Fighting the good Food Fight1:23 PM Mon, Apr 07, 2008 | Permalink |
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"Are there any food lovers here?" director Chris Taylor asked the AFI audience before the debut of his work-in-progress film, Food Fight, began this past weekend at the first of two screenings. After enthusiastic cheers, Taylor responded, "Good, because I made this for you."
It didn't take far into the movie's viewing to realize what Taylor meant by his introductory statement: He made this film more to fuel the arguments for sustainable agriculture (and the nutritious, flavor-rich food it produces) than for mere foodie viewing pleasure.
An opening, tongue-in-cheek sequence of 50s commercials for Salisbury steak TV dinners soon segues into interviews with the modern-day stars of the food movement, including Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, and Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Ca. and the most famous motivating force behind organic food activism.
For the informed food connoisseur, Waters and Pollan are familiar - almost clichéd - faces. But Taylor hopes the film won't merely preach to the choir, and the famous Berkeley restaurant makes an accessible entry into the arguments the film presents.
"I want to show the bigger picture of the food industry through the lens of Chez Panisse," Taylor said in an interview afterward. "I saw the film in three acts: A brief intro that introduced post-World War II industrial agricultural practices, the reaction to those developments that had their roots in the 60s counter-cultural movement [of which Chez Panisse and Waters were key], and then Act 3, which illustrates what's happening now."
Taylor found the lead for his third act in Wisconsin congressman Ron Kind, who is shown in the film sponsoring reforms to the farm bill that are met with staunch resistance from his fellow politicos. (The farm bill is brain-jangling complex issue. Tom Phillpot, a former Austin restaurant critic who now writes about food politics and is featured prominently in the film, does an inspiring job of disseminating these topics. Check out his writing at Grist.org.)
The kaleidoscope of people, places and scenarios that address the sometimes-disturbing answers to the central question of "Where our food comes from?" helps the film maintain a snappy, zesty pace. Taylor filmed 30 extensive interviews, interspersed with glimpses of lush restaurant kitchen cooking and verdant farms. And though Taylor dips into Michael Moore territory with the farm bill segments, there are plenty of contrasting, sometimes funny scenes of meals and gossipy bits from those who were at the forefront of the "California cuisine" scene.
In broaching the politics of food, "the subversive thing is to show the audience something that they actually like," says Taylor, who wasn't immune to the pleasures of his subject. After a Sonoma farmer flashed a sliced carrot on the screen to show the depth of its grain, "he took that carrot into his house and his wife sprinkled some sea salt and olive oil on it and that was lunch! It was the best carrot I ever had."
Taylor expects to finish his self-financed film next month, when he's hoping it will be picked up for distribution.
Food is, of course, personal, and Food Fight generated some fervent reactions at the screening I attended -- Slow Food members spoke up, and there were questions about why some aspects of food politics weren't addressed in the film (easy answer: you can only cover so much in an 85-minute film).
I left shaken awake to our local situation. There's a lot of focus throughout Food Fight on the importance of farmers markets as a way for consumers to assert their preferences. It struck me as potentially ironic (but ultimately apt) that a film promoting the essential values of local produce premiered in Dallas, which doesn't seem to have much of a thriving community in that department. Am I wrong? The film featured many chefs in California and New York shopping for their restaurants at farmers markets, and our local chefs don't appear to have the same opportunity - simply because there aren't many truly local farmers markets in these parts.
Kim Pierce saw the film this weekend as well, and she's going to pick up this particular thread of the discussion later today.
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