Did you know this Saturday, October 24, 2015 is National Food Day? Created by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Day is a loose coalition of nationwide events that aim to "inspire Americans to change their diets and our food policies" in order to create a healthier, more sustainable approach to the way we produce and consume food.
San Francisco’s Food Day/Film Day Festival, curated by EatDrinkFilms, a local online magazine, screens four feature films -- three San Francisco premieres and a beloved classic -- at the Roxie Theatre in the heart of the Mission District. An additional program of shorts screens for free at the Exploratorium.
Probably the most intriguing selection in the mix is El Somni (The Dream), a Spanish film documenting the production of an immersive art experience that includes, music, dance, film, sculpture and food. (El Somni screens Saturday at 7pm.) “The Dream” in question is a "12-course opera, a 12-act banquet" prepared and performed for a lucky group of 12 participants who dine at a round table, which doubles as a video screen and is surrounded by three more. The documentary follows the event’s creators, including director Franc Aleu and the Roca Brothers, proprietors of El Celler de Can Roca (a restaurant in Girona, Spain, that has received three Michelin stars and was named best restaurant in the world by English Restaurant Magazine in 2013), alongside 40 visual, gastronomic and performing artists, as they conceive and prepare a sensual feast.
Early on we see vivid details of the event's conceptualization. Each of the Rocas struggles to explain the ideas and emotions they want to explore within the flavors of the food. One asks, "How does the moon taste?" And the answer has something to do with ashes and truffles. Another talks about Indian spices and peppers growing in adjacent fields and thinks about the sensual harmony of color, smell and taste within a holistic environment. A third ponders the origins of life in the depths of the sea.
Dancers are motion-captured and turned into statues that crumble under the weight of overwrought emotions. A musician-engineer constructs a robotic string quintet. Metal workers create delicate silver coral serving dishes. A ceramic artist considers the delicacy of desire and makes a plate to match.
The preparation for the event is like the construction of an opera, including sets, costumes, props, music, singing, dancing, acting … and food, strange and seemingly glorious food. One diner wonders at the event’s excess; this much sensation runs the risk of failure, going too far and creating a sensual short-circuit. Other participants struggle to translate what they are feeling into words. Words fail, but overall, the film is a phantasmagoria of delicious decadence, a vision of a European art elite in pursuit of a total art experience. I can't imagine this film screening anywhere else, so this might be your only chance to catch it in all of its avant-garde glory.
El Somni relates directly to the festival's opener, the 1987 Academy Award-winner, Babette's Feast, a Danish film that is shot like a Dutch master painting. (Babette’s Feast screens Saturday at 1:15pm.) The film explains how a pair of pious sisters living in a small, 19th-century Dutch seaside village end up with a French housekeeper, who demonstrates the transformational power and the art of cooking. If you haven't seen Babette's Feast, now is the time. It's a quiet and gorgeously moving portrait of earthiness and grace.
An additional European entry, The Ways of Wine, is an odd combination of documentary and drama, following a famous sommelier who inexplicably loses his palate and is encouraged to visit Argentina’s best wineries to somehow recover it. (The Ways of Wine screens Saturday at 9:15pm.)
On the U.S. front, the discussion is a little less elevated, but the debate is no less vital. Local filmmaker, Michael Schwarz's In Defense of Food, based on Michael Pollan's book of the same name, demonstrates how completely the American commercial food system has gone off the rails. (In Defense of Food screens Saturday at 4pm.) It's a portrait of practices and policies that have created cheap foods that lack basic nutritional value, which Pollan calls "edible food-like substances." They inhabit the center sections of every supermarket and take up most of the shelf space. They come in brightly colored packages that proclaim their virtues or point out proudly what vices they lack. Pollan calls them overabundant evidence of "nutrionalism," a non-holistic ideology that breaks food into its constituent parts and proclaims some elements good and others bad. We are always (in the U.S. at least) in the midst of some fad or another that tells us that fat, gluten or some other element is bad, while this month, fiber or antioxidants are in! Food manufacturers go out of their way to remove the offending materials and add those that everyone wants.
Basically, Pollan says, these packaged foods generate the problems they are also attempting to solve. He says, "The quieter foods are most likely much healthier," meaning, in terms of nutrition, the ones in the packages have much less to offer than they claim and the ones outside of packages speak (softly) for themselves. Pollan’s slogan is, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
What's great about In Defense of Food is that it's NOT DEPRESSING!!! It's a really informative journey through the history of our current commercial food system, exploring the reasons many situations as they currently stand came into being in the first place. Evolutionarily, one can see how the system developed, but also how it grew out of control. There were reasons in the past to want to produce cheap food, most specifically in reaction to the starvation and deprivation suffered during the Great Depression. However, those systems have gone out of whack and it's time for a rebalance. We are in a new era where scarce resources can hardly be wasted on the production of foods that cost less (because government subsidized) and are less healthy (because stripped of nutritional value) and end up causing harm (and thereby cost more in medical fees). The whole situation would seem inexplicable if Pollan weren’t such a sensible guide. And the film is illustrated by Maira Kalman, so it's great to look at as well. (Director Michael Schwarz will be at the screening.)
Finally, there is a free screening of shorts Saturday, 11am at the Exploratorium, which includes a screening of Susan Rockefeller’s Food for Thought, Food for Life. Covering much the same territory as In Defense of Food, and with a similar effervescent zip, Rockefeller’s 22-minute short is almost an executive summary of the ideas explored in depth in Schwarz’s 2-hour doc. Food for Thought, Food for Life is, however, a bite-sized primer that could and should be seen by everyone who cares about food.
Speaking of caring, this much food imagery will inevitably make your stomach growl. Luckily, the folks at Eat Drink Films have got you covered. There will be tastings between screenings hosted by local food and beverage producers.
Food Day/Film Day is Saturday, October 24, 2015 at the Roxie Theatre and the Exploratorium in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit eatdrinkfilms.com.