“King Corn” preview and discussion in Berkeley draws crowd

Michael Pollan with "King Corn" stars Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney, and director Aaron Woolf, along with a corny hat that Pollan had in his backpack.

As expected, Tuesday night’s special event for "King Corn," featuring Michael Pollan and the three filmmakers, had a huge turnout, with people lining up 90 minutes beforehand at the Hillside Club in Berkeley. Since there were no tickets for the event — only a not-very-well-publicized directive saying that if you brought a "perverse statistic" about the food system written on an index card, it would act as sort of a Fastrak pass to jump you ahead in the line — there was almost a riot or two.

Somehow I got put in charge of (wo)manning the door, where I did my best to ensure the process was fair despite the large crews of "friends of" the filmmakers, Pollan, the UC Berkeley student group SAFE (the event’s sponsors), and the venue’s own members. We did have to turn about 50 people away, and if any of you were among them, um … sorry. However, the film opens at the Red Vic in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck theater tomorrow, and the filmmakers are splitting up so that one or two of them will be present at both theater’s first screenings Friday and Saturday to answer audience’s questions.

The panel discussion that followed Tuesday’s screening was at times heated, and highly entertaining. (A webcast of it will be available at the website of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where Pollan teaches, in a week or so.) In the Q&A portion, audience member Miguel Altieri, an agroecologist and UC Berkeley entomology professor, complained that the movie over-simplified the problems surrounding corn and omitted entirely any real discussion of the crop’s genetic modification, environmental effects on U.S. land and waterways, and its economic and health impacts on Mexico.

Woolf, a veteran documentary filmmaker and the director of "King Corn," said he took responsibility for that, having cut out entire segments in which Ian and Curt followed their acre of corn’s wastewater down the Mississippi in a red canoe to the dead zone, and later went to Oaxaca to chronicle the very effects Altieri mentioned. (The DVD will have these as extras, he said, although I have heard that they were trying to raise the money to release the footage as a separate short film.)

In the end, Woolf explained, "We didn’t want to make a lecture on the ravages of corn. We wanted to make a movie" that could get a theatrical release — a challenge for any documentary, let alone one about farm policy. The fact that so many people are interested in it, concluded Pollan, proves that the food movement in this country has reached critical mass. He urged the audience to get involved with the Food and Farm Bill — specifically to urge California’s senators to support Senator Grassley’s proposal for a $250,000 ceiling on payment limits — and to continue to vote with their forks for sustainable food.

Lastly, many people did their homework and researched the perverse food system. The cards I collected at the door made for pretty fascinating reading. While the film was screening, volunteers taped the cards together into a big collage, portions of which I photographed and have linked to larger versions on Flickr below after the jump.

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