Children of the corn armed with movie cameras
This is a guest post by Nicole de Beaufort, a long-time advocate for local, sustainable, and accessible food systems. She is principal of Fourth Sector Consulting in North Oaks, Minn., which employs strategic communications to work with food system advocates and funders to mobilize the growing food movement. The film King Corn is set to open in theaters nationwide starting Oct. 12 in New York.
In 1977, Stephen King published a short story in Penthouse about some bad things happening in cornfields in the Midwest. Later, that story, “Children of the Corn,” became a successful B-movie franchise.
Leave it to Stephen King to capture the horror of vast cornfields.
Thirty years later, a new movie, King Corn, is poised to hit national movie theater distribution — and what it has to say might be even scarier. Having made the festival circuit, King Corn is already a hit with the Cultural Creative crowd. Now that it’s about to go national, it has a chance to present its message to the mainstream. Will the story it tells connect with this different audience and create a clamor for change?
The potential for this movie to communicate the very real problem of our runaway food system depends, in large part, on the quality of the editing for the national distribution version. Judging from the version I’ve seen, the editing needs to be tighter. The film fakes and ducks in the beginning, creating extra work for the viewer. The movie opens with a sequence that is clearly beloved by its makers, but fails to hook its audiences without a lot of work.
After road-tripping across the country and cataloguing their experiences eating at rest stops and convenience stores, Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney discover with the help of a hair scientist that, in fact, they are what they eat. What they are eating may seem like a variety of stuff — burgers, fries, soft drinks — but it’s actually doctored-up corn.
In 2005, Michael Pollan addressed a group of activists in California: “If you are what you eat, and especially but not exclusively if you eat industrial food, as we understand 99 percent of Americans do, what you are is corn.”
Ellis and Cheney interview Pollan in the film; he is hale and hearty and seated in front of a luscious backdrop of a California Craftsman home and wild kale garden. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan followed a bushel of corn through our food system.
Ellis and Cheney take Pollan’s idea a step further: they rent a patch of land in rural Iowa to plant their own acre of corn, and spend a year following its progress through the social, agricultural, and economic landscape of Iowa and our farm commodity system. And after the clunky opening, the filmmakers quickly find their footing.
Ellis and Cheney settle on their patch of land in a place where they both have family history: Greene, Iowa, where both of their great-grandfathers once worked. There are scenes of gemütlichkeit as Ellis and Cheney search for their origins in the town graveyard, or with distant relatives, their flushed young faces and gimlet eyes eager for connection to place. And connect they do.
One of the film’s great strengths is the apparent warmth of relationships these guys have created with the locals of Greene, Iowa. Locals think these two kids are a bit crazy to farm a single acre in a place where 500-acre plantings seem small, but are happy to share their lives with them in a very authentic way. To their vast credit, the filmmakers never score cheap points by painting the locals as bumpkins.
While primarily about the food system, King Corn also documents friendship. The film is sweet but not sugary, earnest and open-minded, and more than a little bit tragic.
Incorporating stop-motion photography, the filmmakers show how corn, originally a native grass of great variety, has been pared down to one genetically modified breed that came to reign over the grain belt. In a clever visual sequence, two Playskool® farm barns illustrate in clear and terrible detail how production decisions had real impacts on the land. Viewers witness the actual ripping and tearing of the small-town social fabric through the destruction of homesteads, grain elevators, and biodiversity.
As the harvest approaches, Ellis and Cheney become increasingly perplexed and horrified by what they have learned about the food system. They have learned that our country and the world have become more obese as a direct result of the mass production of corn in our country.
All of us, knowingly or not, are eating toxic, corn-based food. Ellis and Cheney become so horrified by their crop that they consider not harvesting it. By this point they have realized, however, that the system is rigged and even though it’s not a secret to those in the system, no one feels empowered or is able to change the status quo. There are simply too many forces working to keep the system on its wanton course.
After gently drawing viewers in with the narrators’ earnest quest, King Corn lays bare some of the causes and effects of our relationship with corn: what happens on feedlots, how high fructose corn syrup changed our diet, and how one well-meaning but misguided bureaucrat altered our collective fate because he dreamed of “fields of plenty.”
The film forces us to question why our national farm policy perpetuates untold devastation to people, places, and things — ultimately shortening our lives and widening the prosperity gap.
If King Corn manages to gain the audiences and backing of An Inconvenient Truth, it has the power to focus our nation’s attention on changing the way we feed ourselves. For as it now stands, the denatured abundance we’ve come to count on regularly creates horror stories that would chill Steven King’s spine.