You came to me this morning and you handled me like meat. / You would have to be a man to know how good that feels, how sweet.
- Leonard Cohen, ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep.’
There are plenty of reasoned debates being had among foodies, dieticians, nutritionists, farmers, food manufacturers, and a lot of other people about meat.
Things like the industrial meat supply chain, the meat industry’s environmental footprint, the arguments for vegetarianism or veganism, concerns about our overconsumption of meat, and fears of antibiotics and hormones that end up in our system because they are shot into animals we eat.
I guess artistic platforms, like a film festival, can be less direct in presenting ideas, leaving a bit of space for independent thoughts to spring up and take root. I say can because this wasn’t a foregone conclusion when I first looked at the Berlinale Culinary Cinema programme. As I wrote before, I feared that including only documentaries could mean more being told and shown things rather than invited to think. This feeling wasn’t remedied after the opening night film, Mugaritz, which seemed to use film (deliberately or not) more as an information delivery system than a thought-provoking artistic creation.
Kivalina, by Gina Abatemarco
On Monday night, the world premiere of Gina Abatemarco’s documentary Kivalina took place at the Martin Gropius Bau Cinema. Slow-moving, non-invasive and unornamented by soundtrack and special effects in classic, purist documentary form, the film’s early scenes bring the viewer into a normal living room. A family are sitting around on couches, half-listening to a mumbling noise from the TV or radio, hacking at a seal carcass, chatting and laughing.
Abatemarco went to Kivalina to make a climate change film. But one of the most lasting impressions gleaned from her time with the locals is their still in-tact, deep attachment to the surrounding environment (despite the adoption of technology, cigarettes and Coca-Cola). This is illustrated most vividly in the animals they eat. That early scene was one of many beautiful scenes portraying the butchering, carving, preparing and eating of dead animals. Others include a daughter telling her father about the mean teacher at school over semi-frozen chunks of some flabby meat; and a young girl preparing seal blubber to be made into oil, wielding a huge smile and heavy cleaver with equal parts grace, pride and excitement. Abatemarco says that experiencing this connection has directly led to a reconnection in herself with some primordial appreciation of food, leading her to become deeply involved with elements of the Slow Food movement back in New York and internationally. At one point she even looked around for butcher apprenticeships.
Need for Meat, by Marijn Frank
Marijn Frank’s Need for Meat follows an extreme mission to face up to her long-standing meat dilemma – she accepts the arguments for vegetarianism, champions animal welfare, enforces a strict vegetarian diet for her daughter, but is unable to rip herself away from a desire for meat. This sees her take work in a slaughterhouse, undertake a neurological examination and attend therapy. The film features a scene of her slender, naked body gradually being layered with strips of rare beef until she resembles some bovine Egyptian mummy, a passage based on her own dreams and fantasies she says are 100% genuine.
Frank’s film is, of these three, the one displaying the carnal attraction of meat most directly. Constant comparisons between sex and meat are made. One of these is the neurological examination, which shows her brain to become more excited by images of tasty meat than it does with (not so tasteful) images of sex, another stated love of hers. One scene was particularly poignant for me: visiting a farm raising near-extinct breeds of cattle with a chef she says embodies the entire idea of meat as sexy, sensual and linked to primeval instincts. Frank runs her hand over the back of a well-fed cow almost ready for slaughter, tracing what will become particular cuts of meat under the direction of the (also young and sexy) farmer. In this moment, where Frank says she feels a stronger desire to hug the animal than eat it, her hand brushes and crosses with that of the farmer, tenderly, with heightened sensuality bordering on sexual tension.
Cooked: Fire, directed by Alex Gibney, based on the book by Michael Pollan
Alex Gibney’s adaptation of the ‘Air’ chapter of Michael Pollan’s Cooked is more cinematic than the other films here. A far-cry from Abatemarco’s style, Air calls on an obviously much larger budget to employ things like an unneeded but enjoyable, time-lapse close-up of a steak cooking and caramelising, and sweeping wide-angle aerial shots of the Western Australian desert, accompanied by a pulsating thud of tribal drumming and the unique twang of a didgeridoo. But the content – which takes Pollan’s book barely as a premise, let alone script or framework – evokes thoughts more subtle than the cinematic production style. Pollan, again using big guns by calling on the help of a Harvard anthropologist, claims that learning to cook started with human ancestors’ ability to control fire, grill and eat animals, specifically. With a few leaps in logic, it suggests that being able to kill, cook and eat other animals started us on (or pushed us further along) a path to becoming the perfect, intelligent, powerful and all-knowing creatures we are today… The idea clearly posited in this film is that humankind’s link to meat - not animals, but to cooked, edible meat – is biological, a part of our evolution, as much as or more than it is cultural, historical or nutritional.
With some time to fill between screenings I wandered over to Canada House to visit the exhibition ‘Reason Over Passion/La Raison Avant la Passion’, running as part of Berlinale’s Forum Expanded programme. The exhibition occupies one cylindrical room, with four television screens playing Joyce Wieland’s 1969 film documenting her cross-country trip from Ontario to British Columbia, mostly through her train window. I watched lethargically, half meditating as empty landscapes rattled across with the occasional flash of a Canadian flag. Then suddenly some pigs appeared on screen, nibbling aggressively at a wire fence, and I was startled, suddenly attentive. Was this some primal reaction, an instinctive connection to these animals, or perhaps a desire to eat them?
I don’t know what exactly it is I’m pondering after seeing these three films over the past few days. A mixture of thoughts, floating in and out. These films differ sharply in content and style, and each has its own qualities. If asked, of the three I would pick Kivalina as my favourite, for its unfiltered style, and also I expected it to be a film about climate change with some reference to food, but it turned out to be the opposite. All three features have left me with an intense combination of thoughts concerning some fundamental, intangible, entrenched and possibly incomprehensible connection between humans and meat.
This combination of vague thoughts around meat may not continue as a common thread through the rest of my Berlinale. The next two films to premiere seem to be grounded more in unique times and places: Singaporean filmmaking superstar Eric Khoo’s Wanton Mee has food journalist Chun Feng Koh reflect upon the future and past of Singapore’s unique hawker street food culture; and the documentary adaptation of another of Pollan’s books, In Defense of Food, if following the letter of the book, relies for authority on the particular situation of the United States after the revolutionary developments in food supply and diet over the 20th century, along with that diet’s related nutritional problems and (supposed) solutions.
Last night, back at the Street Food Market, I took an unusually long time standing in front of each truck. South Indian restaurant Chutnify have some delicious vegetarian offerings I’ve sampled, and a lot of my protein intake over the past few days has come not from meat but from the gorgeous incarnations of fava beans from Roberto Petza’s Mediterranean fusion stall. It was a tough decision, but in the end I drifted back towards the BBQ truck and got a pulled pork bun.