Friday, February 22, 2013

King Corn: Review of the documentary

Two Yale University graduates, sustainable agriculture advocates and filmmakers, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, discovered that they share common ancestral roots in the same agricultural town, Greene, Iowa. They set out from Connecticut to Iowa to lease an acre of cornfield to experience the process of corn sowing, growing, harvesting, and bringing-to-market process as an analog to the ubiquitous role corn plays in our lives. Filmmaker Aaron Woolf directed.

King Corn

The documentary encompasses several layered stories. First the use of corn and corn-based products in prepared food products in virtually everything we eat, including the relatively inexpensive cattle corn feed. (The piece on high fructose corn syrup was especially well done, with the voiceover of the earnest food chemist patiently and protractedly droning instructions of the involved process of cook up a batch of HFCS.)

Lyndon Johnson-era subsidy policies paid farmers to grow an overabundance of corn. The two young men suited up to visit the aged former Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, who championed in the 1960s, and continues to support subsidies enabling the “age of plenty.”

Another theme is the industrialization of agriculture. Using a borrowed tractor, the young farmers planted an acre of corn, more than 30,000 seeds, in a bit over one-quarter hour. Later, they enlist the help of a patient farmer to drive a tractor depositing fertilizer, with Curt appearing a bit frightened by the required speed of the tractor. Interviews with farmers showed them as contemptuous of the product the government paid them handsomely to grow. The corn grown by almost every farmer here was not for human consumption, but for cattle feed, and presumably, ethanol.

The sympathetic portrayal of the hard-working and genial people of this this Midwest farm community draws in the audience from on a personal level. I choked up at the proud parade of high school bands and baton twirlers followed by enormous John Deere tractors with 10-foot-diameter tires. The family of the young farmer who helped fertilize the field was shown enjoying the parade.

And speaking of choking up, a man raised in Greene returned after retirement. He is shown diving into the 6-foot-high corn rows with the filmmakers, and then getting misty-eyed talking about his dreams of flying over cornfields. The farmer who rented an acre to the young filmmakers progressed from skeptical and incredulous over the rental request, to an outspoken critic of the agriculture that has been foisted upon them. Ellis and Cheney illustrated the development of corn with a bit of meticulous and clever frame-by-frame photography.

A serendipitous sighting of a license plate, CORNFED, in a fast-food drive-through led to a meeting with a sketchy guy who revealed more dark secrets about corn as cattle feed. The film-makers followed up with a trip to a grim and desolate confined feed lot, where cattle are “finished” before slaughter. It was, to me, the saddest and most disturbing moment of the film. I was a bit surprised the filmmakers did not touch on ethanol production.

In retrospect, ethanol would warrant and entire feature-length documentary itself. King Corn won the prestigious Peabody Award, and all three man have gone on to produce other documentaries. The documentary was Independent Lens production on PBS.

Particularly interesting are the
Behind the Scenes and Filmmaker statement.

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