Food porn doesn’t have to tell a good story, but the best culinary documentaries recognize that food is story. Australian director Matthew Salleh’s first feature, “Barbecue,” embraces that approach, careening across 12 countries in search of different approaches to the art of roasting meat with fire. He captures gorgeous scenery and food in lush 4K imagery, loading up enough cultural nuance to make Anthony Bourdain look like a homebody. Anyone who salivates at the site of a grill will find much to lust over.
Salleh’s approach borrows from a now-familiar genre as he combines philosophical ramblings from his subjects with tranquil imagery of their cooking processes, stringing them together with an awe-inspiring score. It’s an approach you’ll recognize from “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” “The Birth of Sake,” or even the Netflix series “Chef’s Table” — quiet documentaries about the ways cuisines reflect broader ways of seeing the world. But just as often, it brings to mind “Babies,” in which Thomas Balmes followed four newborns as a high-concept excuse to scour the globe and find commonalities that stretch across borders. Here, Salleh’s ambitious scope exceeds his grasp, but he still delivers enough delicious imagery to make the journey worthwhile.
The film starts in South Africa, where locals sing the praises of braii when not recalling apartheid. “Fire brings people together,” explains one subject, assessing its primal roots. That notion will return in Japan and Armenia and Texas, as families and friends gather around the flames for meals and speak to the camera about the communal power of the feast. The result is easy viewing that rises and falls on the basis of its setting, but it’s all a bit on the nose. The overbearing score, straight out of the Phillip Glass playbook, plays up a persistent sense of wonder at the expense of each culture’s unique identity, as if the filmmaker doesn’t trust his viewers to draw their own conclusions.
Viewers have a proven appetite for food imagery and the stories that go with it, so it’s likely that “Barbecue” will find a wider audience. As a documentary, however, its 100-minute running time feels bloated and undercooked. There’s a dozen segments, and they all follow the same routine: Observe the barbecue tradition, let subjects reminisce on the bigger picture, show them chowing down. Repeat. With no narrative thrust beyond its episodic structure, “Barbecue” may have worked better as a mini-series.
Some installments are questionable: A laughable excursion to Sweden, where blond kids revel in the novelty of disposable grills you can buy at Ikea, doesn’t pair well with images of schwarma cooking on the border between Syria and Jordan.
However, it’s in these struggling communities, away from the privileges of the Western world, where the movie takes on a fascinating ethnographic perspective. It’s hypnotic to watch Mongolian yurt-dwellers make boodog by piling hot stones into hollowed-out carcasses and cooking the meat from the inside, and Mexican farmers burying their spit in the ground. When the movie finally arrives in rural Texas, the traditional American style of sliced meats is just one small fragment of a bigger picture. Salleh could have benefited from including more details about the cooking methods, but much of the imagery speaks for itself, and grill masters from around the world will learn something they didn’t know.
“Barbecue” premiered at the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.