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'Eat the Screen' Season At Barbican Cinema: A Feast For The Eyes

A meat factory in Frederick Wiseman's 1976 documentary 'Meat', screened as part of the 'Eat the Screen' season
Meat (US 1976, dir. Frederick Wiseman); image courtesy of Barbican

Barbican Cinema launched their latest hand-curated season at the start of July with ‘Eat the Screen: Films to Feed Conversations About Food’, which will be running through the summer until the end of August. Using the power of cinema, combined with the power and necessity of food, the programme will present a wide range of films that push the audience away from the dinner table, bringing the industry and ethics of food production into the frame.

Food is one of those areas of cinematic spectatorship where looking holds all the enjoyment. Unlike other filmic representations that necessitate meaning to be understood and enjoyed, one may look unapologetically upon food and gain a sense of enjoyment from just this: a feast for the eyes, as it were.

However, this is not the approach that Tamara Anderson, in-house curator at Barbican Cinema and the lead programming force of ‘Eat the Screen’, chose to take. “The season ended up being driven more by issues and by broader curiosity I have about the subject, rather than aesthetics…as a topic, food opens out into so many different areas.” One must only look at the wide variety of cultures and social circumstances through which food is presented in the programme to find evidence of this; as Anderson suggests, the subject of food is “immediately relatable”. This makes the bridges of meaning in the films between politics, the food industry, and communities of people stronger, as they are built on the foundation that food is ubiquitous and fundamentally necessary for every viewer.

"What's the big deal?" from 'Bamako Chicken', screened as part of the 'Eat the Screen' season
Bamako Chicken (Mali 2015, dir. Habib Yazdi); image courtesy of Barbican

Foragers (2022) follows Palestinians, whose right to forage za’atar and ‘akkoub on their own land is being restricted by the Israeli government. With food being central to the film’s message, it “does a very good job of bringing home the grievances the Palestinians feel against the Israeli state”, says Anderson. “We understand instinctively how food is a cohesive element…it brings people together.”

In this sense, however, this politicisation is purely a by-product: films about food are inevitably about people, their communities and their cultures. Anderson talks about how the programme and its profound meanings came solely from readings and research on food: “I am interested in how maple syrup is made, but I am also…curious about how people are living and eating in Mali, Taiwan, Colombia, and beyond, and I programmed this season to answer that curiosity.”

So, with community being the “through-line” of the programme, the politics that comes out of it originates with the audience, who are themselves members of such communities. This is testament to the profundity of food in film; it may just be a menial resource, but we cannot live without it. Not only is this ‘immediately relatable’, but as food is often, according to Anderson, “a carrier of the heritage of a particular community”, we instantly understand the hardship when this is restricted or entirely taken away.

Brian Kito, the subject of 'Fugetsu-Do', screened as part of the "eat the Screen' season
Fugetsu-Do (US 2020, dir. Kaia Rose); image courtesy of Barbican

This also allows the films to be de-theorised, relying on our reaction to real-life situations relating to food to create a political message: “I wanted to programme some films, some good films, that would engage these conversations, but without being dry film lectures or advocating too stridently for one thing or another.” There is no certainty that all of our reactions to the films will be the same. The programme includes, for example, Meat (1976), a documentary by heralded doc-master Fredrick Wiseman exploring the meat industry. “There is a discussion in it about the ethics of producing and consuming meat made in this way, but that’s not the culmination, or ‘message’ of the film. It is a far more complex film than that – one, yes, showing us how things are, but also asking us, perhaps, to think about institutions and what they do to us”. Wiseman, known for upholding the cinéma verité style, said in 2008 that it’s his job “to cut [a documentary] so that it fairly represents what I felt was going on at the time in the original event.” Any political message that comes out of the film, which is practically inevitable given the popularity of veganism and other anti-meat discourse today, is added on by the viewer.

This is the power that food in cinema has. Much like food in real life, it brings us together but also makes us scrutinise our industrial handling of a baseline, human necessity (the fact that a ‘bread line’ even exists is a painful reminder of this). In many respects, these are the ‘conversations’ that Anderson seeks to invoke with this programme. With such a wide variety of voices and communities on display, there is no doubt that this is exactly what the Barbican’s audiences will gain from this programme.

'Eat The Screen: Films to Feed Conversations About Food' is running at Barbican Cinema from 1st July to 24th August 2023. For more information about the programme and other upcoming seasons at Barbican, go to their website or follow them on Twitter.



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