Films have a unique ability to inspire and educate. The SFT team have curated a list of our favourite food documentaries exploring some of the most important issues facing our food systems. Are there any that we’ve missed? Tell us your favourites in the comments below.
Seeds of Time (2013)
Seeds of Time explores the impending challenges to agriculture in the face of climate change. The film follows Cary Fowler, agriculturalist and former executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, in his effort to secure agricultural systems of the future, through the preservation of plant varieties in his Noah’s Ark of agricultural genetic banks. Held deep within a Norweigen mountain, the Svalbard Seed Bank is protecting our future by securing diversity of seeds, even in the face of extinction of varieties outside of the bank. Working with international seed banks, Fowler’s mission is to protect biodiversity within agriculture and protect our food from the vulnerabilities that result from mono-crop farming. Through programmes of crop sharing, seed swaps and selective breeding, the Seeds of Time makes the case for protecting our agricultural diversity against all odds.
The Moo Man (2013)
The Moo Man is the quiet but extraordinary story of Steve Hook, a raw milk dairy farmer and his Frisian heard. The relaxed pace of the film reflects the pace of life of Steve’s cows, a slow form of living that means his girls live on average a third longer than your typical dairy cow. Despite rosy trips to the seaside with the prize of the herd, the plight of the family farms looms large for Hook. In the last 10 years the number of dairy farms in the UK has halved and the number of cows to stockmen continues to grow. Why? Hook tells us that supermarkets are only prepared to pay 27p per pint, even though a pint of milk costs 34p to produce. Already supported by working tax credits, and unwilling to subscribe to this system or lose his Sussex farm, Hook follows his conviction that the milk most people drink is not milk at all. The films follows Steve’s attempts to independently retail his raw milk direct to consumers. If an FSA ruckus over raw milk vending machines in Selfridges sounds familiar – same man, different story. This is a not a campaigning film, simply a picture of one farmer doing what makes sense, and tastes best, to him.
If Fusarium wilt TR, or Panama disease hasn’t already called you to reassess your banana eating habits, this film probably will. Not yet released in the States, Bananas is the ultimate tale of corporate accountability and responsibility. Following Cuban LA lawyer, Juan Dominguez as he puts his all into a battle against Dole Food’s pesticide use, we learn that David may well be able to face Goliath in modern America. Banned in the USA in 1977 in association with male sterility, a DBCP-based compound, Nemagon, was used by Dole Foods – formerly Standard Fruit – in its plantations outside the US right up until 1982. Why? Profit. Did they think they’d be culpable? Of course not. Watch agribusiness get a surprise 30 years on as workers find the means to claim their rights. Sadly, this may not be a case condemned to history as one third of the production price of the average banana is still used simply to cover the cost of pesticides.
Grown in Detroit (2009)
Grown in Detroit follows a group of young girls as they attend the Catherine Ferguson Academy – a school that caters for pregnant or young mothers in the Detroit area. Detroit is notoriously dangerous and boasts high levels of crime and unemployment. With many young people forced to earn money through the drugs trade, the Catherine Ferguson Academy not only offers the girls a second chance at an education, but also teaches them agricultural skills which could help them build a new life in the future. With a third of Detroit’s population living below the poverty line, it is more important than ever to ensure that people know where their food comes from. The school has a vibrant working farm, growing fruits and vegetables and keeping farm animals and bees. The film shows the girls learning to plant and harvest produce, and also how to make products to sell such as cider and honey. Illustrating the harsh reality of living in such a deprived part of America, the documentary makers also leave viewers with hope that with help from schools such as this, young mothers can make a new life for themselves in agriculture, both allowing them to live a healthy lifestyle, and earn an income to support their young families in the future.
Black Gold (2006)
Black Gold follows Ethiopian coffee through its global production network, from its harvest in the rural Omoria region of Ethiopia, to its international points of purchase. The film views the coffee network from the point of view of Tadesse Meskela, a co-operative manager and international trader of some of the world’s most sought after Ethiopian beans. Exploring the various value-added steps of coffee between farmer and consumer, Black Gold presents the dramatic reality of global production networks, reporting remarkably low incomes for those farmers responsible for internationally distributed coffee, despite the increasing wealth of the international market. Meskela travels globally in search of better prices for his co-operative’s coffee, eliminating some middle-men in the coffee’s journey into our cups.
El Bulli, Ferran Adrià’s world acclaimed restaurant probably needs little introduction, and likewise the film El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, pretty much does what it says on the tin. This is a thorough expose of the former Michelin starred restaurant’s ‘creative process,’ the annual cycle in which the El Bulli team close shop for six months to muse in test kitchens, train their new brigade of chefs and then reopen to cook for the lucky 8,000 diners who were chosen from more than two million requests. Meticulous lists and endless detailed questioning like “how can we get more of the syrup that drips out of a baked potato?” underpin their quest for ‘something completely different’. I’ll leave it down to you to decide whether this is elitist hyper gastronomy or crucial innovation for the future of food and just say that this film is thrilling, you could cut the air with a knife from the outset. As the film draws on, and Ferran’s note pencil gets shorter, you cannot help but share the joy of the peaky, wide-eyed chefs as a full-mouthed Ferran gives their dishes the tiny nod of approval. Popcorn will not suffice.
