There are movies about food that make you want to eat (see “Babette’s Feast,” for instance, or “Big Night”). And then there are movies that make you think about the way you eat. The last decade has seen a flood of documentaries that are, quite frankly, rather terrifying. Revelations about, for instance, the role that corn and government subsidies for the same play in all of our lives. Watching and rewatching favorites like “Food, Inc.” reminded us that Meatless Monday is something we should do in our households, rather than just talking about it. And don’t even get us started on what all those sodas we drank in high school have done to us. But we don’t want to make you miserable, we want to give you some guidance on what to watch and why.
“Fast Food Nation” (2006)
This one is a strange hybrid, a feature film filled with fictional characters but inspired by Eric Schlosser’s nonfiction book of the same name about our food supply. Schlosser and director Richard Linklater co-wrote the screenplay (Linklater is the brilliant director of the “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” “Before Midnight” series). It features familiar faces like Greg Kinnear (playing a fast-food executive) and Bobby Cannavale (as the nasty creep running a meat-packing plant), but is a true ensemble piece filled with unknowns. Linklater and Schlosser dance around complex issues like exploited Mexican immigrant workers and an E. coli bacteria contamination in the beef supply. It also features a slaughterhouse scene that is as vividly horrifying as anything in the “Saw” franchise. On first viewing, the movie is a little confusing; it feels almost too real, and a lot of critics disliked it. Years later, it seems like the perfect movie for those who claim allergies to documentaries, but want to learn about what really happens in our fast-food economy.
— Mary Pols
“Food Beware: The French Organic Revolution” (2009)
A very (very) talky French film about a small, rural village where the mayor converts the school cafeteria to serve all organic food. The region looks like paradise, but trouble lurks. The area’s many farmers spray liberally with pesticides, and in several sobering interviews (some of the film’s best moments), mothers and fathers talk about children they’ve lost to cancer, deaths that the filmmaker links to the agricultural chemicals. Although often heavy-handed – scenes of spraying and shots of scary, chemical-laden ingredients lists are accompanied by ominous music – the film is also moving and hopeful. The mayor’s small action has a large ripple effect. “It’s not just about eating differently,” he tells the townspeople. “It is something that has had an impact throughout the village – on the farmers, on the shopkeepers, on the baker, on the behavior of families, and on the councillors.” Michael Pollen has long advised Americans to vote with their forks. The citizens of one village in France have taken that advice, and it seems to be working.
– Peggy Grodinsky
“Food Fight” (2008)
Alice Waters “began catering the revolution,” writer Michael Pollan says early in this film about how the counterculture of the 1970s fed the country’s appetite for fresh ingredients after two decades ruled by canned and frozen convenience foods. It tells the story of Chez Panisse, Waters’ Berkeley restaurant that began as a gathering place for radical thinkers and became one of the most important forces in America’s local food movement. The film surveys changes that have occurred since – the growth of farmers markets, school-based food programs and urban farming – but its strength is in Waters’ own story. “If we all ate with pleasure and intention, we could really change the world,” she says.
— Chelsea Conaboy
“Food, Inc.” (2008)
If you’re going to watch only one film on this list, make it director Robert Kenner’s documentary. It wraps together the excellent reporting on industrial farming and food processing from both Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” and Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in one persuasive package. It shines a bright light on what’s wrong with our broken food system, but it is too wittily told and forward thinking to leave you entirely heartbroken about the way things are. For every scary fact in here, there is the counter of some small farmer bucking the system. And if there are people this smart digging for information about the way our food system works, and people this committed to making sure we’ve got the facts, surely there is hope for a less corporate food future.
— Mary Pols
“Food Will Win the War” (1942)
Go to YouTube and search out this short film, made by Disney, that was meant to bolster spirits during World War II. In just under six quick, bizarre minutes, you’ll understand the psychology that gave birth to industrial agriculture. It’s all about can-do spirit and the way our vast and fertile land can do anything, including producing enough food to beat back “the savage enemies of freedom.” The hope of American agriculture is the farmers (“twice as many as the Axis has soldiers!”) and all they can produce with their milking machines and enormous quantities of wheat – which, the film promises, could, if turned into flour, be “enough to snow under the entire German Panzer army.” As for the giant ear of corn so enormous it would stretch from London to the Black Sea? “That hangs right over your head, Adolph,” the film says. And ours, as it turns out. (See “King Corn.”) Also, it’s so sexist it is almost funny: all the farmers are boys, natch.
