Cinema provides a glimpse of the world, so they say. But there’s also a rougher, more peripheral, unpredictable and lesser known version of cinema, in which contemporary life is portrayed through original, experimental and often astounding expressive solutions. Short films tell stories and depict characters in audiovisual accounts of no more than twenty or thirty minutes, in a variety of formats with varying results. It is an alternative production method that represents both the history of cinema – as we know, films were originally ‘short’ – and its future, because short films are inevitably less expensive to produce and budding authors often dabble in this form before making the leap to feature-length films. Thanks all these factors and above all, to the bold, extreme freedom of the genre, short films offer a unique view of the salient themes of our times. This is the basic theoretical premise for Slow Food on Film, the world short film festival sponsored by Slow Food: to see how this sparkling form of cinema deals with one of humanity’s most important themes—food. The first edition, held last year in April, was a brilliant success. But appetite comes with eating, and we’ve decided to relaunch the next edition for April 2004.
Armed with notebooks, a full tank of gas and good intentions, I set off for Clermont-Ferrand. Here in the home of Michelin tyres, over 200km west of Lyons, the short film festival has been held every cold January for the last 25 years. No organiser wishing to improve the quality of his own festival can afford to miss this event and the chance to stock up on ideas, names, films and contacts.
And this year I was on the warpath too.
An endless program, packed theaters (including the enormous aula magna which seats 1,400 spectators), a unique market to buy and sell short films (over 5,000 titles), faces and experts of all races and cultures, a generally casual atmosphere (because, after all, this is the richest event in a penniless sector!), red wine, plenty of snow, and jam-packed bistros—I found all that and more during the four days I spent in the world short film capital.
I came looking for short films about food and that’s what I found. Lots!
The impression created by the frothy world of short films in Clermont-Ferrand was that food had come to everyone’s attention, standing out as one of the central themes of cinema in these years of confusion. I don’t intend to hazard a clumsy pseudo-sociological analysis after this empiric statistical survey of mine. I just want to stimulate discussion with a bird’s eye view of the delicious dishes we tasted from the festival’s rich menu and, at the same time (inevitably), provide a generous foretaste of what Slow Food on Film 2004 will have on offer.
Three of the films competing in the prestigious international festival attracted my attention: Pork Chop by Tom Barnes, a Hong King film-maker who tells the story of young Japanese Miyuki’s quasi-erotic obsession with pork, which she eats raw like sushi; Rockpool, directed by New Zealander Zandra Palmer, is an interior and exterior family portrait—a beach house and three generations speaking three different languages, for whom food (especially oysters) is the only common language; and, lastly, De Chinese Muur (The Chinese Wall) by Dutch director Sytske Kok, which reflects on the dinner table as a place for social ‘truths’. The protagonist is a middle-aged woman who seeks refuge in her favourite Chinese restaurant, in order to find some peace and think things over. Here, as she looks at the people sitting at the other tables, she comes to conclusions about life.
These are the selected international films.
But I wasn’t only interested in the competition films. As I strolled round the market clutching a wad of business cards, I discovered other juicy titbits (through videocassettes and ad hoc screenings). In Soufflé, by Swiss Eleanor Rutman, the success or failure of this dish is linked to the fate of the love relationship between the two young protagonists. In the wonderful Chez Amore, a Canadian short film, by Rumanian director Mary Ann Georgescu, the eponymous restaurant hires a new assistant chef. Despite his clumsy appearance he proves capable of impressive culinary seduction, to the extent that his dishes provoke real passion among the customers and the furious jealousy of the owner, with “Greenawayian” results. In the Irish film The Sunday Munch by Oda O’ Connor, a family’s inability to communicate at the table is vented in the humble dishes with Pantagruelian furore. Eat, by American animator Michael Plymton (famous for the old men in the entr’actes on MTV) transforms a restaurant—and the very act of eating—into a physical and metaphysical experience, while Desaliñada, the prize-winning Spanish film written and produced by actor Gustavo Salmeron, describes the passionate liaison between a cod and a salad, who decide to crown their eternal love by dying together on the same plate.
These are the films I was able to see, but other promising delicacies are the French films Poulet Cocotte, Le gateau d’anniversaire and Plat du Jour; the Mexican La Mesa Servida; the Egyptian film Our Food; Chili & Tortillas and Gourmet Baby from America; and the Brazilian film A lasanha assassina, as well as many others I can’t mention here, but which I’ve noted in my precious notebooks for future reference
All in all, a real Grande Bouffe to satisfy the appetite of the hungriest film buff. That’s as much as I can promise, over a year in advance, for the second edition of Slow Food on Film. I hope you’ll build up a hearty appetite during the long wait!
To conclude, a ‘SlowFoodPlanetary’ recommendation: if you’re ever near Clermont-Ferrand, don’t miss dinner at Jardin d’Ispahan, a friendly, delightful and very honest Iranian restaurant in the old city center, open every evening from Tuesday to Saturday (tel.0473 902307). You’ll be enchanted.
Stefano Sardo, a novelist and screenwriter, is the director of the Slow Food on Film festival
Adapted by Ailsa Wood