Unacceptable Levels (2013)
In the wake of familial health complications, father and filmmaker Ed Brown examines our exposure to chemicals in daily life. Unacceptable Levels follows the introduction of chemicals into American society during the chemical revolution of the 1940s, exploring both their lack of regulation, and the potential side effects of continued exposure. Unacceptable Levels studies the high quantities of chemicals finding their way into our bodies through agriculture, cosmetics, drinking water and the environment. Examining misconceptions of chemical exposure in the United States, Brown unearths gaps in research regarding the mixing of chemicals within human bodies. The epidemic rates of chronic illnesses spurs Brown to question further the future of our chemically infused society.
Growing Cities (2013)
Two perky young Nebraskans go on a not-so-typical, but totally rad, post college road trip. Jumping in a truck to tour the US’s diverse urban farming projects, they ask how much power urban farming has to revitalise our cities and eating habits? Their 1300 mile trip takes them from New York roof gardens to abandoned lots in Detroit, through Portland, Seattle, Berkley, New Orleans and past aquaponics, growing walls and aperies. With a gentle nod to urban agriculture’s victory garden roots, they argue that urban growing is the perfect tool for the provision of food security and accessible to all ages, income brackets and ethnicities. This whistle-stop tour provides inspiring and concrete examples of the food systems of the future, highlighting the versatility of our urban space and the need for the 80% of the American population to take on self-sustaining and community building growing projects. If you want to grow food you’ve got to use what you’ve got, whether it’s a roof top, window, or lot.
Soul Food Stories (2013)
This absurd and tickling documentary begins: ‘We solve all problems in the bar between friends’. The bar of Satovchka, a small Bulgarian village, is a table in the back of a seniors club. The friends are a senior male cross section of the village’s multi-faith and ethnic groups – Orthodox Bulgarians, Muslim Turks, Pomacs and Evangelist Gypsies. Amidst slow scenes of tomato salad preparation and banitza baking, these men speak to the camera of their history of conflict, the village’s social strata, and the influence of America, which they regret is seeping into everyday life. Women’s place is by the hearth we are told, and the village’s solid women do not disagree. There’s an inkling that feminism may lead to trash TV watching, hamburgers and emigrating children. With a twinkle in their eye and a chair at a full table, both men and women pronounce ‘traditional’ views (rarely politically correct) and a pride in their identity, common past and peaceful community which is fostered by the comforting necessity of food preparation and a thorough appreciation of convivial eating.
Green Bronx Machine (2014)
Winner of the People’s Choice award at this year’s Real Food Media Contest, this short film tells the story of Green Bronx Machine, a groundbreaking community programme in one of the most deprived areas of New York City, the South Bronx. Founder of the Green Bronx Machine, Stephen Ritz, is not a farmer, he’s a teacher armed with the belief that kids should not have to leave their community in order to better themselves. Using innovative green walls, Stephen was able to bring the garden into the classroom and quickly found that he was onto something. One of the students admits that he didn’t even know what a vegetable was, but through the programme was able to have a hand in growing enough food to feed 450 kids in their school, with any leftovers donated to a local food shelter. The students also sell their produce at a local market, giving them the opportunity to earn a wage and make a difference in their community. The work done by Stephen and his team is truly inspirational, not only did attendance at his school rise from 40% to 93%, but students now have the motivation and the means to transform their lives for the better, all through the power of vegetables!
Voices of Transition (2014)
Oil, chemicals and fertilisers can no longer feed the world. This is the film’s point of departure. The end goal is ‘food sovereignty’, a term which refers to the right of communities to have control over their own food security (say, rather than being dependent on importing foods and exporting cash crops). The film, produced by Nils Aguilar, presents innovative, inspirational and substantial solutions to the food security challenges that we knowingly face. The film explores the potential of agroforestry models in France, which imitate natural ecosystems, the Transition Town Movement in England, introduced by Rob Hopkins, and the organic farming revolution in Cuba, which arose after the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc in 1990 and the consequent collapse of their economic exchanges. It was then imperative for Cuba to find ways to produce with limited access to oil, and chemical fertilisers. The engaged optimism of these transition voices is contagious, join them to share ideas and spread solutions.
Local Food Roots (2013)
Local Food Roots both celebrates the achievements and skillfully tells the story of how the UK’s local food movement has emerged since 1990 as increasing numbers of people begin to ask where their food comes from. Through interviews and footage of initiatives in action, the film explores different angles on ‘local food’ to illustrate diversity, motivations, challenges and opportunities. It also explores the context in which the local food movement has emerged in the UK, as farmers and rural businesses faced first BSE and then the Foot and Mouth Disease crisis. Starting with the organic box schemes, the film looks at examples of local food models and considers how local food culture fits in with the challenge of feeding cities. As well as explaining something of the recent history the film-makers have aimed to encourage more audience discussion about the important role that local supply networks have to play in the future. To this end, the film is licensed for community use so that anyone can organise a screening.
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