What the Rise in Food-Themed Documentaries
Reveals About Our Edible Anxieties
A Collaborative Essay by Creighton University’s Rhetoric and Composition Section ENG 150R
Early in the documentary Food, Inc. (Magnolia Pictures, 2008) a ruminant nutrition expert at Iowa State University reaches his hand into the exposed stomach of a live cow as he checks for the presence of bacteria that might be gestating there, especially E. coli. The procedure, he ensures the camera crew filming the scene—and therefore the audience viewing at home as well—is not painful to the cow, but this doesn’t make the scene any less shocking to watch. The reason such research needs to be done in the first place? In short, American consumers’ strong desire for cheap, fatty meat. The expert goes on to inform the film’s viewers that the corn-based diet now primarily consumed by feedlot cattle has unexpectedly produced acid-resistant bacteria (like E. coli) that are much more harmful to the humans than what has been experienced in the past. This particular shot concludes with a close-up of miscellaneous solids and liquids churning in the cow’s exposed stomach, and as viewers our stomachs, too, are meant to churn, both from the visceral nature of the cinematography and from the startling information we’ve just learned about the possible dangers lurking inside any given cut of meat.
Countless examples of scenes akin to this one in Food, Inc. can be found in the proliferating genre of food-themed documentaries that have appeared on large and small screens over the last decade or so. The basic formula it follows—a graphic (but not unwatchable) image of some common, but ignored or overlooked, practice of the food industry, coupled with expert testimony and a somber soundtrack, with the payoff being an audience physically, emotionally and perhaps even psychological revolted—is a tried and true strategy of the visual rhetoric that documentaries like Food, Inc. put to use in order to advance a common thesis. Most often, this thesis takes the form of a challenge to the established food culture of the so-called “Western diet,” with particular scrutiny given to the unholy (or unhealthy?) triad of fast food, industrialized agriculture and agribusiness.
With titles like Food Fight (Positively 25th Street Productions, 2008), Farmageddon (Kristin Canty Productions, 2011) and Hungry for Change (Permacology Productions, 2012), the list of films in this genre continues to expand, and like most smaller-budget films, accessibility to them has been enhanced greatly by streaming services like Netflix and iTunes—or even a trip to the local library (as was the case with the documentaries discussed in detail below). However, just like this magazine is all about empowering consumers to be well informed about the food they purchase, cook and consume in and around Omaha, so, too, is it important to be savvy consumers of our mediated food experiences. We define this term here to include any books, magazines, films, television programs and digital media that directly or indirectly influence how we think about, and ultimately eat, food. A similar sort of analysis could certainly be directed toward food-themed books (like Michael Pollan’s tome The Omnivore’s Dilemma or memoirs by “celebrity” chefs like Paula Deen) or popular television shows like Master Chef or Man vs. Food (a show Omaha viewers might recognize by its recent visit to Starsky’s Bar and Grill in South Omaha). However, our interest is primarily in the food-themed documentary, because films falling into this genre tend to employ similar strategies of visual rhetoric, engage many of the same food-related issues and consistently share a unified voice when it comes to challenging the ways most Americans interact with food.
Before delving too deeply into specific documentaries, it is worth taking some time to think more broadly about mediated food experiences as distinct from firsthand food experiences like gardening, cooking or eating. On the one hand, most of us have become accustomed to having food experiences mediated to us through page and screen, and have long been so, through the form of cookbooks—more and more of which are vividly illustrated—and cooking instruction programs, with a more recent proliferation of a “food entertainment” industry and the endless advertisements that run on any television program, food-centric or otherwise. Yet, on the other hand, there is something a bit unnatural about experiencing food through these formats, as eating—the (physio)logical endpoint of most any piece of food—is a very hands-on undertaking, and the one thing a person cannot do when reading a book or watching a show about food is eat it. Therefore, it is worth questioning why there is so much appeal to reading about the infighting that takes place in gourmet restaurants, or following along as someone prepares a soufflé that we’ll never taste, or watching (perhaps a bit vicariously) as a brave soul tries warthog rectum while traveling through Namibia.
