POLLANESQUE RANT Farmer Joel Salatin's monologue.
Following in the Peabody Award-winning footsteps of Aaron Wolf's congenial, informative documentary King Corn, Robert Kenner's omnibus agri-doc Food, Inc. offers a bleaker portrait of America's food economy at this year's Food+Farm event series, centered at SPACE Gallery from May 7 to 10. (See our listings and page 5 for details on other offerings.)
Even if you've already read the bestselling books that provide the ideological fuel for Kenner's film — primarily Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (the two authors effectively narrate the film) — some of its imagery jolts the gruesome perversions of the modern food industry to life. Genetically inflated farm animals mope or spazzily cluck through brown, grassless terrain, wandering through their own feces and so juiced up they can barely support their own weight; corn-based "hamburger meat filler" is sent through a machine to be "cleansed" with ammonia.
To the film's credit, these disturbing visuals don't feel like scare tactics — a scene showing organic farmers preparing free-range chickens for market is just about as stomach-churning — but concrete proof of the film's sprawling yet utterly coherent argument. In a nutshell, Food, Inc. says that the proliferation of fast-food restaurants in the middle of the 20th century fundamentally altered the way we eat, creating factory systems of food production and preparation to keep up with increasing demand. These techniques spread through the entire, newly industrialized food system, and developments in science have allowed our food to be grown more quickly with more consistent results, as it has simultaneously become more unnatural, unhealthy, and dangerous to produce. The food in our grocery stores, Schlosser suggests, is "notional," familiar in name and by appearance but not in its chemical makeup. The presentation is further illuminated by the requisite horrifying statistics, nifty graphical presentations, and damning silence from the corporations being criticized.
These nutritional fallacies, we learn, are held up by government policy. Kenner's film introduces us to a female consumer-food-safety advocate (she is Republican, a blatant-feeling reminder that food is not a partisan issue), who has spent seven years urging (futilely, so far) Congress to ramp up government regulation over the food industry after her two-and-a-half-year-old son died of E. coli poisoning from a tainted hamburger. We also meet a man looking to organize immigrant workers, who are being rounded up in raids that promote jingoistic immigration policies — as their employers, who actively recruit them from Mexico, go unpunished.
Despite all its withering indictments, Food, Inc. rarely allows its subjects and talking heads to betray anger. It's also not blindly anti-corporate, giving kudos to Wal-Mart for promoting organic produce and dairy products in its stores, which have already had a significant impact in reducing the use of bovine growth hormones in milk and yogurt. (Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm points out that space for his products in Wal-Mart stores is space lost for more tainted products.) In fact, the film's argument is for the most part so calmly and clearly portrayed that the whole production, after a while, begins to feel oppressively focus-grouped.