Aaron Woolf Seeding Doubt in "King Corn"

Jonathan Marlow October 29, 2007

Documentaries can preach or they can persuade. All too often, they fall to the former weakness, appealing to the predisposed, when they seek instead to achieve the latter. Persuasion is a difficult business, more likely than not to fail. It requires a steady hand to gracefully lead an audience through a narrative that gradually travels from one point to another and arrives at its required destination. "King Corn" is one such film, expertly made by Aaron Woolf (director of "Greener Grass" and "Dying to Leave") and his two collaborators, Curtis Ellis and Ian Cheney. The film effectively mines the same territory as "Super Size Me," though denuded of the self-exploitative gimmick, tracing the root of excessive consumption back to one crop — corn. Balcony Releasing rolled out the film across the country over the past few weeks. It finally arrives in the Bay Area this Friday.

Unsurprisingly, given the depth of his experience as a filmmaker in Peru, a fisherman in Alaska, a restauranteur in New York and other disparate activities, reflected in the breadth of topics explored in his documentaries, Woolf is well-versed on any number of subjects. Our discussion, originally intended for 30 minutes, stretched on to an hour and then another hour and has since been followed with other conversations whenever we’re both in the same city. The excerpt that follows was excised from 55 pages of transcripts.

SF360.org: As I understand it, you studied film — specifically experimental film — at the University of Iowa?

Aaron Woolf: I did. It’s not that my films were exactly as experimental as the program but my mentor was Leighton Pierce. His films are beautiful, classically experimental, meaning non-narrative and non-linear, and yet somehow terribly narrative and terribly linear. I suppose it is somewhat ironic that I ended up making films that aired on PBS, which for my generation was sort of the Holy Grail of documentary filmmaking. If you wanted to be a documentarian in the ’70s or even in the ’80s, your dream was to get a film on PBS. Just about the time that I finally got to that place, the whole landscape started to change. I really wanted to make a film that screened theatrically or make a film that was a little less traditional in terms of its approach.

SF360.org: Did this desire dictate the structure of ‘King Corn?’

Woolf: With ‘King Corn,’ I really wanted there to be a story that you cared about. I wanted there to be something that pulled you along that was not a lecture about agricultural subsidies — for obvious reasons!

SF360.org: In other words, you didn’t want the film to be didactic.

Woolf: I find didactic films to be alienating. The structure was also partly because I knew very little about agriculture or farming. One of the nice things about the collaboration on ‘King Corn’ is that the protagonists/fellow filmmakers are my cousin and his best friend and they brought that knowledge to the table.

SF360.org: You have familial roots in Iowa.

Woolf: As it turns out, yes. I was in Sydney editing a film about human trafficking [‘Dying To Leave’] when Curt [Ellis] graduated from college. I gave him and his friend $5,000 to go find a story about food.

SF360.org: Seed money, as it were.

Woolf: Back when I had $5,000 to spend on anything! Curt and Ian [Cheney] have a nice combination of earnestness and irony. It’s only that certain combination that allows you to write the kind of list that is depicted at the beginning of the film. They thought, "Aaron gave us $5,000 bucks and this must be what he wants us to do. Drive around the country and write down everything we eat." It was on this trip that they got into a fight with each other in Iowa. One of them slammed the car door and said, ‘I can’t fucking do this anymore! I’m going to visit someone from my family here in Iowa instead.’ The other one said, ‘You’ve got family in Iowa? I’ve got family in Iowa!’ That’s how they discovered this completely bizarre coincidence. They became best friends in college but had no idea that they both had a relative in this small town of Greene. When they called me in Australia, they mentioned the coincidence and said, ‘By the way, the whole continent is covered in corn.’ It just seemed like the story was presenting itself. Of course, neither one of them had any desire at all to be in a movie about corn. They wanted to make the film but they certainly didn’t want to appear in it.

SF360.org: As characters, they guide the audience through a similar process of discovery. They take folks through the shell game of corn production in the U.S., from the subsidies that prop up the industry to the ways that corn gets used in different, non-edible forms. Forms of manufactured necessity rather than real utility, although some farmers and politicians would disagree.

Woolf: It’s incredible how much you ask of someone that you’re filming when you make a documentary. I think — whether it’s said or unsaid, written or unwritten — that the best films are those in which there is an inherent understanding of collaboration between the person in front of the camera and the person behind the camera. I think that there should be a level playing field between those two but the reality is that it is incredibly easy to manipulate someone. Of course, film is manipulative in its very essence. We all know this from the editing room and we know this even when repeating conversations that we heard at the dinner table last night to our friends the next day. We all know that there are ways to position something that somebody said in one way or another by the tone of your voice and the expression on your face. Filmmaking is like that. I don’t think there is any objectivity in filmmaking whatsoever. It’s a completely subjective act. But there is an accord that you make with your collaborators on a film.

