The Community Food Movement: Review: Fair Food – the Documentary
The community food movement…
I WROTE THE NOTES for this review after viewing Fair Food — The Documentary at Sydney University a few months ago. I was going to watch it a second time before writing but I decided not to because going by first impressions might be truer to what most viewers experience.
After the movie, I joined Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance organiser, Alana Mann, on the podium to answer questions from the audience.
Let me say at the start that this is one of those films that really need to be followed by a discussion because it raises important questions about Australia’s food future and because, at the showing I participated in as a speaker, there were questions from the audience about specific content in the movie. That comes up later in this review.
At just over an hour, Fair Food -— the Documentary is not short but nor is it overly-long. This is important for those showing the movie in a seminar or public conversation around food. Some movies about food issues, and here I have in mind some of the US productions that have done the circuit of community organisations and food events, are so long the audience has had enough by their end and may be too tired to engage in discussion about the issues raised.
Who is it for?
Fair Food -— the Documentary is suitable for those new to food issues and to the more knowledgable. It has content suitable for both but my feeling is that it would appeal more to the latter.
It is an advocacy production, as its name suggests, and viewing it is likely to reinforce the attitudes of those who are already critical of big agribusiness. What you won’t find in it is some kind of balanced, detailed, comparative analysis that weights the conventional and the farmer-and-eater-fair approaches to food production and distribution. It is a movie more about food’s production side and a little about distribution. I think more about food purchases and consumption would have gone well, as would acknowledgement of the emerging food systems in the community sector.
Fair Food -— the Documentary does reasonable well in getting its messages across though I have some reservations on how it does that. I’ll talk about those later.
First, though, some background.
Fair Food – the background
Fair Food -— the Documentary was crowdfunded by the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance in 2014. It was oversubscribed, and that surely says something about the level of concern about our food system. Production was by the Melbourne-based Field Institute.
Fair Food is an Australian contribution to the growing documentary sub-genre of food-related film. The US dominates the sub-genre and many of its productions have been shown in Australia, some doing the rounds of community associations and at least one local government a number of times. Those films highlight new initiatives that small farmers and small business entrepreneurs are taking to sidestep the big agribusiness, big supermarket dominated food supply chain. The films are about the small farmer, the community supported agriculture scheme, the community food systems that are popping up in increasing numbers in our cities.
On reviewing the movie
I want to state here, at the start, that I think Fair Food is a successful film. Successful in the sense that it has potential to stimulate a new point of view on the food system, to stimulate thinking about it and to reinforce beliefs and critical attitudes towards the agrifood industry.
After watching the movie at Sydney University that evening, a group of us walked down the road to the Forest Lodge Hotel and, over a meal and a glass or two of wine, we talked about the film. It is from that conversation that I derive some of the impressions I have included here.
Reviews are supposed to be critical in discussing what the reviewer finds to be the positive and negative points about the topic. Thus my review might sound critical now and again, and that makes me feel uneasy. But it is also honest. To add positive comment I include ideas on how the film could have been improved. I have to balance any critical comments against the apparent success of the movie in stimulating thoughtful comments from the audience in our Q&A after the video ended.
I should qualify my comments by pointing out that, as a photographer and journalist, it was some of the visuals as well as what the people in the video said that I took most notice of. I should also say that I am not a video-maker.
Is what I say simply my own personal observations with comments gleaned from conversation added? Yes. Are there parts of the film I thought successful? Yes. Were there parts I think could have been done better? Yes.
Where do I start? The first few minutes of the video might be the appropriate place.
The movie starts with what I interpret, as a photojournalist, to be establishing imagery of farm fields. This is scene setting and it sets the mood. It contexts what follows.
Pastoral scenes segue to professional rugby player, David Pocock. He stands in what looks like a city park. David starts to speak to camera about fair food. But that’s not what starts to troubled me… what did soon became apparent — he was not speaking to camera at all… he was reading from whatever the film crew were using as an autocue.
