Film: “Food, Inc.”

Mack and I had the chance to attend an advance screening of Food, Inc. at the newly-overhauled Empire City Centre Cinemas on Wednesday night (the theatres look great by the way – seats where the springs aren’t loose, plus stadium-style seating!). A nearly full house took in director Robert Kenner’s look at the pitfalls of the industrial system of agriculture and its ramifications on an unsuspecting public, including obesity, food safety and environmental degradation.

Anyone who has read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation will not find anything surprising in the movie, as Pollan and Schlosser act as the narrative backbone for Food, Inc. However, it is worth seeing for the inglorious visuals alone – the overhead shots of CAFOs, the dire conditions in claustrophobic chicken houses, and the assembly lines of mechanized meat factory workers.

On one hand, the scope of the film is admirable to encourage awareness of issues on a grand scale. But touching on everything from corn to tainted meat to Monsanto’s seed monopoly meant the film wasn’t as coherent as it could have been. In addition, several tangential storylines seemed unnecessary to me, such as the raids of illegal immigrants and the family struggling to feed itself well on a low-income. That time could have easily been spent providing more detail on some of the more central material.

Someone like Mack, who watched the movie with further distance from the subject than me, was hungry for facts, and commented that like other documentaries focused on getting a rise out of the audience, it played too much to the viewer’s emotion. He wished for more balance of fact and reason. Mack did really like the piece on the Stonyfield Farms CEO working with Wal-Mart – though some might frown at that partnership, it does make some sense to take organics mainstream, especially if it means reducing growth of the alternative.

My biggest criticism of the movie (echoed by Ron Berezan during the Q & A following the screening) was the lack of explicit actions empowered consumers could take. Particularly because the film was billed as containing some “opportunities for activism”, the lines of black-screen text suggestions were put together as seeming afterthoughts. Why didn’t they show consumers making deliberate choices at local farmers’ markets or growing their own food, and end with a resonating vision of what’s possible? While it’s true that the movie is just a catalyst, and that further education would have to follow, listing a website address before the credits just seems like a cop-out.

At the end of the day, I don’t know if this film will reach the wide audience that it should, but the fact that it is getting attention from the mainstream media is a positive step.

Food, Inc. premieres in Edmonton on July 17 at the Garneau Theatre.

7 thoughts on “Film: “Food, Inc.”

  1. I have to agree with you, Sharon, about the movie trying to hit too many targets at once and ending up seeming too scattered. Having said that, however, the movie did still resonate with me and I have been recommending the movie to anyone who will listen to me … :). I also did quite enjoy the Q&A after the flick, even though I also felt it was a little too short.

    Rob mentioned to me on our way home that a simple question along the lines of “how many people here shop organic/farmer’s markets/do their own gardening” asked *before* the movie would’ve given a fairly good indication of if the movie was indeed hitting it’s target audience, rather than preaching to the converted.

  2. Good review! I agree on most points. I’m glad this movie exists to draw in the more mainstream crowd into awareness of food issues… I’ve been pimping Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” for years, but I think a movie is an easier approach for many people.

    My biggest complain with the movie is actually how it eschews the issue of Big Organic. That was one of the most striking points Pollan made in Omnivore, and I find it a tad too optimistic to give Wall-Mart screen time to show how they’re bring good corporate citizens. That, to me, is glossing over the issue.

    The Q&A afterwards also skited around the issue, which made it a bit awkward. One farmer in the audience brought up the point that he cannot be certified organic because of his fencing, which was a real-life case of labels not being the cure-all we hoped for. It was sad to see that the moderator had no desire to dwell into that, and kept interrupting the dialog in the crowd.

    But then… I guess that was a very conscious choice on the director’s part, as he obviously, as you point out, started from Pollan’s body of work to construct his narrative. I guess he wants the public to feel they can make a difference even if they shop at Wall-Mart, and that is indeed a noble message. But I feel that even then, it’s not telling the whole story, and the slow subjugation of the ‘organic’ label to serve corporate interests is, I feel, one of the major issues we face now.

    Hopefully, people inspired by Food, Inc. will look to Pollan or others to dwell deeper into the issue.

  3. “My biggest criticism of the movie (echoed by Ron Berezan during the Q & A following the screening) was the lack of explicit actions empowered consumers could take.”

    Did you miss that long part at the end where they explicitly told the audience exactly what they could/should do? I don’t see how it could have been more clear. It was basically this:

  4. What’s the point of having a captive audience and the power of visuals if the filmmaker only chooses to run a URL along the screen?

    I know some people would make the effort to visit the website following the viewing, but some would not – so some actions, depicted onscreen, would have been nice.

  5. Oh, I wasn’t referring to the URL. The film maker did much more than just list the URL. I was referring to the 3 minutes of text that they put on screen telling people what they can do to make a difference.

    I think their approach sent a stronger message than video footage of people shopping at farmer’s markets, reading labels, and cheerfully reading labels. When the medium changes, people are more likely to notice and pay attention. I noticed that not one person in the theatre stirred when that text was up on the screen. Everyone seemed to be paying attention. The movie sets you up to start thinking about what you can do, and they do a great job of providing detailed, step by step, instructions right on the screen at the end. I did not need to visit the URL to know what I can do to make a difference. The URL was just provided for people wanting to seek additional information.

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