Greg Kinnear) about the restaurant industry, obesity and meat-packing labor exploitation.
Mr. Schlosser is a producer of, and a character in, “Food, Inc.,” in which the director Robert Kenner takes a sprawling look at the perils of Big Food. The film is being promoted as an exposé of “the highly mechanized underbelly” of the seemingly benign food people eat every day.
“Food, Inc.” begins with images of a bright, bulging American supermarket, and then moves to the jammed chicken houses, grim meat-cutting rooms and chemical-laced cornfields where much of the American diet comes from. Along the way Mr. Kenner attempts to expose the hidden costs of a system in which fast-food hamburgers cost $1 and soda is cheaper than milk.
“The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than the previous 10,000,” Michael Pollan says as the film opens. Mr. Pollan, an author and occasional contributor to The New York Times Magazine, is the spiritual guide for the film and serves as its narrator. “A lot of it is hard to watch,” he conceded, “but I think people are ready to take a good, unflinching look at how their food is produced.”
Mr. Kenner, who has previously tackled subjects like war and endangered species in a series of television documentaries, didn’t know much about food when he embarked on “Food, Inc.” about six years ago. But after warnings from lawyers, stonewalling from food companies and months on the ground in farm fields, grocery stores and Congressional offices, he became a hard-core campaigner for better food.
“It’s almost like a horror film, like ‘Invasion of the Food Snatchers,’ ” Mr. Kenner said.
Much of the film takes direct aim at the usual suspects — big meat packing companies, Monsanto, the federal Agriculture Department. But Mr. Kenner also offers a sympathetic study of people whose lives have been hurt both from producing food on such a mass scale and eating the results.
“I think what’s important here was connecting all these little pieces,” he said. “Individually they didn’t seem so insidious.”
In a section that shows how modern, mass-produced chickens have been bred to grow to market size in half the time, a woman under contract with Perdue speaks out about the physical toll such rapid growth takes on the chickens and the stifling conditions in which they live.
She also explains the financial stranglehold large chicken companies have on growers. She ends up losing her contract because she refuses to enclose her chicken houses completely.
Viewers who haven’t thought much about how all that food in the grocery store got to be there will likely find it hard to toss a few packages of pork chops and some Froot Loops in the cart and call it a day. Some viewers will undoubtedly look away during the meat cutting and processing scenes. For parents the eye-averting moment will come during repeated slow-motion scenes of a 2-year-old’s last vacation. His mother, now a food-safety advocate, explains in a tearful voice-over the gruesome details of his death after he ate hamburger tainted with E. coli.
For people steeped in food politics the most revealing scenes are the least graphic. Monsanto goes after an elderly man whose life has been devoted to the practice of cleaning seeds so farmers can replant crops. The chemical company, which has patented herbicide-resistant soybeans and corn, says he is helping farmers plant Monsanto seeds illegally.
The man is forced in a deposition to expose longtime friends and clients who are suspected of using the seeds illegally. He eventually gives up the legal fight when he runs out of money. Monsanto recently posted a Web page (monsanto.com/foodinc) devoted to countering the film’s version of events.
Mr. Kenner also visits a poor family with a diabetic father. During their trip to a grocery store it’s easy to see why they pass on broccoli in favor of fast-food hamburgers, which fill bellies longer and cheaper.
“Food, Inc.” has the endorsement of all kinds of people in what some call “the good food movement.” Alice Waters is a champion, and so is Martha Stewart. She has been arranging screenings for her staff and tweeting about the film: “See the film then tell me organic is too expensive for you and your family. It is so upsetting that good food is hard to find.”
A screening that Mr. Pollan described as uncomfortable was even arranged for Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
Much of the buzz has been ginned up by an impressive full-court media campaign, which is spinning the movie as hard as a food company promoting a new product.
To coincide with the opening the lids of millions of containers of Stonyfield Farm yogurt have been turned into “Food, Inc.” ads, thanks in large part to the company’s chairman, Gary Hirshberg. One segment of the film is dedicated to his efforts to produce organic food on a mass scale.
The documentary even has its own companion book, which is more than 300 pages long and filled with essays about global warming, hunger and pesticides along with tips on how to talk to a farmer and improve school lunch.
Because “Food, Inc.” was produced by Participant Media (among others), the company that backed “An Inconvenient Truth,” comparisons are inevitable. But there’s a big difference. After watching Al Gore explain the horrors of climate change, moviegoers can turn off a few lights, think about a Prius and call it a day. People who leave “Food, Inc.” still have to eat.
And the filmmakers know that. At the end of the film a series of suggestions run across the screen. Plant a garden. Cook a meal for the family. Contact Congress.
“I want people to feel like they can do something,” said Naomi Starkman, a Northern California media consultant and aspiring farmer who helped create the messages. “You make a choice three times a day on what you want to eat. That is power.”