This went against what I learned in my studies in media and journalism and while working in radio current affairs — never have someone read a statement. Stop them if they start to do this and have them speak spontaneously. Reading comes across as contrived, flat and for those who notice it, as distracting. Speaking from memory comes across as conversational, spontaneous and genuine even when it contains ‘um’, ‘ah’ and short pauses to gather thoughts. That’s part of what gives it its spontaneous, conversational and more authentic tone. What David said was important but it was his delivery, his tone and pacing, that, for me anyway, was distracting.
This became more apparent when the camera angle changed to a close-up of David filmed from something like 30 degrees to his face at an upward angle. You notice that his eyes don’t engage the camera, they address whatever he reads his lines from. Watching his eyes it became clear that he reads from a script rather than talking informally by addressing the camera and, therefore, the viewer.
In conversation after the movie I found that this was noticed by a couple other people. And that camera angle — it was repeated time after time through the movie — same angle, or close enough to it.
There was something else troubling about those talking head shots, though I was only one of two to comment on it. Shot from the aforementioned camera angle, the image would cut to a close-up of the talking head’s face. As a stills photographer I know that close-ups like this can work, however I also know that you have to be careful with them because in revealing detail they can be unflattering.
With a little reflection I realised that being that close to someone who is talking seldom occurs in daily life. It’s like, through the camera, we the audience was violating the personal space that people perceive around each other. I don’t know how others found it, but I found it a little disturbing. I thought it was also unflattering to the talking heads. As I have said, I’m not a videographer, however I found those ultra-close-ups did little to create a sense of empathy with the speakers.
If you plan to catch the movie somewhere, be aware that this is an intellectually demanding production, thanks in large part to what came across to me (and not only me, going by later comments) as a preponderance of talking heads.
You have to listen carefully to what they say and piece it all together to get their message about Australia’s dysfunctional food system. If you know about that already, then I think you will get more from the movie.
There were simply too many talking heads. Some went on too long. As one person who watched the video said, some of those people could have articulated their message more clearly and succinctly. Talking heads were a dominant form through the video.
Probably in search of a neutral, non-distracting background, a couple of were shot against pinboard — you know, that white panel board with little holes in it where hooks for displaying merchandise are inserted. If non-distracting was the aim, the shots worked to some degree but the background seemed a disconnect from the theme. Would it not have been better to shoot those people in other environments, such as against the neutral vegetation in a park or a community garden? It was not that the background was distracting. It was bland and disconnected from the theme of food.
Sometimes, the image of a talking head would cut to B-roll, those incidental images that are edited into a video to create visual diversity, to explore a topic or provide visual relief from a speaker while their monolog continues in the background. Making guesses about video production, it seems to be similar to the technique used in stills photography where you produce a collage of images around a theme in a photo essay.
Those supplementary images worked alright, however some of them seemed irrelevant and disconnected. It was that disconnect that jumped out at me. A couple I recall as out of focus — I’m not talking about the use of selective focus where a subject is highlighted by defocusing the background — the whole image was out of focus. Was this something to do with projecting the movie, with my eyesight or were those bits really out of focus, I wonder?
As the movie came to a close, there was then-AFSA president, Michael Croft, positioned against a wall talking about food sovereignty. The graphics used to introduce Michael identified him as the president of AFSA, but not as a farmer. Surely, in a film about the food system, identifying Michael in both roles would have brought greater credibility to what he was saying and would have further validated the messages in the film.
In talking at the Forest Lodger after the movie, I remembered something that was missing from the production. This I mentioned to others, one of whom recalled having seen it too and who also found its absence questionable.
It was this: during the crowdfunding campaign for the film there was a short video that included an orchardist. It showed him pulling out his citrus trees because of changes in the market cutting into his sales. It was a sad story as you watched it unroll. Then, salvation — the video cuts to the farmer finding a new opportunity at a farmers’ market.
This was a good news story. It was a story of redemption and, in that, it was uplifting. But it was not included in the documentary. Why, I cannot understand. As someone later said, taking out one of the talking head segments and replacing it with that orchardist’s story would have improved the production and left audiences with a message of hope.
