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The Slow Food on Film Festival

The Slow Food on Film Festival

Pairing Food and Film in Bologna

In the piazza outside the Bologna cinematheque, a rooster crows. Not just any rooster, but an antique Tuscan variety, saved from extinction by men like Luigi Ruggeri, a Bolognese farmer who raises rare fowl. Down the street, a new communal bread oven is firing up, while filmgoers with flour-caked hands wait their turn to bake freshly risen loaves. In the city’s historic center, cineastes take a food-history tour at the Medieval Civic Museum, admiring flatbread presses that once imprinted coats of arms and a fanciful water vessel in the shape of a knight that rinsed the hands of medieval banqueters.

 Artisanal goat cheese and my handmade loaf, cooked in a communal bread oven created for the festival.

Artisanal goat cheese and my handmade loaf, cooked in a communal bread oven created for the festival.

These are not the usual accompaniments to a film festival. But in Bologna at the Slow Food on Film Festival, they pair as perfectly as lambrusco with lasagna. This five-day event is a collaboration of Slow Food International, Cineteca Bologna, and the city of Bologna, and it testifies to the growing number films about food, farming, and agriculture. In 2002, the festival was merely a sidebar to a biannual festival of short films in Bra (home of Slow Food International) and showcased 21 shorts. Since then, it has added features, long-form documentaries, television series, silent movies, shows from the 1950s and ’60s on vanishing food trades, as well as supplementary programs like urban food walks, a bread baking workshop, and booths of artisan food. Its expanding dimensions prompted a move to Bologna in 2008. This spring, it stepped up to an annual cycle. “When we decided to go annual, we were concerned there wouldn’t be enough films,” says festival artistic director Stefano Sardo. “But this year, it’s really exploding.” Organizers received 268 submissions, and the 2009 edition, held May 6-10, showcased 137 films, with 57 recent productions in competition.

Films are often harbingers of cultural change. Sideways hit theaters the year before wine surpassed beer as American’s drink of choice, and Morgan Spurlock’s disastrous 30-day MacDonald’s diet in Supersize Me paved the way for New York City’s mayor to usher in a law requiring calorie counts on fast-food menus.

As festival director, Sardo is ideally situated to scan the horizon for the next food trend. Over the past decade, he has observed a marked shift in filmmakers’ concerns. “When we started, it was more about the pleasure and consumption of food,” says Sardo. “Now, warnings about food production have become more important. Spontaneously, filmmakers from all over have started to deal with these subjects: It could be the disappearance of salmon in Alaska or climate change killing the ecosystem in Cornwall. It’s like the collective conscious has been alerted that something bad is going on.”

 One of the festival highlights

One of the festival highlights

Five years ago, when the festival presented The Future of Food, director Deborah Koons Garcia was a lone pioneer. “That was the first feature documentary to warn against GMOs and the corporatization of food,” Sardo recalls. But the film got little traction, remaining mostly on the festival circuit. Today, the climate is altogether different, as festival entry Food, Inc. proves. Robert Kenner’s muckracking documentary traces the transformation of farming into agribusiness and examines a broad swath of topics—from genetically engineered chickens to Monsanto’s litigious destruction of farmers who won’t play ball. As Variety film critic John Anderson wrote, “Food, Inc. does for the supermarket what Jaws did for the beach.” The film has struck a chord. Five million viewers watched the online trailer within the first six days. The documentary received a wide theatrical release and got kudos from Oprah to Entertainment Weekly. Even President Obama’s inner circle screened the film, and reshuffled their short list of FDA nominees as a result.

Another thematic thread in recent films is the eulogizing of disappearing traditions. At the festival, Milkbar paid homage to one of the last Communist-era restaurants in Poland that provides subsidized meals to the poor. The Last Butcher in Little Italy tipped its hat to Moe Albanese’s butcher shop, a lone island in a sea of designer boutiques. And numerous films mourned the passing of a family farm, with stories in France (Combalimon), the Midwest (Knee Deep), and Hungary (Prayer) echoing across borders.

“We’ve got to make farming cool again,” Sardo says. “That’s what cinema in general and this tiny festival can do, in order to convince people to leave their computers and commodities, and go back to farming. It has to be felt like a social mission, working for other people.”

Sprinkled throughout the festival were a few glimmering signs of hope and humor. In Homemade Smarties, three baffled Scottish kids learn what’s inside industrial candy when they try to recreate Smarties from scratch, using just the ingredients list. In Focaccia Blues, the citizens of Altamura in Puglia turn up their nose at MacDonald’s, forcing the local franchise to close. Even the elegiac Combalimon ends with note of hope: the retiring cow farmer is poised to turn his property over to a young woman who makes artisan goat cheese.

She’s the mirror image of the Bolognese women outside, selling rounds of creamy blue chèvre at the festival market. I buy one for my wheat loaf, hot from the communal oven, remembering the words of Food, Inc.’s Robert Kenner: “We get to vote three times a day on how to change the system.” 

Published in the Fall 2009 issue of Gastronomica journal.

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