From commercial crab fishing in Alaska, to learning how to become a filmmaker in Peru, Aaron Woolf’s worldly experience makes him an ideal documentarian for PBS. His previous films — Dying to Leave: The Human Face of Global Trafficking, Greener Grass Cuba and Baseball and the United States — all aired on public television, but Woolf is proud to have his latest film, King Corn, get theatrical distribution.
“I never wanted to be anything,” Woolf says. “I only knew things I wanted to accomplish in my life. I wanted to build a house, drive cross-country, run for office, shoot a documentary and have a family.” He’s an interesting individual who’s managed to do things his own way and each of his films reflects an incredible global consciousness.
King Corn is lighter subject matter than most documentaries released this year. It’s about the American farming community and the rapid metamorphosis it’s undergone over the last half century. The American industrial food industry, which is reliant on corn production, has expanded immensely and so have American waistlines. Consumption of inorganic food is at its highest rate ever, as are obesity levels; King Corn examines all these developments.
The film has been gaining momentum on the festival circuit and has been featured at the SXSW, True/False, Hot Docs, Boston and Wisconsin film festivals. This week it kicks off a fifteen-city tour (through Balcony Releasing) that began last Friday at New York’s cinema village.
Filmmaker: Can you explain a little about your filmmaking background?
Woolf: It was strange; in college I studied art and politics. I always knew I wanted to make documentaries because I had this idea that I wanted to film stories which were happening. Most of my friends who were into film moved to LA and NY, but I had this notion of wanting to make films in Latin America. It was ridiculous I didn’t speak a word of Spanish. First though, I moved to Alaska and began working as a commercial crab fisherman, a highly successful industry at that time. But one day I just got in my car and started driving south. I drove all the way from Alaska to Peru, asking for film-production work along the way. Peru in the late eighties was going through complete turmoil, there was this revolutionary group called the Shining Path that kept blowing up power towers so there were incessant blackouts, a curfew and many foreigners were fleeing the country. There was this law that before they could screen a foreign film, they had to show a Peruvian short, so there was a very active filmmaking community. I wound up on the doorstep of a company called Inca Films and wound up staying with them for two years, making dozens of shorts. It was the greatest film school in the world.
Filmmaker: How did King Corn originate?
Woolf: I made this film with my cousin Curtis Ellis and his friend Ian Cheney. I had made a bunch of films by this point and Ellis had been studying agriculture at Yale. I wanted to make a documentary about the way Americans eat, because throughout my travels, I noticed all these paradoxes. The United States is one of the richest countries in the world, yet maintains one of the worst diets. Also, for the first time in history, obesity is associated with poverty, as opposed to wealth. Through his studies, Ellis had been noticing these agricultural connections between modern farming practices and the way Americans ate. We started talking about making a documentary, but finding financing for a film about agriculture was difficult. My last film was about human trafficking, which had producers whipping out their checkbooks, for this I was lucky if I could get the pitch off without someone laughing.
Filmmaker: What made you pick the town of Greene, Iowa?
Woolf: After graduating Ellis and Cheney really wanted to drive across the country. I gave them a couple grand and a camera to document their journey. They also documented everything they ate. When they reached Iowa they had gotten sick of spending so much time together and got into a fight. Cheney got out of the truck demanding to be dropped off with his family in Greene, it was then that Ellis revealed he also had family in the same town. For a town with a population of around 1,000 that was a pretty big coincidence. They called me from Greene and told me what they had done so far and that they both had family in this small, farming community and the film began to take off from there.
Filmmaker: In a year full of dark documentaries such as Lake of Fire, Ghosts of Cité Soleil and Manda Bala, how do you think audiences will react to this film?
Woolf: Most of the films I’ve made have been on more “sensationalist” subject matter, that’s why it was so hard to get this financed. Also, it’s a false premise; we went to Greene with a plan. It’s not like Manda Bala or Ghosts of Cite Soleil which juxtaposes characters within a particular situation. In this case, we brought the characters and their plan to grow an acre of corn. We didn’t know what would happen from there, we didn’t know how accepting the town would be. Even though we knew a little before hand, we had no idea how much the American industrial food industry depends on corn. We also didn’t know how much it would change Cheney and Ellis. When you dedicate more than a year of your life to something, the experience can’t help but change you. They experienced the town burning down the grain elevator because there was too much corn. They experienced the town’s high school close because of the dwindling population. They experienced the farmer they were working with lose his farm. All of these experiences really became the argument in the film.
Filmmaker: What do you hope people will get out of seeing this film?
