"While trying to put the film together, people thought they had already seen it because of 'Supersize Me' but I wanted to go beyond the evils of food and start a dialogue about the industrialization of the whole system," "Food, Inc." director Robert Kenner told indieWIRE. "I wanted to make a film for people who go to the supermarket every day and never stopped to think about where that food came from."
Anyone that saw Kenner's film - which was released this past summer to rave reviews and an impressive $4.4 million box office haul (among the 25 best ever for a documentary) - is likely to say that he achieved his goal. Initially inspired by Eric Schlosser's book "Fast Food Nation," "Food, Inc." delves deeply in to the highly mechanized underbelly of America's food industry, leaving its audience horrified by how their food makes it into their mouths.
"Our nation's food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and our own environment," Kenner explained. "We have bigger-breasted chickens, the perfect pork chop, insecticide-resistant soybean seeds, even tomatoes that won't go bad, but we also have new strains of e-coli--the harmful bacteria that causes illness for an estimated 73,000 Americans annually. We are riddled with widespread obesity, particularly among children, and an epidemic level of diabetes among adults."
"Food, Inc." is Kenner's first feature documentary after directing a lot of non-fiction television, including work for National Geographic TV as well as several episodes of "The American Experience." Despite always having an interest in documentary filmmaking, he had initially spent his career as a filmmaker trying his hand in fiction.
"I worked for about ten years in that direction, and I don’t think I would want people to see any of those films that got made," he said. "I felt unclear as where I was going with my career. A friend was running Sports Illustrated TV and needed some shows done and called me, so off I went. That life of documentary filmmaking just clicked into gear and I knew that’s where I was supposed to be. I went with that same friend over to National Geographic TV and worked on several projects there. I hadn’t realized until then what powerful tools documentaries could be. At that point I also realized my great curiosity about people’s lives. I was given the freedom to pursue very personal stories using the National Geographic medium, not just in nature, but human nature."
Kenner said he really wanted to explore how our food system has become industrialized. But as he started filming, he was not prepared for the "stonewalling" he received from the industry he was examining. "I wanted them to argue the benefits of the industrial system," he explained. "I wanted to understand their point of view, but for the most part, the industry said no. In doing so, the film started to move in a different direction. Unfortunately, so much of the industrial world was off limits to us and it became a challenge to tell a fair and balanced story when so many of the players didn’t want to talk or let us see inside their kitchens."
With or without the industry's co-operation, Kenner still convincingly unconvered its potentially disastrous shortcomings.
"We found that this cheap low cost food had tremendous hidden costs that only appear later on in life," he explained. "We aren’t seeing the real costs of this cheap food yet. In order to fix the healthcare system in this country, you have to fix the food system as well. In order to make the carrots as cheap as the chips we need to create a fair and balanced playing field. Hopefully with this spotlight we can continue to push the movement and help our government create fair food."
"Food, Inc."'s spotlight is about to shine quite brightly, as this weekend the film will compete for th best documentary feature award at the 82nd Oscars.
"When I started 'Food, Inc.,' I had no idea that I would end up with a film that would be nominated for an Oscar," he said. "This is just the most amazing honor - to be recognized by your peers for the work you do. I had wonderful people helping me all along the way, and when the film was finished so many supportive forces in the food community to help get the word out. This has been an amazing experience. Because of the nomination and the word of mouth, we’re reaching audiences that don’t see documentaries and it is really rewarding to see how the film has affected people."
This is part of a series of profiles and interviews that indieWIRE will be publishing in the days leading up to the 82nd Academy Awards that profiles various nominees. Previous editions include:
Oscars 2010 | “The Hurt Locker”‘s Jeremy Renner: “What am I doing here?”
Oscars 2010 | "Precious"'s Gabby Sidibe: "People look at me and don't expect much. I expect a lot"
Oscars 2010 | Maggie Gyllenhaal: "I feel very vulnerable watching myself in this movie."
Oscars 2010 | "Basterds"'s Christoph Waltz: "Make a plan and then make another plan"
Oscars 2010 | "Air"'s Anna Kendrick: "I had to prove myself to everybody else."
Oscars 2010 | Carey Mulligan On Her "Education"