Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Food, Inc., the new movie directed by Robert Kenner and co-produced by Eric Schlosser,opens wide this weekend--on 45 more screens--and in more cities throughout the summer, and yes, you have to see it. There hasn't been a film this important about American food production, and probably not about industrialized food anywhere.
The movie opens with a voice-over from the introduction to Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, about the incredible pace of change in the way the world's food is grown and produced. The values and spirit of Fast Food Nation inform the whole film, which began as a documentary based on it. Over the six or seven years Kenner worked on it,
As in Fast Food Nation, the portraits of people make the points more devastatingly than any of the articulate narrators, including Schlosser himself, can. Kenner is a patient filmmaker with the sensitivity to wait for the telling moment--in a Washington hotel room, for instance, after we have followed Barbara Kowalcyk through the halls and offices of the Capitol on a long day of lobbying for passage of a law named after her two-and-a-half-year-old son, Kevin, who died ten days after eating a burger on a family vacation. "Kevin's Law" would give the FDA the power to close meat processors distributing contaminated meat--a power it incredibly does not have. We have seen the sympathetic, semi-distracted faces of the legislators and aides who listen to her tell the story of "my beautiful son." We have seen (several times) home moves of the towheaded boy in the water, just before he got sick.
The freshness of the speakers Kenner chooses lets them make familiar, polemical points free of cant.
Checking her laptop for news of recent outbreaks of food-related illness, Kowalcyk looks at Kenner, exhausted. She doesn't want pity, she says. That she can give herself. She has traveled far from home and devoted years of work so that the companies that could never bring themselves to apologize for what they did to her son won't have the chance to do the same thing to anyone else's.
A similar resignation and anger permeate the ravaged beauty of Carole Morison, a chicken farmer in Maryland who lost her contract with Perdue when she refused to change to "tunnel ventilation" instead of the screen sides of her big chicken houses, which were already so cramped she had to use methods she hated--methods far outside any humane way to raise animals. Morison explains the ever-more-expensive equipment Perdue and other large packers require farmers to install, putting them further into debt and progressively enslaving them--one of several farmers we meet who illustrate a main point of Schlosser's book, that farmers are "essentially becoming hired hands for the agribusiness giants or being forced off the land." The expensive barn she didn't want to build is so cramped that her thousands of chickens can barely stand--and, in fact, that's all they can do. Because they have been bred to be top-heavy with breasts that provide disproportionate amounts of white meat, the chickens can barely take a few drunken steps before toppling over.
Hunched and methodical, wearing a surgical mask to avoid breathing in feathers (but herself already antibiotic-resistant, she says, simply from years of exposure to the drugged birds), Morison trudges through the house picking up dead birds. Only when she emerges into the bright sun, throws the chickens into a tractor, and takes off her mask do we notice how beautiful she was and could still be.
Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Kenner uses subversively bouncy, cartoony graphics in supersaturated color to illustrate points and provide statistics and timelines. The intermittent shots of seductive, sterile supermarkets are almost menacingly vivid (the credits sequence, in which the creators appear on packaged-food labels, is especially clever). The graphics are fun to watch, as in a series of flipping business cards showing the revolving door between Monsanto and government in which lawyers and executives (people you've never heard of, like Clarence Thomas and Donald Rumsfeld, former CEO of Searle, which was absorbed by Monsanto) become officials and regulators in positions to look out for the interests of their previous employer.
They draw a sharp contrast with the grainy color videos of reality, sometimes taken with concealed cameras. We follow, for instance, Eduardo Pena, a union organizer we in Tar Heel, North Carolina, to a late-night trailer park roundup of illegal immigrant workers who kill and cut and pack pork in the largest slaughterhouse in the world. Pena tells the camera that the immigration police have been tipped off by officials from Smithfield, the giant that long ago ripped through the poor and vulnerable local work force to staff its plant (Smithfield was one of several dozen companies that refused to speak to or cooperate with Kenner--a main reason the film took so long to make). Hiring illegal immigrants, Pena says, gives Smithfiled free rein to force the immigrants to work under its own brutal conditions--and lets it easily afford to sacrifice a small quota of them to immigration officials, like a tithe.
The freshness of the speakers Kenner chooses lets them make familiar, polemical points free of cant. Troy Roush, the unprepossessing vice president of the American Corn Growers Association, matter-of-factly describes a system gone mad, in which growers can afford only to use patented seeds, are harshly penalized for trying to follow the centuries-old practice of cleaning and saving seeds for next season, and must plant vast monocrop farms with only the corn that will bring them government subsidies, effectively wiping out biodiversity.
In the central and most powerful story, Moe Parr, one of the few remaining "seed cleaners" who travel from farm to farm with machinery developed in the nineteenth century, tries to defend himself against charges by Monsanto that he is encouraging farmers to break the patent law simply by helping them save seeds. Monsanto, he learns, has subpoenaed every check he has written for the past several years. Parr stays up nights trying to understand how much data it has collected on his customers and how he can possibly avoid betraying them, even if he and they have done no wrong. They are more than customers. They are his longtime friends, from families that together faced the same economic and weather problems for generations.
At the last, we see black and white videotapes of depositions in which lawyers relentlessly name farmers who have used his services. Parr must miserably confirm that their crops were "beans only"--the seeds Monsanto says it owns. Frame by frame we watch a life being broken.
Speakers are brought in to offer hope. There's plenty of Joel Salatin, the libertarian Virginia farmer whose Polyface Farm has been made famous in articles and books by Michael Pollan (and plenty of Pollan, who serves as one of the film's narrators), to offer the example of an utterly uncompromising farmer who wants to produce the "best food in the world" and insists that it can be done as economically as large-scale farming. With his frayed straw hat and penetrating blue eyes behind big brown 1970s glasses, Salatin is a charismatic screen presence, even if on second and third viewings his plain speaking seems a bit rehearsed.
But it is the faces we don't know that speak best. Far from encouraging the comfortable conclusion that the answer to the world's problems is finding a charismatic Salatin-style farmer and buying nice local organic food, the movie shows that the same workers the system exploits are forced to eat the food it produces. Kenner follows the beautifully spoken, trapped Orozco family, Mexican-Americans in California who know and want fresh food but have neither the time nor money to eat it. Like Roush and other speakers, they are ideal for their calm lack of drama. At a supermarket, their two young daughters excitedly weigh bosc pears but find they're too expensive to take home. So is the head of broccoli their father--a truck driver whose medicines for conditions resulting from bad diet cost the family hundreds of dollars a month--eyes but must also put back.
In a terrible updating of a scene by Millet of dinnertime grace, we see the family go to a drive-through on their way home and order four burgers. The expression of sick, silent guilt as the mother passes two burgers to her daughters in the back seat, and their glazed acceptance as they carefully unwrap and eat them, tells the story of the whole movie. It's a story we must work to change.
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