Woolf: I hope people will think a little more about what they eat and realize that we don’t have to accept the industrial food system as is. I want people to see through that invisible wall between what we eat and where it originates. We started this film with the idea that if we went to the root of the industrial system, we’d be able to see all the way up. But the American food industry, much like the global economy, is built with opacity; it’s hard to determine the origins of our consumer products. It turns out the farmers who grow this corn have little idea where it goes, just as people have little idea where their dinner actually comes from. Nobody wants a lecture and one of the things I wanted to do with this film is not create a polemic. I want the audience to go on this journey together and discover. I like the challenge of trying to bring balance to an issue like this through film.
Filmmaker: You used a lot of stop-motion animation in the film, whose idea was that?
Woolf: Ian should take most of the credit for that. We actually purchased the Fisher-Price farm set at the auction at the end of the film. But it was also a homage to this other corn-related film Hybrid. It’s a fascinating look at the industry and I hope King Corn can live up to it in the great pantheon of corn films. I also wanted to use the Fisher Price toys because that’s what kids in the cities and suburbs play with and thus, have this idealistic notion of what farms are like.
Filmmaker: Can you elaborate a little on the Farm Bill?
Woolf: Every five years this piece of legislation comes up before congress and ever since the 1970’s there’s been this increase in subsidizing corn. There’s been no effort to subsidize fresh fruits and vegetables for school lunches, but plenty of effort goes into making sure corn-syrup and corn-starch get into the American diet.
Filmmaker: In your opinion, what would be the optimal way to legislate farming in this country?
Woolf: I think we need to think more locally, but in a modernist way. I’m not talking about returning to the 19th century, but planning for agriculture in the post-petroleum age. The average bite of food travels fifteen-hundred miles from farm to plate. That means whatever you’re eating in America right now, you’re chasing down with a big glass of diesel. It takes insane amounts fossil fuel to farm and deliver food right now and it’s completely unnecessary. I think locally grown food is better food, I mean can you have fresh produce during the mid-western winters? No of course not, but I think we really should get back to using some of the older methods.
Filmmaker: Do you think ideas like that would work in an economy that’s so profit oriented?
Woolf: I think the capitalist system has room to be flexible and responds very well to consumer demand. I mean we just got rid of smoking in bars in New York City [and other large cities]. What we want least is this two food system, where people in affluent societies or University towns can go to farmer’s markets and purchase locally grown, organic food while the rest of America is eating McDonald’s. We need a government policy that democratizes the right for everyone to have fresh, organic food. Is it going to cost a little more? Sure, but aren’t we paying more in terms of our health? We’re actually paying more in our taxes to subsidize this industrial empire. We can vote with our dollars by choosing not to purchase food from supermarkets. We can also tell our congressman not to throw away their votes on the farm bill. The bill has the potential to incentivize fresh produce as much as it has the ability to incentivize fast-food, which it’s doing now.
Filmmaker: Do other countries eat that much differently from the United States?
Woolf: Americans are good at doing things well and doing things big. The industrial food system is a good representation of that. It’s done very well economically and Americans have become quite big. It stands in stark contrast to other developed countries, which have much lower levels of obesity. Of course now America is exporting its industry to other countries, which is supported by mass corn production. China in the past ten years has built thirty new mills dedicated to producing high-fructose corn syrup. You look at all the immigration into this country, even from third world countries, and they’re very susceptible to weight gain and diabetes.
Filmmaker: What documentaries inspire you?
Woolf: There’s so many. I really like the idea of the fiction/documentary hybrid. I could count among my favorite films Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, it’s so ripe and spontaneous. Also Memories of Underdevelopment, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s beautiful 1968 film which mixes documentary segments with fictional characters. I also really love Brother’s Keeper and Grey Gardens. I think they’re solid films that transcend their subject matter.
Filmmaker: You’ve exclusively made documentaries, do you have any desire to direct narratives?
Woolf: I have a problem with the use of the word “narrative.” Every documentary has to have a narrative to work. More or less King Corn set up a narrative by having Ian and Mike go to this town. I think one of the best festivals right now is True/False because it’s dedicated to questioning the category of documentary filmmaking. I think storytelling is storytelling and each film develops its own language where some rules apply and others don’t. I guess we should really say “scripted” or “unscripted.” Although to some degree even documentaries are scripted when you’re choosing what to shoot and what to omit. A documentary is still directing the audience’s attention.
Filmmaker: What are some of your upcoming projects?
Woolf: I’m working on two projects. One is the story of an American linguist who went down to the Amazon in the 1970s, it’s a film about how language determines the way we think (or the other way around). We’re shooting deep in the Amazon and I see it being along the lines of Grizzly Man. I’m also working on a documentary about the five Latina actresses that dub Desperate Housewives into Spanish, it really parallels the actors and the characters the play.