[15 October 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“There has been an erosion of conscience,” worries one diner in Barjac. Food producers, distributors, and consumers have all given up, seeking only short-term ends, whether profits or easy access. In this pursuit, they’ve lost track of the future—even when that future has arrived.
This is the dire news in Food Beware: The French Organic Revolution, whose French title, Nos enfants nous accuseront translates literally to Our children will accuse us. When someone in the documentary actually speaks the title, the English subtitler comes up with “That should not be,” a more abstract and angrily declarative version of the same idea. Here, schoolchildren, particularly schoolchildren in the French town of Barjac, are pushed into the foreground, urging their parents to change their habits and look forward, to change their behaviors and expectations, to save the world for generations to come.
At least this is the very plain message of a song that one of the children helpfully introduces early in the film: “I heard this song on the radio this morning,” he says on his arrival in the classroom. “I can’t get it out of my head.” And with that, he and his classmates launch into a rousing chorus, cautioning that the “storms and tornadoes” now wracking the world are signs of the earth’s unrest. “We have to change things around,” the children sing, as the camera pans over their upturned faces, so attractive and earnest. “To trees, citizens, a better world for tomorrow!”
Yes, the device is obvious, even graceless. But Jean-Paul Jaud’s documentary—opening at New York City’s Quad Cinemas on 16 October and also available on DVD—isn’t much interested in subtlety. It means to alarm and move viewers, to urge action or at least reaction. The young students take their cues from their parents and other adults in Barjac. Intercut with scenes at the school—in particular in the canteen, where a special table is set up where organic diners sit together and are served tasty meals each noontime—are scenes of men and women articulating many problems and some solutions. The consequences of global pollution are upon us, assert speakers at the Maison de L’Unesco in Paris. “Think about your family and friends,” says John Peterson Myers, Chief Researcher of Environmental Health Services, before asking convention attendees to raise their hands if they know someone affected by cancer, diabetes, or infertility. When nearly every hand in the room is up, he concludes, “This generation of children is the first generation in modern history that is not going to be as healthy as their parents. That should not be.”
Asked whether he knows of recent, more precise studies that verify this prognosis, Myers asserts that the problem is not lack of information but instead, lack of political will. Between lobbyists, business owners, and politicians, he says, the system has become definitively shortsighted.
This grim moment is followed by one instance of a recurring device, the listing of statistical horrors, accompanied by scary piano music and split screens. As children playing hopscotch are observed from a scary overhead camera, titles note the damage done: “In Europe, 70% of cancers are linked to the environment,” and again, “In Europe, every year 100,000 children die of diseases caused by the environment.” These numbers are horrifying, no doubt. The film submits its answer, repeatedly cutting from such images to scenes of charming children advocating for organic meals. How could anyone say no?
The program instituted in Barjac, where Mayor Edouard Chaulet declares he’s had enough, focuses on school kitchens, as a means to change the practices of the next generation. Kids plant a garden full of organic food (even as the mayor explains that the official label “organic” cannot be granted to commercial produce until the ground where it is grown has been chemical-free for three years). Determined to stop the damage caused by “industrial and agro-chemical pollution,” the citizens of Barjac (those who appear on camera anyway) begin serving organic meals at home: children and parents sit at perfectly appointed tables.
Speakers at a meeting with the mayor worry that the costs of organic food are prohibitive for some families. But Chaulet insists, even if he loses votes, he says, that changes must be made. “You can’t put a price on health,” he says. “What are the costs of not doing it?” The film illustrates some costs, in stories told by French citizens concerning their experiences with illness. A mother describes her young daughter’s struggle with chemotherapy, a young woman lists the many members of her family who have succumbed to various cancers. And an activist begins reading the deleterious ingredients in fast foods, off wrappers found in a public garbage can. As he reads, the film reinforces his points with text: preservatives, emulsifiers, and thickeners used in candy may lead to hyperactivity, asthma, liver metabolism problems, allergies, rashes, insomnia, and cancer.
The imprecision of the argument—in the film and apparently in Barjac—is part of the point. As Myers says early on, the trends are manifest, and insisting on more “proof” is only a delaying tactic. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers are bad, the film submits. What else do you need to know?