Furthermore, it is rare when these mediated food experiences are not attached to some additional, often implicit or possibly disguised, purpose or message. In other words, the portrayal of food and food culture textually, visually or digitally has proven to be an effective means of conveying powerful ideas to a desired audience—such as the way a Burger King commercial is less about the good times the teenagers eating a burger happen to be having and more about buying the burger itself, or the effort of a show like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives to show that “foodies” don’t have to dine exclusively in snobbish Michelin-rated restaurants but can be everyday folks like Guy Fieri (with or without the inverted sunglasses). That is the reality of any form of mediation: instead of experiencing something firsthand and forming our own ideas and opinions, the mediated experience comes second- (or third- or fourth-) hand and that in-between space is filled in by the ideas, opinions, beliefs, biases, prejudices and ideologies of the person(s) in control of the media. While it’s fairly obvious that the Burger King ad is mostly interested in peddling that burger, the motives and messages of other forms of media are often subtler.
Returning to Food, Inc.—arguably the best-known film fitting into this genre—it doesn’t take long to establish the perspective from which the filmmakers will be addressing American food culture, as the first five minutes of the film transition from the aisles of a large grocery store (complete with representative rows of sugary cereals), to a cattle feedlot in middle America, to a row of combines harvesting grain back-dropped by factory smokestacks, to a computer-generated shot of anonymous businessmen in suits walking toward those same factories, one of which eventually transforms to a building reminiscent of the U.S. Capitol. To reinforce these images, two of the film’s primary speakers, authors Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, clearly lay out the stakes of what the audience is viewing: modern American food culture has become more about business (the words “multinational corporation” are spoken more than once in this same stretch of film) than about the health and well-being of consumers, not to mention the animals or environments that are being exploited for the sake of comfort, convenience and especially cost. As is true with most documentaries of this nature, Food, Inc. relies heavily on personal vignettes of non-experts / non-celebrities—including farmers, producers, business owners and consumers—that are directly impacted by the abstract decisions of the corporations and politicians who influence so much of American food culture. The pathos established in these scenes of small-scale farmers being sued by Monsanto for seed saving, or a family of migrant workers who opt for Burger King over broccoli because the calorie-per-dollar ratio is so much higher, registers powerfully with viewers because of the intense personal connection they create. This is especially true of the portion of the film devoted to a mother challenging congress to pass a bill commonly referred to as Kevin’s Law, named after her two-year-old son who died after eating meat contaminated with E. coli. As a standalone narrative within the larger film, Kevin’s story forces viewers to rethink core practices of the American food industry, such as the cost-saving (and therefore lax) standards to which large-scale meat producers are held, and whether or not those priorities can be placed above the health and well-being of even a single child. Coupled with the film’s other uses of visual rhetoric—“hidden-camera” shots of animal cruelty, plus numerous graphs, statistics and animations—persuasively reinforces Food, Inc.’s primary thesis of the too-close-for-comfort ties between industry and the government in charge of keeping it honest.
Another recent documentary that takes shots at a wide range of conventional attitudes about the Western diet is Forks over Knives (Monica Beach Media, 2011). This film is interesting because it is commonly shortlisted alongside Food, Inc. as among the most influential and well-regarded documentaries on this topic, but also because its approach is notably distinct from the approach taken by Food, Inc. Whereas that film might fairly be accused of being overly preachy in the way it addresses its audience, Forks over Knives strives for a higher degree of empathy between its filmmaker and its audience, as director Lee Fulkerson is depicted as a “sinner” like the rest of us who consumes vast quantities of soda and energy drinks just to get himself going in the morning. The camera then follows Fulkerson to a health screening (the results of which are unsurprisingly negative) and an unconventional prescription from his doctor—namely, to cut meat, dairy and highly processed foods out of his diet, take up a “whole-foods, plant-based diet” (this phrase is repeated throughout the film, which self-consciously avoids the word “vegan,” though that’s really what it’s advocating) and kick the meds that have been keeping him afloat thus far. From the outset of Forks over Knives, therefore, a clear narrative is established, as viewers presumably will follow Fulkerson from Red Bull addict to kale connoisseur.