How could the film have been improved? I’ve mentioned a few ideas above, but without knowing anything of the financial, timing or locational challenges the producers faced, and not being a video maker, I can only speculate. Here’s my speculation…
Fewer talking heads could have encouraged greater visual diversity through the film. They could have been introduced with a few seconds of them speaking, then their words overlaid on images of farming operations or something else relevant to what they talked about.
Rather than positioning talking heads against walls and pinboard, shooting them in their fields or in gardens or similar environments would have adopted the video equivalent of the environmental portrait familiar to stills photographers. And, as already mentioned, rather than showing the one or two reading their script, having them speak directly to camera would have been more spontaneous and convincing.
In the Q&A after the movie, the young daughter of a permaculture practitioner who is active in community initiatives in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs asked why there were so many meat farmers in the video, given meat’s reputation for contributing to climate change. I responded that there were ways of farming animals that reduced their environmental impact, citing as an example the work of South African farmer, Alan Savory with his Holistic Management, a systems approach to resource management. One of the university’s agriculture department staff who was in the audience also responded along the same lines.
We can take the young woman’s question as suggesting the film had perhaps a little too much emphasis on meat producers. Replacing some with other types of farming would have produced a more balanced production. Market gardeners, perhaps, supplying food co-ops or farmers’ markets.
There were too few examples of urban food distribution systems, and even the footage of CERES Fair Food didn’t show their market garden although it did show people packing the produce. More footage spent on these distribution systems, and on farmers’ markets which are the channels through which many urban eaters experience their contact with farmers, might have gone well. That would have catered for the predominately urban audience for the film.
Footage of a market garden was welcome in balancing the types of farming shown. What I found contrived was the carrot harvesting scene where one person harvested the carrots, passed them to another who tied them together with a rubber band, then handed them back. I’m not a farmer, so it could be that this is how carrot harvesting and bunching is done, but I have my doubts.
After the movie, someone commented that the message of the film was unclear. Perhaps this had to do with the time that some of the talking heads spoke for, or their not being succinct in what they said, or the main messages not being articulated sufficiently. Perhaps the film would have been better to be narrated to provide connection and continuity and tell a more cohesive story.
Just a week before the screening of Fair Food, I was at the Museum of Modern Art at Circular Quay, having been invited to watch the release of a film made by two young French film makers, a film called Sundays in Sydney. I was there because I helped organise a segment in a community food garden.
Sundays in Sydney contained a substantial portion on community food gardening (a practice that doesn’t appear in Fair Food — The Documntary). Those interviewed spoke directly and spontaneously to camera in their garden environments where they were supported by relevant imagery. The messages around the value of community food production — fresh food and conviviality — came across clearly.
I have to say that Sundays In Sydney, although a self-funded production shot without the benefit of high-end cameras, exceeded Fair Food in its imagery and actuality, colour rendition and continuity (the video was shot on a Canon 5D SLR supplemented with a second Canon SLR with an APS size sensor).
I’ve seen the Fair Food video only once but as I said at the start, I chose to go with the impressions coming from single viewing that rather than watching it again as it would likely be more like how others experience it. I also made clear that I am not a film critic or knowledgable about film and its production.
I came away from the Fair Food video with mixed feelings. As a fair food advocate and journalist, I agreed with its messages and would recommend the movie based on this.
As a photographer whose images have appeared in food and gardening publications and websites, I have to say that I think the cinematography could have been better, however I say this in ignorance of the limitations the production faced as well as of cinematography.
I don’t remember who she was or where she wrote — I’ve lost the link — but a woman who had watched Fair Food said that the content was important but that it was not a professional production. Like me, she was supportive of the production and its messages but thought it could have been put together a little better.
To judge by the single showing of Fair Food that I saw, I think its message does come across although others have said that it was unclear. Maybe that’s because I’m an advocate who writes in support of the same messages and, as such, my interpreting the messages comes from a different starting point.
I started this review by saying that I think the production has value, however I believe that it is best followed by a discussion with the audience to explore and consolidate its message.
Yes, my comments are a stream of consciousness impression, a first impressions. First impressions, though, are what most people will only ever have of Fair Food — The Documentary.
Disclosure: The author was until recently a member of the communications team of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance and was previously a member of the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance.