Gag order – Food, Inc. review

Food, Inc. Directed by Robert Kenner. Rated PG. Originally published May 20, 2010. By Simon Miraudo.

Objectivity is a tricky thing. We demand it from our journalists, and that’s fair enough. We want to read news and receive information from a neutral perspective, lest we be tricked into thinking or feeling a particular way (some people – bizarrely – demand objectivity from film critics; as if there is some way to separate a review from its reviewer). Conversely, we don’t demand objectivity from narrative filmmakers. In fact, most viewers fully accept that movies are built upon the director or screenwriter’s own slanted perspective, nay, exist to present their highly specific perspective to the world. So, where does that leave documentarians? And what the hell does this have to do with Food, Inc.?

I’ve noted before the difficulty of reviewing a documentary. What is required from a film reviewer here? Do I just recount the most shocking of the film’s discoveries? Do I note how entertaining the film is in contrast to say, oh I don’t know, Iron Man 2? Do I get into the film’s politics? Or perhaps I should just discuss the craft of the film (and documentaries in general) and the way that Food, Inc. delivers information. I think that last point would be most appropriate, so, if a discussion on this doesn’t interest you, here are my basic feelings on the film: Food, Inc. – a disturbing expose of the food industry – is essential watching. You need to see it. Take your kids. Take your neighbour’s kids. Take a stranger’s kids (well, maybe that’s a bit much). Teachers – plan school excursions to the cinema to see this film. Now, if you’re interested in reading more beyond that, let’s get back into this messy ‘objectivity’ business.

Don’t be mistaken – documentarians, regardless of their journalistic integrity and intensive research – are filmmakers first and foremost. The moment they step behind the camera (the moment they decide to acquire a camera even), they make a conscious decision to construct a version of reality – their version of reality. Michael Moore, perhaps the most successful documentarian in history, has regularly received criticism for his manipulative tactics and outspoken agenda in each of his films. Love him or hate him, the man knows how to package information. Interestingly, two of the most respected documentarians – Werner Herzog and Errol Morris – are also candid about their agenda throughout their movies. The fingerprints of all three of these filmmakers are so apparent they almost obscure the topics at hand. Whether you agree with their politics or not, Moore, Herzog and Morris are among the most effective and affecting filmmakers around.

Food, Inc. director Robert Kenner cannot claim the same, but he tries hard and his final product is admirable, if not incendiary. Don’t get me wrong – the points raised in his film are shocking, upsetting and deserve to be heard by one and all. Using Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser as his mouthpiece, we are presented with the origin of fast-food and the way in which all food since has been affected. He discusses the horrific, unhygienic and dangerously unsafe conditions in farms and slaughterhouses. The film also follows a young mother trying to get justice for her deceased child (killed by a strain of E-Coli) as well as a low-income family who can only afford take-away food. And in the picture’s best scenes, we watch a John Laroche-esque farmer show off his old-school farming collective, spouting the dangers of corporations while cracking jokes about the protoplasmic membrane of a pig.

The film is fascinating, but requires patience. It plays more like a school text than an actual movie. And here we get to the objectivity predicament. Throughout the film, as disparaging claims are made against multinational food and agricultural corporations such as Tyson, Smithfield and Monsanto, Kenner reminds us that the corporations declined to be interviewed for the film. We need to know that they were approached, lest the film be accused of partisanship (heaven forbid). Stating this is just good journalism. The real problem, I feel, is that Kenner is not nearly hard enough on these corporations. I understand that he can’t go out and scream “these corporations are killing our children” – he might as well hand over all his money before they even get around to suing him. In the end though, the film is just too fair on the corporations and the individuals involved in the poisoning of the food industry. If the film were truly successful, I would have marched out of the cinema all riled up, ready to incite revolution and swear myself off non-organic food forever. Instead, I walked out wanting to discuss objectivity in documentaries. But maybe that’s just because I’m a nerd.

Food, Inc. may not be overwhelmingly powerful, but its argument is sound and – hopefully – will make you truly consider what you are purchasing the next time you head to the supermarket. If this were Moore, Morris or Herzog’s film, they wouldn’t stand for anything less than revolution. They would have stopped at nothing to change – yes, even manipulate – our feelings on the food industry, gag orders be damned. They’d be criticised for not being ‘objective’ and failing as journalists. But hey, since when were documentarians meant to be journalists? Filmmakers, whether they’re working with fact or fiction, are indelibly prejudiced. This isn’t always for the best – after all, where is the line between a bias documentary and propaganda drawn. I suppose that’s where film discussion comes in handy; we, as viewers, can’t just swallow everything we see and hear. We need to critically discuss these things and figure out whether the filmmaker’s perspective is valid or ridiculous. I hope this has kicked off the conversation. Go and see Food, Inc. I’ll be here waiting for your response.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Food, Inc. arrives on DVD October 7, 2010.

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