As a fairly new site, we don’t have a lot of the traditional lists under our belt just yet. But with it being Thanksgiving time and all, I thought it’d be a great opportunity to get out the obligatory spotlight on documentaries involving food. Of course, there are a ton you already know about, and Food, Inc., Super Size Me and Jiro Dreams of Sushi in particular are popular enough that I don’t think I need to include them once again. Instead, I wish to recommend ten films that don’t get talked about nearly as much — hardly enough, for sure. This is by no means a definitive list, just a bunch to share and be thankful for.
The Fruit Hunters (2012)
Starting off with the newest title, this film from Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze; China Heavyweight) has some of the most scrumptiously photographed food items ever. The subject is rare, exotic fruits, most of which you’ve never heard about and might think are made up — like something concocted by Dr. Seuss or Lewis Carroll or for Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. You see them, learn about them, want to taste them. And just when you think it’s all so weird and amazing enough, actor Bill Pullman shows up with his admitted lack of the sense of smell and acts all cuckoo for strange produce from around the world. Definitely for trivia buffs and anyone who appreciates a doc that looks a lot better than expected.
The Future of Food (2004)
More than Food, Inc., which felt to me like a brief introductory summary to books by the authors it primarily focuses on (Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser), Deborah Koons Garcia’s look at the food industry had a real effect on me and how I think about what I’m eating. Because it’s about something we almost can’t avoid (maybe even if we grow our own food), it’s also one of the scariest documentaries I’ve ever seen. I’m not normally into the doom and gloom approach, but as likely the first film I saw concerning genetically modified agriculture and Monsanto’s controversial seed patenting, it was an important step that now might seem old news given how many related works have come since. It’s interesting to consider next to The Fruit Hunters, too, since the future of food seems to be one of far narrower choices in produce varieties.
Watch the first ten minutes here:
Our Daily Bread (2005)
Without judgment, at least not in any direct fashion, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s observational film offers a peek at anonymous European food manufacturing plants. This, too, is the “future” of food, though the machinations are obviously already here even if they sometimes look a bit on the sci-fi side. A lot of credit for the unbelievable goes to the director/cinematographer’s own visuals — which are beautiful if often disturbing, at least for the vegetarians in the audience (and those who become vegetarians while watching) — mainly because it’s surprising that he was permitted to produce them. This isn’t a journalistic expose, yet your own perspective might make it out to be. As for my views, I think it’s poetry watching baby chicks and beef carcasses floating across the screen and also quite amusing seeing the mundanity of employees eating their lunch after working these jobs (see the header image).
We can’t have a list without a Frederick Wiseman film (hopefully he lives long enough to make a feature that can fit the theme or subject of any of these showcases). It wouldn’t be surprising if Geyrhalter had seen this doc, which looks at the meatpacking industry from cattle auction to the processing of the consumable product. It too, of course, is without direct commentary, though its exhaustive record of what goes on at a Colorado feedlot and slaughterhouse is typically considered to be, in total, a clear statement about the source of the food we eat. Maybe I’m a carnivore desensitized by images like what’s in this film, but I don’t think there’s really much agenda involved. In fact, Wiseman, neither an animal activist nor vegetarian, has said that while making this film, “I ate steak every night I was up there, usually something I met earlier in the day” (quote from Wide Angle magazine, 1991). If anything, he’s probably meaning to have us thinking about the human laborers on screen. Also worth locating if you can find a subtitled copy is Jean-Michel Barjol and Jean Eustache’s 1970 verite pig slaughter film Le Cochon.
American Dream (1990)
Barbara Kopple’s second Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature is not so much about food as a 1985–1986 labor strike for workers at a Hormel meatpacking plant in Minnesota. There aren’t a whole lot of scenes on the inside showing the production and inspection process of making Spam and other items, but throughout the footage of union meetings and picket lines and narrative involving a matter of wage cuts you have to be conscious of how this is all connected to the price of canned meat and chili on your supermarket shelf. It amazes me that this doc isn’t even nearly as celebrated as Kopple’s other Oscar-winning strike film, Harlan County U.S.A., especially as I think it deals with a more relatable industry for many Americans, both in terms of the work and the product.