— Mary Pols
This will feel familiar to anyone who has watched “Food, Inc.” or other films in the corporate-farming-versus-the-consumer genre that seemed to peak in the late 2000s. Joel Salatin, the boisterous Virginia livestock farmer who preaches about grazing rotations using six-syllable words, features prominently. He’s also in “Farmaggedon” and “Food, Inc.” But “Fresh” is smartly made and worth a look, if only for its sad portrait of the husband-and-wife owners of an industrial chicken farm. They seem completely oblivious to just how cruel their factory farm is compared with Salatin’s green pastures, where chickens live, as he would say, in their full “chickenness.” But it becomes clear that the couple, locked into long-term contracts with chicken buyers who name their own price, feel stuck. After a movie full of colorful characters, their quiet resignation is what lingers.
— Chelsea Conaboy
“The Future of Food” (2004)
We’re not going to lie, the narration in director Deborah Koons Garcia’s documentary is off-putting. When she intones, robot-like, “the choices we make at the supermarket determine the future of food,” we wonder when our least favorite teacher is going to show up to hand out a pop quiz. But the information in this film about how the world’s food system, specifically big-agriculture, works is solid, clearly explained and still relevant. Ten years after its release, the film also has value as a snapshot of where we were in 2004. The bad news is, we’re still talking about the same problems. The good news is, our awareness is radically improved and we’re making strong progress in improving our food system. And while that narrator is dreary, the film’s sincerity is refreshing – a lot of the food documentaries rely on being glib and funny to make an impression. “The Future of Food” doesn’t.
— Mary Pols
“King Corn” (2007)
College friends Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis move from Boston to Greene, Iowa, where their great granddaddies lived and farmed, and plant themselves an acre of corn. It’s a grand experiment that will help them understand the role of corn in America’s food policy and our diets. (The idea is very “Super Size Me.”) In this factory-farming world, it takes them 18 minutes to plant some 31,000 seeds. The corn, thoroughly doused in pesticides and insecticides and intense chemical fertilizers, arrives bountiful and right on schedule. Also, inedible and useless for anything but feeding cows and making corn syrup. Woolf and Cheney’s naiveté feels (and is) disingenuous initially, but once you get past that, this eye-opening documentary is loaded with information and insights. Also, an interview with an ancient Earl Butz, the former Secretary of Agriculture who is most responsible for industrial farming, is not to be missed. He’s terrifying and sad at the same time.
— Mary Pols
“A Place at the Table” (2012)
This documentary about food insecurity in America is a little different from the other films on this list. It’s not about what’s going wrong (or right) with farming, it’s about empty tables. Fifty million Americans aren’t sure where their next meal will come from and co-directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush set out to put faces to that statistic. The most unforgettable segment features a single mother in Philadelphia treading the thin line between getting off of welfare and food stamps and being able to feed her family with her new salary; the conflict has never been spelled out so dramatically. Jacobson and Silverbush had two strong voices on their side for the making of this film, chef and anti-hunger advocate Tom Colicchio (Silverbush’s husband) and narrator Jeff Bridges. Bridges is more than just a voiceover – he’s a warm and kind presence in the film, asking the viewer to look at fighting food insecurity as a battle we should all be involved in.
— Mary Pols
“Vanishing of the Bees” (2010)
It’s a film about mass death, “a bee holocaust,” as one beekeeper terms a particularly devastating instance of Colony Collapse Disorder (“2 billion bees – gone” in a single day) and yet it has a gentle, almost fairytale-like tone. “Vanishing of the Bees” trails beekeeping through time and space, talking with scientists, policymakers, writers, big commercial beekeepers and small, passionately committed holistic ones. We watch as a bee victim of the mysterious disorder undergoes dissection and a bee queen gets artificially inseminated (who knew?). One careful step at a time, the film examines the possible causes of the disorder – bad beekeeping, mites, monocultures, systemic pesticides, bee queen breeding, the forced introduction of new queens – as it quietly builds a case against conventional agriculture and for Mother Earth. “How will we grow our food if bees vanish?” the film asks.
— Peggy Grodinsky