Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Iowa, Food Policy and God's Creatures: An Interview with Documentary Director Aaron Woolf

King Corn is a not-so-new documentary film about food and agriculture. It is a sort of a reality documentary that follows Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, two friends from college on the east coast, who take upon themselves a sort of a strange investigative dare - to move to Iowa to learn where their food comes from.

King Corn's Director and Producer, Aaron Woolf, is actually going back to his roots, having received a Master’s in film at the University of Iowa. He has since moved on and got further education in the field in Lima, Mexico City, and Los Angeles. He directed Greener Grass: Cuba, Baseball, and The United States, and Dying to Leave: The Global Face of Human Trafficking and Smuggling, both have won awards and got aired on PBS.

He now works on two new films, one about an Indian tribe in the Amazon, and the other about Coral Reefs. But he says that the work on King Corn changed his life in a different way. More about that coming up:

Q: Hi, how are you?

A: I'm good. I am eating a sandwich, and I am thinking how I've been cursed to be thinking about everything I eat since making the film. And it is certainly as much as an imperative as it is a blessing.

Q: I know what you mean, and it brings me to my first point of discussion. While watching the movie, one of the things that struck me as strange was that everyone kept eating those hamburgers. And they didn't stop, even while they uncovered all those various facts about cow feed lots and how the corn that they were growing was contributing to the very low quality of the meat.

A: I think the first thing that I wanted to do in making a film about this issue, was to make a film about real issues, but also with real people in it. The real main two characters in the film are my cousin Curtis and his best friend Ian. I wanted to make a film that was a film I want to watch, and that was not a lecture, or preachy. Ian and Curtis continued to eat hamburgers. I don't think they were immune to the kind of things that we were learning but I think there are two reasons to that.

The first is that it's very hard to change your diet. The choices that we make about food, like we started this conversation with, comes from such a complex matrix of ethical and religious and intellectual sentiments, as well as a kind of bio-evolutionary drive. The amount of ingredients in our food choices are almost impossible to know. It's one of the hardest things to change, in the sense that we are inculcated into a food culture almost before we accede to language. It is one of the more primal things we are introduced to in our upbringing.

I think there are a lot of ways in which the things you see and learn do change your diet. A lot of time people ask me how making this film changed my own diet. The answer that I gave for a long time was that making this film made me wish that I ate differently than I did. But now, six months after our theatrical release, and more than a year since finishing the work on it, I think it starts to actually affect real changes.

I am not a vegetarian. I do eat food derived from animals, but I learned something very profound at those feed lots. I am also not a terribly religious person, but I have become more in recent years. I grew up eating a lot of American food, and going to church a lot. I've been thinking a lot about what God is, and I still don't know what it is, but I know what god isn't. And when I saw those feed lots, and the ways in which God's creatures were being used as nothing but machines for our pleasure, and even not really our pleasure but only for commerce, I had a very profound sense of something being deeply wrong about this. What we should eat, or rather what I would like to eat, are things that have lived, but lived a dignified life. And this is as much true about plants as about animals. An asparagus stalk that was doused in chemicals, pesticides, and grown in a strict monoculture on a gigantic scale, is just as undignified life as an animal forced to live in a confinement situation. They're both living beings. And I believe that if you eat a living being that was allowed to have a good life, you're much better off.

The other reason why Curt and Ian keep eating those hamburgers is that in a lot of America there's not much else to eat. Maybe in California there are a lot of alternative but one of the saddest ironies of the fact that we use some of our best soil, some of the best soil in the world in fact, in Iowa to grow commodity corn, is that commodity corn is not really an edible crop without being processed. And Iowa has become a kind of a colonial economy, in which it ships its own produce out of state and then it comes back as some sort of processed food. If you decide to make a film about growing and following corn, you are going to follow it through many places where it is difficult to eat anything other than hamburgers.

Q: That's an interesting observation. Do you think that something like “the 100 miles diet” or any of those “eat locally” diets is impossible to adhere to in Iowa?

A: Well I don't think so anymore. Iowa is the state with the least amount of wilderness of all the states in the US. Something like 97% of the state has been turned to the use of human kind one way or another. In fact, it is said, and I don't know if this is apocryphal or not, that one of the largest pieces of federally owned land in Iowa is the median strip in interstate 80. So Iowa's landscape has been utterly and completely altered by agriculture – which means tiling up fields, drying out wetlands, plowing over burns, pushing aside contours in the land and making it harder than ever for there to be a protected wildlife there. But Iowa also has, I think, the largest per capita production of organic produce in the country right now. There is an incredible movement there to grow, market and distribute organic food. And one of the things that is most wonderful and heartening about this movement in Iowa is that it is not a hippy-liberal type coastal movement. These are family farmers, often who have decided, for very non-political reasons, to go back to a different kind of farming, and to grow diverse crops. I think we are going to see it in other parts of the country soon. We've got to begin to envision an agriculture in a diminishing petroleum environment. But for me these are some of the best farmers in the world. And that farming knowledge is something that we need to protect and turn towards diverse operations on smaller scale. We're seeing that in Iowa more than anything in the country.

Q: Did you screen the film already in Iowa?