Significant portions of the film do indeed document Fulkerson’s efforts to undergo this whole-foods transformation, but its main focus is actually on the work of Dr. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn (one a researcher, one an MD), whose career trajectories unknowingly coincided toward the same points of emphasis, which just so happen to be the same diagnosis and prescription given to Fulkerson earlier in the film. Along the way the film tracks “everyday” converts to the diet advocated by Drs. Campbell and Esselstyn, including a woman working in a diabetes clinic who is strongly encouraged to stay on all of her medications, despite the positive returns of following the Campbell-Esselstyn diet. One common element Forks over Knives shares with Food, Inc. is its inclusion of shocking imagery and visualizations, here in the form of various surgical procedures currently used to mitigate the Western diet. For some, sitting through just 30 seconds of a filmed open-heart surgery might be persuasive enough to consider trading bacon for Brussels sprouts. For others, the images of pills no longer taken (one of the film’s “chapter” intercuts is the Hippocratic maxim, “Let food be thy medicine”) might resonate more forcefully. And if Fulkerson’s filmed reaction to his much-improved health screening near the end of the documentary doesn’t fully ring true, at least the film succeeds in making its closing shot of a meat- and dairy-less meal look tasty enough to track down the recipe.
The final pair of documentaries to be addressed here, King Corn and Big River (Mosaic Films, 2007 and 2009), ought to hit much closer to home for those reading this publication, as it follows a pair of filmmakers who grow an acre of corn in the rural Midwest (Greene, Iowa, specifically) in order to gain a better understanding of where their food comes from and, in the sequel, to track the “downstream” impacts of that same acre. Unlike Food, Inc. and Forks over Knives, the appeal of these two films is their immediacy to the experiences of many people living in the Midwest. For instance, even those not directly involved in agriculture today have friends or relatives that are or were, or have an economic connection to agribusiness, or at the very least routinely drive by vast fields of corn and beans. Moreover, filmmakers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, rather than taking a more abstract or distanced approach to the complex agriculture processes at the heart of their documentary, literally get their own hands dirty in order to better understand the real-world consequences of relying so heavily on just a few major row crops. This includes living for a time in the community where their acre of corn is located and interacting with other farmers who have a much larger stake in squeezing as many bushels of corn as possible out of the ever-reducing Iowa topsoil. Most refreshingly, the attitude of these native Easterners toward their surrogate Midwestern community is neither skepticism nor condescension but a legitimate effort to weigh the pros and cons of the unavoidable realities of large-scale American agriculture. The one consistent theme these two films share with their counterparts discussed above is a critique of the powers-that-be responsible for implementing “go big or go home” farm policies and all but forcing widespread use of chemical herbicides and fertilizers in order to sustain the corn-based diet targeted as well in Food, Inc. and Forks over Knives. What Big River in particular expresses clearly, however, is that the implications of these policies run deep, from soil to stream and from river to delta, impacting all those sharing this same watershed.
Wes Jackson—founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas—is given the closing words of Big River, asserting that, “If you’re not aware as to what it is that stands behind all of that agriculture, you can live with the illusion that there’s nothing wrong.” As students at Creighton University—living and learning on an urban campus in the heart of the American Midwest, mere minutes away from “all of that agriculture”—Jackson’s words ring especially true. Indeed, the problems and controversies raised in these four documentaries are often right in front of us: in the fields of corn and beans not far from campus, the meat-processing facilities just down 24th Street, the murky Missouri River visible from our classroom, the food served in our dining halls or even the food options available to those relying upon the nearby Sienna Francis House. The challenge for us, as it is for many who’ve grown accustomed to the so-called Western diet, is to avoid succumbing to the “illusion that there’s nothing wrong.” This is especially true in the cold Midwestern winter, when the crops have all been harvested, the farmers markets are closed for the season and processed foods are easier to come by than those that have been freshly grown. Thus a major appeal of documentaries like Food, Inc., Forks over Knives, King Corn and Big River (along with other like-minded and well-intentioned media) is their ability to keep the dual issues of local, sustainable agriculture and healthy eating accessible during times when direct experiences with food are much harder to come by. More than just catchy titles, talking heads and other forms of visual rhetoric, at their best these films have the potential to inspire viewers to change their own eating habits and ideally join the fight for better food in their own communities.
Creighton University’s Rhetoric and Composition Section ENG 150R spent the past semester exploring the intersections of food, culture and media. The work began with a lecture by Patricia la Trecchia, Food Studies professor at the University of South Florida, and included analysis of a variety of readings and the documentaries included in this article. In addition to this collaborative essay, each student wrote, revised and expanded an independent, thesis-driven advocatory essay on a controversy related to this topic.