SF360.org: Based on what we see on the screen, the eating habits of your cousin and his friend don’t improve greatly but they are obviously more aware of what they’re putting into their bodies.

Woolf: The idea of them eating crappy food throughout the film partly comes from the reality of what you’re really eating when you’re driving across America or when you’re making a documentary in the heartland. Although you’re in this part of the country where all of this food is grown, it’s very hard to find anything to eat that isn’t processed. From a political standpoint, that’s the most worrisome thing about the current food situation in America. We’re moving towards a tiered food society. If you live in San Francisco or New York or if you live in a university town, there’s a co-op where you can get good fresh organic produce. If you don’t, you can’t. There is a kind of a class system based on food and there are consequences when all you eat is crappy food. It’s a daunting prospect. While it is very nice to feel good about local, sustainable organic markets, on a global level we’re not going be able to feed six billion people with local beet grains. Finding a solution for industrial agriculture and commodity agriculture is a really important part of the story. I hope that this film amplifies that discussion.

SF360.org: Throughout the Midwest, there are farmers growing corn that cannot be eaten. There is a slight parallel to ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ where employees working in Tanzanian packing plants cannot afford the fish that gets shipped away. It is a perverse set of circumstances where you can starve next to food in bountiful amounts.

Woolf: The corn, in this case, is an industrial product. It is a great source of carbon molecules.

SF360.org: Much of our caloric intake derives, in some capacity, from corn. Whether it be corn-fed meat or corn syrup that is found in far too many products to mention, it would be very difficult to avoid ingesting corn. If you eliminated it entirely, what would we have left?

Woolf: A healthy diet! We prioritize certain things over other things. For instance, we’ve prioritized convenience over food quality. Michael Pollan [author of ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ and Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley] told me recently that the fastest rising food group in America is what is called ‘one-handed foods’ — prepared foods that you can eat with one hand while driving, talking on the phone or doing some other thing. It’s not just a TV dinner, the 1950s idea of convenience. The American psyche is very much oriented towards convenience. Convenience equals prosperity.

SF360.org: In your interview with former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butts, he says with a sense of pride, to paraphrase, ‘the amount of money that we spend on food is much smaller now.’ It doesn’t matter what it took to get there, from his perspective, it’s merely the end result that is important. A society that is built primarily on convenience alone seems somewhat doomed. We could, for the sake of convenience, eat at a fast food restaurant every day. Extremely convenient, but not healthy.

Woolf: It’s certainly not healthy but there is also a darker side to the TV dinner now. I think one of the things that we’re talking about now is that certain foods allow for all of this multitasking. Something that allows us to work while we’re eating is also a signal of a doomed society, in a certain sense. You can’t blame the food companies in isolation. We now live in a society where working people have to do so much to stay on top. Much more of their day is dedicated to work just to stay afloat. For a single mom or a single dad raising a kid and working two jobs, a McDonald’s meal that costs $1.99 is an irresistible temptation. In some ways, I’m very grateful they have that option but the problem is that we never do a full cost accounting in our society. We never say, ‘How much of that McDonald’s meal am I subsidizing with my tax dollars? How much am I going to pay in health care costs as a result of these meals?’ How much do we, on a societal level, have to pay?

SF360.org: In post-war American, there was a greater appreciation of leisure. Families would spend time in the National Parks, for instance, and their use is obviously in decline in recent years. The quest for convenience is directly related to this increase in work hours and a decrease in our available free time. The trend is discouraging, from the single-income families of our grandparents’ generation to the norm of double-income households during our parents’ generation. Many people among our generation have multiple jobs merely to make ends meet.

Woolf: Leisure has a connotation in our society as being somehow less important than work. There are social bonds that develop during these leisure activities, such as when you are preparing and sharing food together. I’m one of those Democrats that applauds when I hear Republicans say that we need to put families first. We may have different ideas of what ‘family’ means — and I think that there’s a great need to amplify how we define ‘family’ — but that doesn’t make the term any less important or essential to building a solid society. There is no more important bonding that a family can do than eating together.

SF360.org: At what point does eating cease being a pleasurable activity and becomes just a basic necessity? If a meal is only something you do while walking or driving from one place to another, the social aspect of dining is lost.

Woolf: One of the things that film, as a medium, has done well is to capture this idea of dystopia — a kind of a world in which the trends of the present are taken to their kind of hyperbolic extreme. ‘Soylent Green’….