Interview with Aaron Woolf, Director of "King Corn"

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"King Corn" is a new film that premiered in the Bay Area this past weekend. In it, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis --best friends from college -- plant an acre of corn in Iowa and attempt to track its path into the food chain. I caught up with director Aaron Woolf, whom I knew of from our undergraduate years at a small college in Vermont.

Meghan Laslocky: Can you give us a "before starting the film/after starting the film" picture of your dietary habits?

Aaron Woolf: Before I started working on "King Corn", I don't think I really understood that there was a connection between the way we grow things and the fact that we aren't eating well in this country, which seems pretty obvious now. I came from a family that always ate well, but the way people eat now, like Curt, my cousin [producer and on-screen talent in "King Corn"] who is a generation younger, versus how people ate when I was a kid, is so different. When I was a kid, we went to the wholesale seafood market, mussels were 17 cents a pound because Americans didn't eat them, and we got our meat at a butcher, Mr. Olishefsky, who wore a white gown covered in blood. Behind him in the walk-in cooler were sides of beef. It wasn't a mystery to me as a child where meat came from -- I knew it was a cut-up animal. But I think if you grew up in Curt's generation, the disconnect is pretty major. I think that's one of the lessons of the film: that Curt and Ian are of the cornfed generation, and I am less so, and it took so little time -- the sixteen years that separate us in age -- for that major shift to happen.

Initially, when I started this film, when people asked me about how making the film has changed my eating habits, I'd say, "It's changed the way I wish I ate." But now that the film is done, it's definitely changed the way I eat, and I don't eat fast food. It's instinctive now. What we choose to eat is such a combination of knowledge and religion and training. It's hard to change your diet simply because it's better to do x rather than y, but after seeing feedlots with 100,000 head of cattle -- that's something that's hard to get out of your mind when you look at a hamburger.


Now I try to eat food that lived a life. I'm not a vegetarian, and I don't make much of a distinction between an animal and a vegetable. We derive our life force from eating living things. It's more the way that they lived. For example, I think that eating something that lived in an undignified setting, like pork in confinement that never saw the light of day, is spiritually unhealthy. But the same is true for an asparagus spear that was raised industrially. I wish I could just eat things that were raised in a dignified way that that we would want to incorporate into our own bodies.

ML: Knowing what you know now, what's your take on the rising consciousness of where our food comes from?

AW: I see the benefits of having convenient things to eat, and I still think that's true on some level. And there's a lot of snobbery in the upscale movements, people make a lot of assumptions about other people's ability to choose good and fresh food, even about if they have access to it.

ML: What came as a surprise to you as you did research for the film?

AW: It was a surprise to me how much we have almost consciously created a fast food society, in terms of the Farm Bill and the shift in policy in the 70s. I don't think there is much true evil in the world. I don't blame Earl [Earl Butz, President Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, whose policies supported large-scale agribusiness and who is interviewed in the film]. I don't blame corporations, but we have gotten to a place where the idea of having more isn't always the best thing.

ML: In the film, you use these great vintage Fisher Price farm toys and kernels of corn to illustrate how the Farm Bill works. What's the back story there?

AW: We were looking for a way to describe obtuse concepts like agricultural subsidies. People are paying to see this film, so we had to come up with something that was at least palatable. We bought one of the Fisher Price barns at Chuck's farm during the auction [see the film for a touching farm auction scene], and the other barn is one that Curtis played with as a child, and probably me as well. Part of the point was that children still play with those toys, but now they're part of a perpetuation of a myth about farming that just doesn't exist. Plus the Fisher Price toys look like food labels on processed foods -- the idealized barn, the livestock -- for a product that contains hog meat from an industrial farm. There was something poignant about that, toys perpetuating a notion about the American heartland that is less and less real.

ML: Has making this film changed your life?

AW: I've made a lot of films, but never before has a film that changed the course of my life as this one has. I'm opening a grocery store in, called Urban Rustic, that incorporates documentary into it, so buyers know where their food comes from. I'm doing this with my partners, Dan Cipriani and Luis Illadeas. On the shelves, there's an LCD or a viewmaster, and you can see where everything comes from. Much in the same way in "King Corn" we've explored where our food comes from, in Urban Rustic, we want people to know where the food comes from. In the store, people even know where the wood flooring comes from -- it's from trees we cut down ourselves on my family's land in the Adirondacks. It's an attempt to take back what the industrial food system has obscured from us.

"King Corn" is currently playing at the Shattuck in Berkeley and at the Red Vic, and it will air on PBS's Independent Lens in the Spring. It was produced with support from San Francisco-based Independent Television Service [ITVS].


Read a review of King Corn in KQED Arts & Culture