Leeds Film Festival 2010: Day 9

Fresh (US) (site)

A documentary from the US about the rise of sustainable farming practices in the face of a growing realisation that the global industrialised agriculture techniques are now seen as more expensive than traditional farming practices The film introduces newer hybrid techniques which take modern technology and use it in a manner more sympathetic to the laws of nature.

It begins by highlighting the problems with the current system; how the myriad chemicals used to clean or sterilise or kill pests are so easily included in the finished product, how the generation of those products has deviated from their natural method of production, and just how far the system goes in terms of effort and expenditure to fight the disease and nutritional problems caused by the high concentrations of livestock into small areas, a situation that gives rise to the assertion that it is no longer cost effective. After a surprisingly small amount of time covering these problems (already covered in plenty of other documentaries), the film then turns to people who are doing something about it; medium-scale farmers adopting techniques to work with, rather than against nature (for instance, moving their cattle around the fields, giving the grass time to revegitate, stopping the rise of diseases from a static warehouse herd and mimicking the natural movements of the animals). An inner city farm invites curious urban families in to learn about how food is grown, and the benefits of doing it to a more natural template.

As with some of the critics of the abandonment of industrial scale practices, I found myself asking the film in the early stages the usual questions about just how these idealist practices could possibly be scaled up and used to feed the world, and how you convince people used to paying a pittance for their food, especially in the city where growing pretty much anything is unheard of, that they should shell out more for the organic stuff.

But this film addressed my questions pretty thoroughly as it went on. It showed how sustainable farming creates more local jobs than were lost if an industrial plant were shut; it showed that the 'cheap' food we buy doesn't come cheap, the expense is recouped in terms of nutritional loss, the removal of local jobs which hits the communities, and the taxpayers subsidies paid to farmers, because the multinationals that buy the products for processing have a stranglehold on the prices, ensuring that the buying price alone is less than it takes to produce the crop. It showed how the local jobs fed the local community and made it socially richer, and it also showed the problem from the other side; the farmers who have not made the jump and are unwilling or unable to because they are locked into the system.

Those who doubt there is an alternative to the familiar scenes of battery chickens and mentally disturbed pigs should watch this film. It has clearly been shown to preview audiences beforehand, who have come back and said 'ah, but you didn't address this question about..'. It addresses most if not all impracticalities with a thorough and professional coverage and gives plenty of examples of people who have made these claims into real, tangible results. Though it deals with the US food issues which are far greater in scale than our own, we could learn a thing or two before it becomes as bad over here, and it also has the additional merit of concentrating more on the solutions than the problem. 8/10

Visit the Growing Power website, an example from the film making a big difference in an urban city.

Beating the Bomb (UK) (site)

While in Japan I attended the Tokyo Film Festival (see one of my posts in the future), during which I managed to catch a US film called Countdown to Zero, covering the state of the nuclear arms race and how close we have come several times to accidental nuclear war. Beating the Bomb is a lower budget British equivalent, but no less compelling. Taking the establishment of the CND movement in 1958 and charting the related events through to the present day, it covers much of the same ground as it's US counterpart, from a viewpoint across the pond.

Troubling doesn't do it justice, as imagery of nuclear explosions and mutated children, triumphant post-Hiroshima US headlines and disturbing statistics (number of nuclear weapons ready to be fired in the world: 30,000) flash across the screen. What this British film has that wasn't present in the highly-polished American one though was a sense of community and personal activism by committed individuals. As it leaves the inevitable coverage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki behind near the beginning, it moves to footage of grassroots activism, such as the London to Aldermaston marches and Greenham Common protests, (where one woman was interviewed as she was carried away by four policemen!) and the interviews with the volunteers and activists who were there and at the many others it inspired, talking heads such as Mark Thomas and Tony Benn, and a selection of darkly satirical anti-nuclear cartoons and posters from down the years all make for a thoroughly compelling and worthwhile film. For those glib people who mock the CND and similar groups for being little more than bored hippies, you should watch this to get the proper picture of their influence here and around the world, plus a whole load of unsettling facts about where things are going. 8/10

The Mystery of the Flying Kicks (US) (site/trailer)

Showing as part of a double bill alongside Dive!, this short documentary attempted to explain the sights in cities around the world (but apparently much more in the US) of pairs of shoes, usually trainers, hanging from telephone wires. Using submitted answers to the question of why from people on a 'Shoefiti hotline', we get several theories, from a sign of virginity loss in teenagers, a lasting marker that people lived or worked in an area, or a Mafia warning to police not to enter the neighbourhood. Unfortunately, the question, and thus the validity of a documentary on the subject quickly became spent, but it was an entertaining distraction before the main event. 6.5/10

Dive! (US) (site)

Made on a budget of just $200 and with the help of his friends and other volunteers, director Jeremy Seifert and his family introduce us to 'Dumpster Diving' - going through the rubbish skips outside supermarkets and taking home perfectly edible food to eat for free, much of it still in date, sealed in their packaging and perfectly edible. The US apparently throws 96 billion lbs of food away every year, much of which is safe to eat and could easily go to those with no food, many of which are right on the doorsteps of some of the branches; 11 million American families are on the poverty line with millions more coming close.

Dumpster divers have their own three rules to work by; don't take more than you need, first come first served, and most importantly, leave the dumpster in a better state than when you found it, so that the supermarkets have one less reason to clamp down on the practice.

Jeremy comes from a poor neighbourhood and could never afford both the quantity or quality of the food he scavenges, his family getting most of its food from the practice. As his film goes on, he asks why it's thrown away, and finds that the door is slammed in his face at the store headquarters he asks, the increase in skips locked away behind fences telling him that the acquisition of free food, even stuff that is landfill-bound, is not good adverts for people buying it off the shelves. As Christmas approaches, his requests to one store pay off and he is allowed to take away their still-in-date stock that gets binned extra early due to closing on Christmas day, directly in a van to take to the Salvation Army and other charities, who even with the voluntary food donations by the stores, struggle to meet demand.

It's all very feel-good, and again, it's not so relevant to the UK (having worked in retail I know that the contents of our skips are nothing like as pleasant as what you see here), but it's still a very good film, made by good people who deserve recognition for doing the right, but not always lawful, thing. 8/10

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