A: We screened it in several places in Iowa and the response has been positive, and surprisingly so. We were worried. At first, and there has been some interesting criticism there, but one of the things that was profound for us when we first got there, was that there was a real connection to be made between farmers, even commodity corn farmers, and consumer in far away cities. We knew nothing about where our food came from, and they knew very little about where their food went. Almost as if we have become separated by the system, and on some level, kind of missed each other. And I believe that farmers want to grow quality food for real people. Food that people would eat. And I believe that people would like to know who are the people who grow their food. They don't just want to peel off a cellophane wrapper. We have lost something that we did not know that we lost. For those of us who grew up in the 80s, the system has already been in place and we did not know anything else. But the moment we make those connections, we find a very deep level of satisfaction.

I've been making documentaries for many years. And I always struggled to move on from one film to the next, and even if the subject matter of the film affected me, I would move on before I was able to digest what I have done. And this time I am making a couple of new films but I also opened a grocery store called “Urban Rustic” in New York, which is a direct outgrowth of the King Corn project. I wanted to see if you could make a store where you would know where everything came from, and that the faces of the people behind the food would not be obscured.

Q: Congratulation, this is awesome. How do you make sure the customers know who the farmers are?

A: First of all you need to make sure you know who they are. And even if you did not meet them personally you can put a face or a name by using the Internet. And it turned out to be a more lot challenging than we imagined. We're still working on the nuts and bolts, but we realized it is more important to have priorities than to have orthodoxies. I wanted everything to be local, but I also wanted a place where people could get coffee or limes and things you really need to get to make a full meal. I did not want it to be a boutique store, and I did not want it to be a kind of a 60's style co-op. The model is more of a 19th century grocer, where the grocer knew where everything was coming from because back then things were local. I would say that we are 75% local, and 90% organic, but you come up with those funny paradoxes sometimes where you need to decide between local OR organic. And I usually choose local. I consider pesticide to be less of a problem than a bag of lettuce coming from abroad or even California.

Q: If you look back to the beginning of making the film. Now, after you learned all that, and it seems your life was profoundly changed by the experience, would you have done it differently?

A: That is a great question, and one that I wasn't asked before. I think that at the time I was a little too uncertain that the message would be carried by the farmers. If we would have spent even more time in the movie listening to them, we might have not needed the kind of academic contextualization as I used. Don't get me wrong, I am so incredibly grateful to Michael Pollen whose approach to journalism is so refreshing. And to Ken Cook and Ricardo Salvador, and all the other academics who helped to contextualize. But I wonder if there would have been a way to do it with just farmers and Iowans telling the story. But I am mostly pretty happy with the film.

Some people wanted the film to be more anti corporate. But the film has been pretty roundly criticized from both the left and the right. I guess when you are getting it from both sides, in my view, you are doing pretty good.

I didn't think it was fitting to make this film against agricultural corporations, although there is some implicit criticism about the way they do things. A lot of why Big Ag has so much influence in the political choices made about food, is because people like you and me haven't taken much of an interest. And before making criticisms we need to realize that the reason they have so much influence is that because their interest is not diluted by consumer interest. Nobody ever perceived that farm and food policy really matter until very recently. So if you're not willing to play the game, don't criticize those people who do.

Q: If you wanted to put a call for action to consumers, what would you ask them to do?

A: If you do not choose to ask questions about where your food comes from, or what government policies are putting what type of food on your plate and or your shelf, then you are doing so at your own peril. Consumers have an immense amount of power in the food industries, and companies are terrified of consumer's opinions. We have often been told that we can vote with our dollars, and the food industry is probably the best example of how powerful those dollars could be. But we can also vote with our votes, and affect issues such as the food we have in our school programs, and food stamps, and the kind of food aid we send abroad, and the kinds of foods that become the cheapest and the most accessible. All these are affected by policy choices, and all these can be affected by us.

The film is not a call for action. It is a call for discussion. My own opinions are separate from the film.

But my opinions are that we need to demand in this election cycle that each candidate clearly articulate easily comparable food policy statements. And when we have the debates and when we make our choices of who our next president is going to be, I can't imagine an issue that is more fundamental than what the food policy of our leaders is going to be. What kinds of food we are going to promote? How are we going to make choices that are not just short term choices, which means cheap and efficient production, but long term choices. The health of our soil, the health of our land, and the health of our children.

Q: So what can a person do? Let's say I want to take a stand or join the discussion and I am now reading this interview. Where can I go?

A: The best place to go is to your local farmers' market, and if there isn't one then help to organize one. Again, a lot of good gets done when farmers see the people who gets to consume the food they grow. It makes them want to grow good food. And when a consumer see the farmer that grows their food they benefit deeply on many levels. And if you can't get to a farmers' market, go to your local supermarket and say “I'd like to get food locally. I am willing to pay a little more now.” We need to get away from our obsession for cheap foods, because the cost of cheap foods is really so high. Americans are not very good at doing full cost accounting of things, but I believe Americans work in a very good community way in times of a crisis and I think we are in such times today.

Offical Website:

Aaron Woolf's grocery store:

Upcoming screenings of King Corn:

Saturday, March 22, 2008 4:00 PM - 6:00 PM

Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave, Seattle, Washington

Wednesday, March 26, 2008 7:30 PM (In Person: Star and co-producer Ian Cheney)

Cinema Arts Center, 23 Park Ave., Huntington, New-York

March 24,25 & 29 – A Green Mountain Festival Presentation

City Hall Arts Center, 39 Main Street, Montpelier, Vermont

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