In his famed 2004 film Super Size Me, documentarian Morgan Spurlock went on a monthlong all-McDonald's diet that wreaked havoc on his health. One of his doctors told him the steady intake of Big Macs was essentially turning his liver into paté — a rare case of junk food producing a gourmet dish, assuming a market existed for Spurlock Paté.
Super Size Me took a gimmicky but effective approach to the serious theme of American eating habits and whet the appetites of documentarians for more films on the subject. Twin motivations drive today's culinary-minded nonfiction cinema: to decry the industrialization and mass marketing of what we eat, and to celebrate the Slow Food movement and other healthier, more sustainable approaches. Specific documentaries offer diverse perspectives, in contrast to our monolithic food production practices.
Jan. 13 marked the DVD release of Our Daily Bread, an award-winning, head-spinning, at times stomach-churning glimpse at the mechanics of industrial food processing. Director Nikolaus Geyrhalter doesn't editorialize, but lets the images speak for themselves. For 90 minutes, Our Daily Bread simply shows vast machines and bored human operators raising produce and harvesting livestock. You'd think Our Daily Bread would be as exciting as watching vegetables ripen, but it's a weirdly engrossing experience. There's always something happening in Geyrhalter's artfully arranged shots.
Our Daily Bread almost resembles a science fiction film the way it shows familiar foodstuffs such as apples dwarfed by sterile, utterly alien environments, or baby chicks on assembly line conveyor belts, or the huge, freaky machines that suck fish from the ocean or scoop up live chickens and launch them into crates. Geyrhalter frequently cuts to workers chewing their meals on break. They seem so bored and disengaged, it's like they're part of the automatic routine, too. When the film unexpectedly shows two workers making a huge pot of rice, it's a shock to see such "normal" cooking.
Our Daily Bread isn't just an intellectual exercise. It also preys on viewer sensibilities by including slaughter scenes (although they're probably less than a fifth of the film's content). A practice I can only call the hoof cutter-offer is enough to send vegans screaming from their VCRs. The film ends with the "highlights" of meat packing as cows are sent one-by-one to their deaths in big, drumlike vessels. Watching the killing is hard enough (one cow is clearly terrified), but the dehumanization makes it much worse than, say, seeing some farmers butcher a cow in a barn. It's more like watching a series of executions.
Where Our Daily Bread's impersonal tone has accumulative power, the 2007 documentary King Corn brings a personal touch to agribusiness's complexities. Co-filmmakers and college pals Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis resolve to learn about modern agricultural practices by spending a year growing a single acre of corn in Greene, Iowa. Both Bostonians, they happened to have great-grandfathers who worked in agriculture in Greene. Such ties help King Corn put human faces on the food-growing techniques of a century ago vs. today.
Over the ensuing 12 months, Cheney and Ellis make strange and unpleasant discoveries, particularly that their modest corn crop will be destined for feedstock or syrup, not human consumption. They're revolted at the taste of their own corn, as well as the high-fructose corn syrup they cook in their kitchen. An agriculture professor declares of Iowa's fields, "There's an immense quantity of food being grown – none of it edible."
King Corn follows the kernels to market and reveals that cows, fed a diet of corn instead of grass, can suffer bovine health problems. A tangent on confined feed lots reveals other misdeeds, including powerful quotes such as "Hamburger is fat disguised as meat." Corn surpluses, driven partially by government subsidization and other policies, result in corn syrup as a ubiquitous sweetener and source of scary statistics about American obesity and diabetes. For a while it seems King Corn will make a villain of former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, whose high-yield policies in the 1970s led to the present situation. The filmmakers find him to be out of touch with current problems, but not malicious. Cheney and Ellis acknowledge that Butz's ideas stemmed from good intentions to increase the quantity of America's food supply while reducing its cost and the manpower required to make it.
King Corn gives viewers a firm grip on some of the paradoxical food-related issues, including the wastefulness of the system for small farmers. Cheney and Ellis discover that their acre of corn earns them just over $300, not enough to break even – at least, not before their subsidies. Craig Noble's documentary Tableland offers a striking counter-example with the organic farm Fairview Gardens, which claims a $1 million income from 12 highly diversified, seasonally planted, hand-tended acres.
Subtitled A Culinary Expedition, Tableland presents the fruits of two years criss-crossing Canada and the United States to film successful examples of organic farmers, bakers, brewers and pro-local restaurants. Noble divides the film into sections labeled "Sustainability," "Small-Scale," "Industrial," "Taste" and "Local," although the categories become fairly blurry. Tableland puts the spotlight on many feisty, passionate interviewees – I particularly enjoyed bearded, Hagrid-like Brent Petkau, aka the Oysterman – but may have made a stronger case by spending more time with fewer subjects. Tableland could have used less boilerplate and more examples like the vintner extolling the flavorful benefits of hand-grown grapes.
Tableland may be clunkier than the other documentaries, but its section "Taste" ultimately shows the best path to change eating habits. The chapter offers loving photography of delicious-looking foods and argues that the organic approach simply makes food more flavorful. Our mouths water when we follow wild chanterelle mushrooms from the woods to a restaurant's tasting menus. Despite the harmful impacts of industrial farming on the land and our bodies, filmmakers may get better results by preying on American eaters' greed, gluttony and sense of entitlement, instead of our senses of environmental guilt or health-conscious virtue.
Noble prefaces Tableland with the warning "What you are about to see will make you hungry," and the truth of the words gives it an advantage over the films that put you off your feed.