By Gary Truitt
I am admittedly not a big television watcher, but for the past week or so, I have been glued to my local PBS station to catch every episode of The War, a documentary by Ken Burns. It skillfully and accurately tells the story of World War II and the men and woman who fought and died during it. The film is fair and balanced in a way few presentations are today. It glorifies the heroes, honors the sacrifices, and lays bare the mistakes, prejudices and bad decisions made by all parties. The War informs and inspires viewers in a way few films have. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for another documentary made by Curt Ellis and Aaron Woolf called King Corn.
Woolf has directed several award winning documentaries for PBS. When he was looking to make a film about food, he gave his cousin Curt Ellis $5000 and told him to find him a food subject. Ellis came back with the idea of corn. While the corn plant has a long and interesting history and has been instrumental in shaping the culture and economy of the Midwest, that is not what the two cousins had in mind. The premise of the film was to demonstrate that corn is overproduced and is a threat to the environment and public health.
In 2003, the two men moved to Iowa and grew an acre of corn. They then followed that corn as it made its way through the food supply. What follows is a 90 minute diatribe against US farm policy, modern agriculture, food processing, and more. At every turn they put a negative spin on every aspect of corn. Not surprisingly, slow-food movement advocate Michael Pollan was an advisor to the project, according to a New York Times article on the movie. Much of the movie replays Pollan’s worn out mantra that corn is the cause of obesity.
The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) believes the film is an attempt to influence the Farm Bill. The producers behind the film have responded by admitting they did want to shake up the Farm Bill debate. Director Aaron Woolf said, “King Corn focuses on the food aspects of corn, which are largely missing from the Farm Bill debate.” He said the epidemics of diabetes and obesity, fueled by an abundance of commodity-based processed foods, are important problems which should be addressed in the 2007 Farm Bill, but which so far have largely been ignored. Perhaps that is because these allegations are simply not true.
The film does have a bright spot, but not the one the filmmakers intended. In an effort to discredit current US farm policy, Ellis and Woolf take their cameras to a nursing home in West Lafayette, Indiana to interview Dr. Earl Butz. Ellis admitted that their intent was “to take down” the former Secretary of Agriculture, who is considered the architect of current US farm policy. Instead, the 98 year old Butz chewed them up on camera and sent them packing with their tails between their legs. “It is our secret weapon,” said Butz about corn. “We feed ourselves with only 16% to 17% of our take-home pay. That is marvelous.” Mr. Ellis had to agree.
Just like Fahrenheit 911 and Sicko, King Corn is big on one-sided criticism but absent on any solutions. We do have problems with our farm policy, corn production, and nutrition. But politically motivated slander films like King Corn do nothing to help find answers that will work for producers and consumers. I would like to see someone make a documentary on these kinds of documentaries - a film that revealed the true motivation of their creators and how boring, and pointless most people think they are.
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