Harvest of Shame (1960)
What better program to watch after you’ve gorged yourself on food on Thanksgiving than a documentary making you feel bad about it? Well maybe not totally shaming you but at least opening your eyes to where that feast came from. This CBS Reports documentary hosted and narrated by legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow and produced by Fred Friendly and David Lowe aired following the holiday and shocked a nation about the poor living and work conditions of migrant farmers. Back then, there were fewer viewing options to a network special like this reached tons of Americans (and to the dismay of Murrow, a British audience the following Spring). Now it’d be a segment on 60 Minutes or episode of Frontline, which isn’t bad but doesn’t have the same reach. While it did lead to some congressional changes, notably in agreements with Mexico regarding foreign labor filling the cheap jobs, Harvest of Shame is credited more as one of the most influential pieces of journalism and particularly a pioneer of the muckraking form of documentary.
Watch the full documentary via CBS here:
El Bulli: Cooking in Progress (2011)
With all the culinary competitions and restaurant showcases on TV these days, it’s hard to find documentaries about top chefs and eateries that rise above the usual fare. Gereon Wetzel’s film does so by offering a very slow burn of a story about the Catalan master Ferran Adria and his renowned and remote elBulli, a seasonal Michelin 3-star ranked establishment considered one of the best in the world. We watch as the chef and his staff prepare for the 2008 opening and only get a hint of some of the design and experimental trials of potential dishes for the new menu. Finally, at the very end we very climactically get our feast of food porn. The doc is particularly special now that elBulli has closed down as a restaurant for it records something that will never occur again.
I Like Killing Flies (2004)
My other favorite spotlight on a restaurant introduces us to Shopsin’s, a little spot in New York City’s Greenwich Village that is unlike anything you’ll ever see elsewhere. Directed effectively if not spectacularly by Matt Mahurin, the main appeal of the film is cook and owner Kenny Shopsin, one of the greatest documentary characters ever (don’t let him hear me say that). A foul-mouthed and principled short-order genius, he’ll captivate you with stories, recipes and his many rules for patrons. He makes the Soup Nazi look like an angel at times, but he’s also a loving family man and good enough at what he does that his attitude is justified. In addition to being a terrific portrait of Kenny, the doc is a depiction of the city’s gentrification and development issue over the past decade as the neighborhood staple with a lot of history behind it is forced to relocate to cheaper digs. In addition to seeing this film, I highly recommend Kenny’s cookbook. I’ve had it for years and I still haven’t yet made all the varieties of pancakes (one of his specialties) let alone the tons of other extraordinarily original recipes put to paper.
Garlic Is As Good as Ten Mothers (1980)
It’s very unlikely that you will ever see this Les Blank classic as it was meant to be seen, which is with the accompaniment of garlic being cooked in the back of the auditorium. I guess you can watch at home and have some garlic being cooked on the stove, but then you’re not seeing it on the big screen. Still, whatever way you can, you must become familiar with this wonderful work of one of the greatest documentarians of Americana, and really of any subject matter, who ever lived (sadly he passed away earlier this year). The National Film Registry-recognized film, made just after his far more famous “food” doc Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (and before the very famous Burden of Dreams), has history and culture and some unbelievable characters surrounding the love of the “stinking rose.” Also recommend (because all of his films are recommend) are Blank’s other food-related movies, such as Yum, Yum, Yum! A Taste of Cajun and Creole Cooking and to some degree Spend It All. His films about beverages, namely tea and beer, are definite musts, as well.
Available on DVD from Les Blank Films
Food Will Win the War (1942)
I’m an unabashed fan of American propaganda films from World War II, and while I have serious affection for the true government productions under the umbrella of the Frank Capra-led War Activities Committee, I also reserve some guilty favor for the more exaggerated work of Walt Disney Studios, especially this one technically produced for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Featuring classic animation directed by Hamilton Luske, who had a hand in helming Disney’s major animated works from the ’30s through the ’60s, when he won an Oscar for his work on Mary Poppins, and narration from go-to voice-over guy Fred Shields, it’s gloriously goofy and rather overstated, even at only six minutes in length. Some of my favorite images are the obese little girl casting a shadow over Germany, the sweater made of spaghetti with a U.S. symbol worn by the whole world, the impossibly effective walls of butter serving as dykes in Holland and the beloved three little pigs from Disney’s 1933 Oscar-winning short leading 100 million fellow swine to their death for our allies’ bacon consumption. It kinda reminds me of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, but for the good of our wartime morale.
Watch the full short here:
This list was originally published on November 28, 2013, for that year’s Thanksgiving holiday.