Eat This Film! A Monthly Helping of Consuming Cinema in NYC | Civil Eats

Eat This Film! A Monthly Helping of Consuming Cinema in NYC

If film–and documentaries in particular–reflect trends in general and popular culture, then it’s no surprise that a growing crop of films have emerged in recent years that mirror our growing awareness about how and where our food comes from. On the other end of the spectrum are movies that in their attempt to consciously avoid any political or social message, might best be described as food porn. So why, given the obvious merits of the first and culinary indulgence of the latter, do most of these films still leave me hungry?

Clearly, activism plays a necessary and critical role in galvanizing and educating people about one of the most fundamental issues facing us today: the inhumane and economically and environmentally unsustainable industrialization of our food supply. What better tool than the camera to expose, enlighten, inspire, and show that there is a better way? But good art and activism often don’t mix well. Many of the ag-oriented films I have seen have only reinforced my existing beliefs; rather than spark a dialogue, these food-related film events felt more like a smug and self-congratulatory group hug. I want art, and especially film, to challenge me without hitting me over the head. Alternatively, I also don’t want to watch a film with no artistic merit other than the fact that it happens to be about food.

That was the inspiration behind pairing the online film journal Reverse Shot with the local food magazine Edible Manhattan for Eat This Film!, a monthly summer screening and discussion series at 92YTribeca that looks at our relationship to food via the moving image. The aim is to bring together two different and passionate communities–food lovers and cinephiles (both in great abundance in NYC)–into one room to engage them in a dialogue about agriculture, the role of food in our lives, and issues of sustenance in the world we live in.

Reverse Shot, a widely respected online film journal founded in January 2003 by editors Michael Koresky, an editor and staff writer at the Criterion Collection, and Jeff Reichert, previously the Senior VP of Marketing and Publicity at Magnolia Pictures, and director of the political documentary Gerrymandering, was a natural partner on Eat This Film!, and not only for their curatorial  expertise. Both gentlemen are devoted Greenmarket shoppers who are passionate about food and concerned with the same issues as the readership of our sponsor and partner Edible Manhattan. But their approach to the subject comes from a different place. As Michael has said, “Food needn’t be dramatized on film only for polemical reasons. It’s part of how we live.”

Running from June 9 through September 15, the 92YTribeca series highlights a unique selection of under-recognized or rarely seen international features and documentaries that we hope will expand the conversation around food and film in a new and surprising way. To help us with that aim, each screening is followed by in-depth discussions and Q&As with a broad range of guest speakers including Oscar-nominated director Richard Linklater (Before Sunset, School of Rock) and best-selling author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation, Reefer Madness), James Beard Award essayist and author Betty Fussell (Masters of American Cookery, Raising Steaks), celebrated chef Marco Canora (Hearth, Terroir), Greenmarket sheep farmer Eugene Wyatt, and co-directors Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Sweetgrass).

Reverse Shot critics also review each film, which they post on their site and provide at each screening, and produce a short film of the speakers and/or directors inspired by the topics in the film.

On Wednesday, June 9 we kicked-off with the vastly underrated Fast Food Nation (2006), Richard Linklater’s brilliant, humane, free form fictional adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s nonfiction bestseller, which never got the audience it richly deserved. (Check out the Reverse Shot video clip here) This was partly due to the fact that fans of Schlosser’s book were disappointed the film wasn’t enough like the book, and Linklater’s fans were turned off by what they perceived was too much of an “issues” driven film. (It didn’t help that its U.S. distributor, Fox Searchlight, baffled by how to market a serious drama with no Hollywood-ending “uplift,” let the film die quietly.)

Sadly, this often seems to be the fate of films that straddle this line, and what a shame, since as Koresky wrote in his excellent review of the film, this is one of Linklater’s best:

More than just an exposé of the meat and processed food industries, Linklater’s Fast Food Nation is a sprawling, frightening survey of contemporary culture, prismatically told through the lives of a group of characters—from corporate puppet-men to exploited Mexican immigrants—who converge in one nowheresville Colorado town. An exhilarating rant against industrial food and an entrenched hierarchical system that encourages exploitation right down the line, Fast Food Nation is one of the most courageous recent American films. (Read the full review here.)

Coming up on Wednesday, July 14, is Cooking History (2009), a brilliantly original and rarely seen documentary by Slovakian film director Péter Kerekes that explores the tragicomic world of military chefs during wartime. With the tag line “6 Wars, 10 Recipes, 60 361 024 dead,” military cuisine takes an unlikely, central role in a vast spectrum of crucial events in this perceptive, persuasive and hilariously droll look at the regional foods that powered history via the cooks who prepared them. As Jeff Reichert wrote in his review of the film:

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Food documentaries too often adopt a holier-than-thou doomsday approach, dictating what we should and should not eat and what ecological catastrophe is about to befall our favorite food source. These films have only surface value, as they seek to inform and outrage without inviting us to understand, and most will fade from memory long before many of their dire predictions come to pass. And, of course, they generally end up less satisfying and flavorful than a curious, historically literate work like Cooking History. (Read the complete review here.)

Joining us for the post-screening discussion is food historian, essayist and longtime cineaste Betty Fussell, James Beard Award-winning author of Raising Steaks: The Life & Times of American Beef, and many other books including the memoir My Kitchen Wars, in which she likens the kitchen to a battleground (“Hunger, like lust in action, is savage, extreme, rude, cruel. To satisfy it is to do battle, deploying a full range of artillery—crushers, scrapers, beaters, roasters, gougers, grinders.”) where her generation toughed out their domestic battles.

For our August screening on Wednesday, August 11, we chose The Tree of Wooden Clogs, by Ermanno Olmi, one of the great realists of Italian cinema, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for this epic study of a year in the life of a peasant farming community in late nineteenth century Lombardy, Italy. Cast with local peasants and farmers, this film is an authentic, intensely moving experience, focusing with stunning un-sentimentality on the daily struggles of its central families. It is truly one of cinema’s most generous, aesthetically sophisticated tributes to the life of the farmer—leaving the viewer to decide what they should take away from it in regards to the plight of farmers today.

Celebrated New York City chef and restaurateur Marco Canora from Hearth and Terroir, a major proponent of local farms and cucina povera cooking, whose new cookbook, Salt to Taste, was nominated for a 2010 James Beard Award, will introduce the film and discuss how his cooking has been influenced by Italian peasant culture.

Closing the series on Wednesday, September 15 will be Sweetgrass (2009), Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s astonishing experiential documentary that follows a flock of sheep on a three-month journey through Montana’s Beartooth Mountains as they search for grazing grass. This elegant, largely wordless film is about more than simply the annual routines of sheep and their herders: it’s a portrait of a vanishing culture and way of life. Featuring gorgeous cinematography and patient, immersive storytelling, Sweetgrass is one of the best nonfiction films in years. To help us put it all into context, we’ll be joined by local sheep farmer Eugene Wyatt from Catskill Merino Sheep Farm and directors Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, who will shed light on raising and filming sheep.

I hope by now that I’ve whetted your appetite for Eat This Film!, an artful stew that will leave you sated, but not full, and definitely wanting more.

Dates & Times:
Wed, July 14, Cooking History, 7:30pm
Wed, August 11, Tree of Wooden Clogs, 7:00pm
Wed, September 15, Sweetgrass, 7:30pm

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Sabine Hrechdakian is an independent producer, and was most recently Special Projects and Publicity Manager for Greenmarket. Read more >

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