Music Features

Green Screen Festival - The Future of Food & Manufactured Landscapes

Last night I was able to catch two screenings as part of the 5th Annual Green Screen Festival in Norfolk, VA. The Naro Expanded Cinema, the central venue in organizing and presenting these few weeks of environmentally themed films around town, showed Jennifer Baichwal's Manufactured Landscapes, focusing on the photography and ideas of Edward Burtynsky. Later, local Italian kitchen The Boot hosted a free screening of Deborah Koons' The Future of Food, an enormously informative argument against the proliferation of genetically engineered foods and the practices of the companies who make them. The two pictures illustrated very different ways to approach an environmentally concerned movie, to very different effect.

The Future of Food is an example of how the rise of DVDs, the increased viability of documentary, and the affordability of digital production have resulted in a greater than ever number of non-fiction films with a point to make. It is perhaps in so thoroughly making its point against the rise of genetically modified foods that the video fails.

It is very much of the thought that filling the movie with facts, incidents, and numbers to support its points is much more important than narrative cohesion or visual communication, firmly choosing research over cinema, boasting the quality of a middling cable news special. By sheer accumulation of data, it makes an impact, but a numbing one. Information ceases to shock or register as there is no time to reflect upon what are very real and troubling facts and what are skewed generalizations. Eventually, one ends up without a point of reference to gauge what is being presented and forced to choose whether to stand sceptically outside the film or unquestionably follow its cascade of facts, figures and conjectures wherever it may go. Also bothersome is an artificially idealized but also transparently condescending depiction of the traditional farmer, reducing its subjects to downtrodden, obtusely simple and honourable subjects of pity.

After so much to say, the film closes murkily on what seems like all the remaining B-Roll cut to some queasily generic New Age/Americana, indulging in the most insulting kind of pandering. Apparently, not only are you stupid if you don't follow The Future of Food completely, but you are a bad person who hates America. It is the type of film that folks who already agree with it will praise and give themselves a pat on the back for it, but will more than likely bore and exhaust anybody undecided, uninformed or sceptical. It is a film that aesthetically distrusts and disregards its audience, and is thus not to be trusted, regardless of the quality of its message.

Conversely, Manufactured Landscapes was a pleasure, a visually beautiful and subjective film concentrating on the work of Edward Burtynksky, a Canadian photographer who takes large scale images of the landscapes that have been most dramatically altered by man and his machines. Burtynsky is heard saying that he certainly at times thought of bringing his work into a more explicitly political arena, but purposefully refrained, feeling it was better to present his visions and allow people to draw their own conclusions. He is probably correct here, as the effect of these vast, transformed landscapes, simply given a frame and a time to ponder the previously unimagined scale, is more profound than the insecure leash-walking parade of figures that is The Future of Food. The film can at some times feel like a slide show, but Burtynsky's work justifies the full screen and a bit of time for the exact subject and scale of each image to begin to emerge. Interesting cinematic touches are occasionally taken with the pictures, and Burtynsky is heard sparingly in discussion and presentation. A few illuminating sequences show him actually in the time consuming process of composing these shots, and there are even a few stabs at expanding these ideas to the movie format, including an amazing opening pan across the length of an impossibly long factory that is nonetheless real.

The disparate success or lack thereof, respectively, of Manufactured Landscapes and The Future of Food demonstrates the importance of using the language and potential of film when attempting to exploit that power to convey a message. Leni Reifenstal made more effective and moving films than Barbara Trent has ever been capable of achieving, despite having depraved messages while Trent had idealistic ones, because she was an artist who respected and learned how to use film to move and persuade, while Trent was a literal statistician doomed to be praised and win Oscars without ever stirring an actual soul. The only passion to be produced by The Future of Food, with its visually sloppy, pandering craft, is that of having one's own views affirmed. Manufactured Landscapes, trusting its achingly captured images and a few carefully considered words to speak enough, winds up being a great movie.