One of this year’s Center Frame features was Food, Inc. (IMDB), Robert Kenner’s investigation into the industrialization of food production and the implications not only for our physical health but also for the saftey and well-being of the people who produce the food we consume, not to mention the health of the planet itself. In that regard, Food, Inc., like other recent documentaries and features that explore the politics of food, such as Fast Food Nation, King Corn, and Super Size Me, is unapologetic about its “agenda,” in arguing for more sustainable food production practices.
Like Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me, Food, Inc. is attentive to the pleasures of a well-made meal. The film opens with journalist Eric Schlosser (author of the book, Fast Food Nation, on which Richard Linklater’s fictional film was loosely based) eating a hamburger in his favorite diner. Such scenes seem carefully designed to reassure the viewer: we’re not going to lecture you or turn you into vegetarians; we’re not the food police. But Kenner quickly moves past this gensture to introduce us to some of the major concerns of the film: the increasing industrialization of food production, and along with it, the privatization of food resources.
Many of these scenes are quite chilling. Footage from a killing room shows laborers at an assembly line endlessly cutting and chopping the meat that will eventually find its way to our grocery store shelves. Chicken growers allow us access to the windowless pens where hundreds of chickens are enclosed in spaces so tight that the chickens are often forced to climb over the dead birds laying on the ground. The strak, industrial gaze during these scenes has a powerful impact, one that is not unlike a horror movie, as a Variety writer observes. And while this industrialization of food production might seem to lead to greater efficiency and reduced costs, the farmers often see very little in the form of compensation from the big food companies with whom they have contracts. Other scenes, including one set at a nearby Smithfield pork factory, remind us that many food processing companies rely upon the labor of undocumented laborers while working to suppress the formation of unions. Finally, we are reminded of the degree to which our food is now, quite literally, manufactured. Genetic modifications of seeds prouce more desirable vegetables and larger crops, while chicken farmers attempt to create larger-breasted chickens because most buyers prefer white meat. These scene, as Owen Glieberman implies, sometimes unsettle our very definitions of what we are eating.
It’s hard to know, however, what effect such images have on viewers. Food, Inc. is being distributed by Participant Productions, a film company that is interested in movies that inspire viewers to take some form of action, and the film’s website encourages a wide variety of actions viewers can consider: campaigning against junk food in schools, supporting better working conditions for farmers, going to farmer’s markets, calling for nutrition information at restaurants. To promote many of these ideas, the film uses extensive interviews with sustainable farmer and author Joel Salatin, who runs Polyface, Inc, a family-owned, organic, pasture-based farm. Salatin is a true sustainable food evangelist, promoting food production practices that are healthier and safer. And certainly the film made me want to follow through on these practices (whether I’ll do so or not is another question).
So, as with many of Participant’s films, I’m wondering about how we can truly measure the impact of a political documentary of this type or to what extent such films are preaching to the converted or semi-converted. Based on the crowd’s reaction when he showed up onstage, it was clear that many in the audience knew of Salatin, whether from his writings or the food that he sells (or both). Others (and I count myself in this category) knew much of the information in the film and make some effort to eat healthy foods. Still, I think that if Food, Inc. helps to redirect our conversation about the politics of food, it will have accomplished quite a bit. Even though I know a fair amount of information about these issuse, many of the film’s scenes were quite startling in showing us how little we know about the manufacture of the food we eat.