Food and films for thought

Berlin film festival sparks conversations about sustainability and food production over elegant cuisine.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    FOOD, INC.: The documentary film, 'Food, Inc.,' premièred at the Berlin Film Festival during the 'Culinary Cinema' event the second week in February. The film provides a behind-the-scenes look at America’s food industry.
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Dinner and a movie was given a glamorous and ecoconscious twist at the 59th International Berlin Film Festival, with the special program "Culinary Cinema" earlier this month.

This sidebar program to one of the world's largest and most influential film festivals connected movies on culinary topics with dinners prepared by Michelin-star winning chefs. With a price tag of about $64 for a film and a three-course meal, it was certainly one of the best deals in sight.

Now in its third year, "Culinary Cinema" focused on issues of environmental responsibility and sustainable food production. The opening gala at the 1,895-seat Friedrichstadtpalast featured the European première of the documentary "Food, Inc." an exposé of America's highly mechanized food industry. With its images of cows standing knee-high in their own manure and chickens being clubbed to death, "Food, Inc." is hardly a film to whet the appetite.

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The screening was followed by a discussion with the director Robert Kenner; Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation"; Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma"; and German food experts. Mexican actor Gael García Bernal rushed in fresh from the press conference for his new film "Mammoth" by Swedish director Lukas Moodysson (which screened in competition that evening) to discuss the rising prices of corn in Mexico that has led to a tortilla crisis in this part of the world.

During the panel, audience members had plenty of time to rid their minds of the film's disturbing content and images, and afterward they heartily munched on an organic vegetarian treat from Tim Raue, the celebrity chef at Berlin's famous Hotel Adlon Kempinski.

Raue's contribution was a richly spiced stew of pumpkin, carrot, and ginger, garnished with winter herbs. An endless stream of waiters dished out small bowls to the thousand-plus attendees; with many guests managing to snatch up seconds of the tangy treat as they wandered the theater's, elegant foyer, and hallways.

Subsequent evenings featured food-centric documentaries, features, and shorts that issued strong warnings about modern food production and advocated sustainability. The films were, at times, less than convincing. Jean-Paul Jaud's film "That Should Not Be – Our Children Will Accuse Us," about a mayor who decides that a school should adopt an organic diet in France, left much to be desired.

However, it was hard not to be won over by the accompanying "green" dinners prepared by Michelin-starred chefs Lea Linster of Luxembourg, Hendrik Otto of the Ritz-Carlton Berlin's Vitrum Restaurant, and Kolja Kleeberg of Berlin's legendary Vau.

Tickets for the series were difficult to obtain, with the opening gala and ensuing dinner programs rivaling the films in the main competition program in popularity. The series concluded with the widely anticipated world première of "Terra Madre" a documentary about the Slow Food movement's conference of more than 6,000 farmers and other food producers from more than 130 countries held annually in Turin, Italy. The film's iconic Italian director Ermanno Olmi also directed "The Tree of Wooden Clogs." Mr. Olmi was unable to attend the festival, but Carlo Petrini, founder of the International Slow Food movement, participated in a discussion on the future of the movement, moderated by German television host Hansjürgen Rosenbauer.

With more than 80,000 members worldwide, the Slow Food movement educates consumers on the impacts of fast food production and consumption and advocates the preservation of local cuisines and gastronomic customs. Mr. Petrini and Anna-Lena Banzhaf, a student at Petrini's University of Gastronomic Sciences located in northern Italy, spoke about how to implement the movement's goal of finding the most direct route from farm to market. "Everyone has a right to eat well," Petrini said.

In keeping with the evening's Italian theme, the Hamburg-based chef Cornelia Poletto concocted a three-course pasta dinner. The sophisticated menu featured penne fredde with fennel salami, orecchiette with buffalo mozzarella, and pasta chitarra with duck ragout.

Inside the Gropius Mirror Restaurant – a heated tentlike structure constructed for the event – the atmosphere was much more casual than in most bastions of fine dining. Diners nibbled on cheese platters and no dress code was enforced. Bad table manners went unpunished, and there was an elegant yet unpretentious ambiance appropriate to an audience drawn together by mutual love of cinema and haute cuisine – a winning combination that, in this case, provided plenty of food for thought.

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