The Skinny on Oscar-Nominated Documentaries 'Food Inc.' and 'The Cove'
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Robert Kenner: I read Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation, and I was struck by the idea that with food, there could be so much we don't know about something we are as familiar with. I began to think about doing a film about how we eat and where the food comes from. Ultimately exploring the idea that -- on one level we are spending less of our paycheck on food today than probably at any point in the history of the world -- and at the same time, this inexpensive food is coming to us at a high cost that you don't see at the checkout counter.
I thought by being able to talk about all the producers -- from the [small farmer] Joe Salatins of the world to big agribusiness -- it could be a very interesting conversation. Unfortunately, that conversation never took place [because the agribusiness companies wouldn't consent to be interviewed], so the movie kept transforming into something different. I was very disappointed in the wall and the veil that was placed between us and this conversation about our food.
TL: What was your learning curve like -- how much did you know about these issues going into this, and what did you learn along the way?
RK: I'm still learning. I didn't come into this as a food activist, I came into this as a filmmaker who found it an interesting conversation. I didn't want to make a film for the converted, I didn't want to make a film for the true believers; I wanted to make a film for people who hadn't thought about the food they are eating. I thought it was most important to try and get people, not to turn their stomachs but to open their eyes.
My previous film was called Two Days in October, and it was a story about Vietnam told from all different points of view, and I found I learned more from the people whose opinions were different than mine, and I thought that was great -- unfortunately, this was the opposite. The people who were different wanted to put up a wall. I didn't realize how subversive the world of food was.
I went to a hearing on whether we should label cloned meats. When the lady who represented the industry spoke and said, "I really think it is not in the consumer's interest to be given this information because it's too confusing," I got goosebumps and thought, "this is scary."
Then I realized that this is happening time and time again, and I hadn't been aware of it -- whether it's GMOs that these corporations say are really good and will save the world but then they'll fight like hell to make sure you don't know it's in your food.
Then there is [food-safety advocate] Barb Kowalcyk, who can't tell me what she eats because of the veggie libel laws. And I'm thinking something is off. If you live in a free society and are going to have free trade, it has got to be based on information; and if we are being denied that information we can't make the right choices. I didn't realize I was making a film about First Amendment rights. There is a lot to the story about our food.
TL: You mentioned not being able to have the conversation you wanted because there were so many corporations that wouldn't go on camera with you, but there were also ordinary people who were afraid to talk.
RK: You know, if you talk, and you're involved in this world of food production, you do so at great peril. And you pay the price. It is amazing how vulnerable you can be if you step forward and enter this conversation.