Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Watch Your Food: The Top 10 Food Documentaries

Although it's not a documentary, "Fast Food Nation" is a feature film with
a level of realism that sometimes feels like a documentary. The film's
depiction of the underside of the fast food industry makes it one of the
Top 10 food films. (Photo courtesy of FOX Searchlight)
By John A. Zukowski

Despite the largely unflattering vegan and vegetarian stereotypes in pop culture and the lack of information about food ethics in the news media, there’s an increasing interest in food ethics and healthy eating.

With a growing vegan subculture (and a lot of A-list vegan and vegetarian celebrities), more people are curious about plant-based diets. To fill the gap of information missing in the mainstream media, a number of food documentaries have been released since Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 film “Super Size Me”—which kickstarted the food doc genre. Spurlock’s rejection of a fast food diet opened the gates for other filmmakers to take on the food industry.

These ten movies provide information about the modern food industry that would never be shown in the mainstream media—which is partly kept in business by advertising from the food industry.

However, most of them advocate for a vegan diet for health reasons. Perhaps this means the gateway for individualistic Americans to veganism is telling the public they will be healthier. The ethics of eating meat or animal exploitation is covered less often than health reasons. Some documentaries such as “Food Inc.” even stop short of vegetarianism and instead call for a return to local small farms as sources for meat rather than the corporatized meat industry.

Still, the success of these documentaries indicates there is growing resistance to the corporate agriculture business and meat-based diets. Here are the ten best food movies that cover ground the mainstream media won’t:

1. “Vegucated” (2010)—Three omnivores who are willing to try a vegan diet are rounded up. It ends up being the most watchable and convincing food documentary released in recent years. Director Marisa Miller Wolfson focuses on the progress of the three participants as they wrestle with challenges ranging from uncooperative boyfriends to learning how to cook vegan. Although it’s backed up with some health and ethical facts, it’s the realistic journey of these three people that stays with us in a way that no other food doc can match.

Two college friends plant an acre of corn and go on a sweeping
investigation of modern agribusiness in "King Corn."
(Photo courtesy of Balcony Releasing)
2. “King Corn” (2007)—Exploitation and corruption aren’t only in the meat industry; it’s in the corporate agricultural business too. Two college buddies move to Iowa and buy a plot of land to grow corn on. But they soon find out it isn’t an idyllic experiment in heartland farming.

They discover the enormous subsidies the U.S. government gives to the corporatized corn industry. This leads to subsidized U.S. farmers putting Third World farmers out of business when they export their ultra-cheap goods overseas, and has created the widespread use of high fructose corn syrup in far too many foods. A must see.

3. “Super Size Me” (2004)—Morgan Spurlock ignited the food ethics documentary genre with his notorious experiment of eating a McDonald’s-only diet for a month. His health plummets, and by the end of the month he’s rescued with a vegan detox. If nothing else it reminded the masses that fast food was unhealthy and uncool.

Morgan Spurlock went on a "McDiet" in the 2004 documentary
"Super Size Me." The month-long McDonald's diet ravaged his health,
but it started the recent food film trend. (Photo courtesy Samuel Goldwyn Films)
4. “Fast Food Nation” (2006)—Not a documentary but a feature film inspired by Eric Schlosser’s best-selling book. It features three separate storylines about the ethics of the fast food business. The characters become disillusioned as they descend further into the demeaning reality of the industry. The best storyline is the group of high school students working at a local burger joint who become increasingly aware of injustice and exploitation.

A flawed movie, but with more of a dose of realism than many other feature movies have despite the celebrity cameos (Bruce Willis and Avril Lavigne fizzle, but Ethan Hawke impresses as the slacker beer-chugging cool uncle).

5. “Forks Over Knives” (2011)—A vegan diet transforms several people wrestling with health problems. It also contains essential information from acclaimed nutritionists. If you have to convince someone of a vegan diet from the health angle, this is probably the movie to show them.

6. “Future of Food” (2004)—Expose of the strong-armed tactics of Monsanto and the biotech industry. They bully small farmers out of business by monopolizing the seed market and by unleashing genetically-modified foods and then persuading the U.S. government not to label GMO foods—which is required in Europe.

7. “Food Inc.” (2008)—A mixed bag, but still recommended. Good part: shows the corporationization of farms and helps smash the view that most farming is by small earnest farmers that treat their animals as pets. That’s so 20th century! Bad part: Does not advocate a vegetarian or vegan diet and is way too focused on Michael Pollan’s omnivore-centric food-elitest ideology.

8. “End of Poverty?” (2008)—Not really a food doc, but a documentary about world poverty narrated by all-around good guy Martin Sheen. Shows what the mainstream media hasn’t really covered: how colonization created a culture that left people incapable of growing their own food and made them disenfranchised and dependent upon corporate food policies. This remains in one form or another in most of the world. And you can argue that’s why most of us in American culture don’t know how to grow our own food or sometimes even cook basic meals. Although it’s sometimes too slow-paced, it delivers the necessary background about how we became disenfranchised from food in the first place.

9. “Dirt: The Movie” (2009)—Gets a little touchy-feelie at times and loses steam in the last third of the movie. But it still changes the way you view something you see and feel everyday, the earth beneath your feet that grows our food.

10. “Food Fight” (2008)—Continues the trend of detailing the agribusiness practices with the usual opinions from too-much interviewed Michael Pollan. But the strength of the movie is the call-to-arms about farmer’s markets and DIY gardening. It shows there is both a backlash against modern agribusiness and an alternative to it.

John A. Zukowski worked for more than a decade as a feature writer reporting about pop culture, music and religion for daily newspapers. He's now a freelance writer who lives in Eastern Pennsylvania with his wife Kim.