The 59th incarnation of the Berlinale film festival was the usual teeming salmagundi of preening celebs, caterwauling paparazzi and geekily bespectacled industry hangers-on conspicuously toting red swag bags. But in Kulinarisches Kino, a little adjunct to the program, a lineup of nine food-themed films took on the mission of exploring the increasing disconnect between ourselves and the source of our food.
The sold-out European premiere of "Food, Inc.," directed by Los Angeles' Robert Kenner, opened the sub-program in the 1,895-seat Friedrichstadtpalast, a vast amphitheater that made the graphic, secretly shot scenes in stockyards and poultry packing plants reverberate all the more (the film will be released stateside in June).
After the movie, a panel discussion brought together pithy journalists Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser (who appear in the movie); passionately gesticulating Slow Food Movement founder Carlo Petrini; a surprisingly informed Gael García Bernal, the Mexican actor; and assorted German food spokespeople such as former agricultural minister Renate Künast, an organic farmer, and a muted, pitiable executive of agribusiness giant Syngenta, who squirmed as the panelists lambasted his role as architect of evil.
Other heavy-hitting films exploring similar themes included "Nos Enfants Nous Accuseront" by Jean-Paul Jaud, about a small French village that responds to the multiplication of cancers in the region by turning its school canteen organic, and Ron Colby's "Pirate for the Sea," a hagiography of ecological terrorist Paul Watson, leader of the innocently named but fiercely militant Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose boats trawl the earth's waters attempting to foil illegal long-line fishing boats, shark-fin poachers and whalers.
More depressing was "Silent Snow," an ethereally shot but narratively heavy-handed short film by Jan van den Berg about the chemical poisoning of the Arctic, in which two young Inuit girls from Uummannaq reel off a brusquely scripted lament as they polish off a DDT-laced narwhal.
The most haunting was "Haiti Chérie," a gut-wrenching fiction that follows two Haitian sugar cane plantation laborers eking out a living on a Godforsaken batey, or workers' slum, in the Dominican Republic. After their baby dies of hunger, they make the slow and bumpy journey back to Haiti, where, inconceivably, things get even worse. Italian director Claudio del Punta self-financed the film with a loan, bringing only a sound technician with him to the Dominican Republic. The rest of the cast and crew were recruited on-site; many of them had never seen a film before.
The result of the glimpse at the lives of Third World food producers is a desperate, moving saga that surely made most of the audience skip the sugar in their post-film espresso, as if that by itself would somehow reform the bateyes. One wonders, however, how the Haitians would tell their own story -- there's something slightly vexing about a Creole film being explained in Italian.
A table in transition
Not all of the films critiquing modern industrial food production do so darkly. Alejandro Fernández Almendras' short film "Lo Que Trae La Lluvia" quietly accompanies an elderly couple in rural Chile as they potter around on the farm; he mends a fallen stream bank, she makes cheese and plucks a chicken (to horrified gasps from the audience). She hitches a ride to the highway and sells a few cheeses to a lipsticked urbanite delighted at this serendipity: It's drive-through access to authenticity incarnate!
The old woman too is delighted, and on the way home, hops off the horse cart to pick up Coca-Cola and cookies for the grandson. He arrives for dinner, gives an absent-minded kiss, switches on the television and double-fists the ersatz Oreos.
Somehow, though, Fernández Almendras' depiction of the various dualities with which he deals -- modernity versus tradition, ruralism versus urbanity, young versus old -- manages to remain an observation rather than an indictment, a simple remark on the inevitability of change.
But the real winner of the festival for me was Aida Begic's "Snijec," about a group of women on an East Bosnian farmstead coming to terms with the end of the war. The stark reality of peasant life is far from sugarcoated, but their dignity and self-reliance left the whole theater silent after the credits rolled.
Three lighthearted features completed the lineup. Gianni di Gregorio's "Pranzo di Ferragosto" is an endearing comedy shot in dreamy, torpid Rome about a long-suffering protagonist whose buddies dump their mothers on him for the weekend. Min Gyu-dong's "Antique" is a murder mystery-cum-psychedelic musical set in a Korean cake shop maintained by a gay pâtissier, a child abuse victim and a boxer. I overheard one viewer disparage Joaquin Oristrell's "Dieta Mediterránea," about a Michelin-starred ménage a trois, as a "moronic sexcapade," but I preferred Oristrell's pat description of it as "a story about love, sex, family, friendship and food."
Berlin was bracingly cold, gray and wet for its February Berlinale, but the best thing about the films featured in the Kulinarisches Kino -- a characteristic of all good films, in fact -- was their ability to transport the viewer to an Italian butcher block, dappled in light from louvered shutters, or to the hot sand under a Dominican coconut tree, to share the mores of the people who live there.
Sure, Slow Food's heavy hand was palpable -- they're a partner, every film was certainly on message -- but the films were exquisitely shot too, especially "Terra Madre," a visually analeptic if thematically facile film celebrating the simple pleasures of the Slow Food life: handmade things, long meals, ripe fruit.
Even those of us made skeptical by the Luddite undertones couldn't help but sink into the seats, grateful for a taste of idyllic, blowzy summertime before facing the arctic city again.