French-Uruguayan filmmaker Juan Pittaluga is well known in the world of food for his collaboration with Jonathan Nossiter on the Cannes-selected documentary Mondovino (2003). He is now working on both a feature fiction film, Punta del Este, and Miracolo del gusto, a border-crossing documentary about taste.
“It is Jonathan’s (Nossiter) project. I was the associate producer. Like a kind of co-director but not exactly a co-director. We didn’t do the film together, but I was in all the steps. I’m the second in the credits. We shared the whole thing.”
But since I saw you in it, you where on the shooting…
“I was everywhere, in the conception, how to create the film. We started together, discussing it; we made a kind of casting. In this documentary the casting is the main point.
Then we started shooting, we shared most of it, and after that we started editing in Paris. There we shared the main lines. I was not in the editing room but we were meeting up every week. Eventually the film went to Cannes, and that was an astonished thing…”
And you filmed as well?
“Yes I did some part of the technique. The idea of Jonathan was to take friends and not technicians on the spot, and he was right about that. We were a team of three, sometimes two.”
Do you think that the fact that they were no technicians and only the three, two of you, brings this personal touch to the movie? These deep sights into the characters that are totally opening themselves to you and the camera.
“That’s a mystery of human relations. They trust us. Talking technicians on a set give you this feeling to be observed. That’s why Jonathan wanted to bring a friend, who is also a filmmaker, which is me.
I was not there just walking around for him, but having an opinion. And that created an idea of human relations, a friendly atmosphere.”
What about the choice of the camera angles? You need a certain time to get used to this shaky and non-edited style.
“That’s a huge discussion, I was against the movement. It was a very personal choice that Jonathan made. Divided in two steps: the way he was shooting and the way he was editing.
I was against those camera movements because I don’t like it when my eyes can not grasp what they see, it makes you dizzy.
I like to edit scenes more; if I shoot you and then a guy who is sitting there I can edit what’s in between. It’s easy.
But that was Jonathan’s personal… signature. I don’t think he would do it again today, but you should ask him.”
The people all knew that they were filmed? No hidden cameras?
“No, no. We are against that. In the documentary I am making now (Miracolo del gusto), I am very conscious about that. Never hide a camera. The camera will be forgotten by everybody pretty easily.
Like I know you are taping this, but I can forget it, I’m just talking to you.
It’s the same thing with the camera; it’s just up to you how much you forget about it, up to your human nature. Never hide a camera, and never manipulate people.
You can sometimes manipulate them, by seducing them…”
Asking them the right questions…
“Yes, it’s about your personal human relation you have with someone. At just one point in the movie (Mondovino) I thought we went too far, the way we were treating somebody. But that did not go in the final cut. No manipulation.”
Let’s talk about food and culture. You have worked on Mondovino and are now preparing Miracolo del Gusto, is this something very personal to you?
“On Mondovino my obsession was about taste. And Jonathan was fascinated by the fact that I was fascinated, he asked me a lot of questions why I was so concerned about taste.
I have always been fascinated by taste, and that’s why I am working on Miracolo del gusto.”
Does your fascination come from the wine-culture?
“No, I am concerned about all the tastes. Even your political taste if you want me to be extreme. Maybe it’s because I grew up in different cultures, and different milieux, that made me much more aware about what taste could mean. In Miracolo del Gusto I am talking a lot about food.
If you can not tell the difference between two oranges, one from the supermarket and the other one that you get from a small farm in Sicily, then we lost something on the way.
It’s easy for people to understand it when you talk about fast food and traditional food made by your grandmother.
But that’s only one level of taste. The other level would be e.g. books. Why do you like Proust or William Faulkner rather than others?
Or films! I can talk about films for hours, I’m a filmmaker. And I am astonished by how taste has put down the film industry.
Just to give you one simple image: take a James Bond, and compare one from the 60s to the newest one. It’s much more infantile, much simpler. Everything is easy and there, for you to understand fast and to consume.
What happened to strong directors like David Cronenberg, Woody Allen or Scorsese making mainstream films? If these three directors have come down to such a popular level, taste has been endangered.
And then there is the most complicated level which is politics.
See how wide taste is: Oranges, books, films, politics!
In politics they manipulate people with easy things, like right now in the American elections. E.g. linking Obama to terrorists, which is absurd. We are reaching a surreal level here, we lost on the ethics.
An example would be when George Bush Jr. said he was attacking Iraq because of weapons of mass destructions. And we are not journalists, but it doesn’t seem very believable. Still the main newspapers accepted it, and now they are apologizing, because they have a problem with ethics.
What I want to say is that if your ethics are not strong you got a problem with your roots.
Where that problem starts is in the transmission. If there is no transmission of taste from the past to the future, if your grandfather does not give you something… Maybe you’re going to say: “Okay it’s not terrible, I’m drinking a bad orange juice, so what? That’s the way it is and we change”.
Miracolo del gusto is going to be about the transmission of taste, what we lost in the last 10 to 15 years, and it is going to be mainly about food.”
So not about literature, films, politics?
“I’m going to show you how everything is linked. There’s one easy example: there’s going to be a guy in the film: Carlo Petrini, the president of Slow Food in Italy, a well-known character.
He says that for him we have to go back to the peasants’ era, get back the food we have lost. He has a beautiful image which is an army representing humanity, and this army is facing a wall, because we are destroying our planet. But on the back of that army, we have the peasants. We don’t trust them and don’t like them because we think that they are lost in the past. But Petrini thinks that when we will reach that wall we will have to turn around, and the ones at the end will be the firsts. They are going to be the ones to save us.
Why? Because they did not lost the contact to their roots.
So it can seem like a reactionary image. Like a dream.
But an interesting point is that in the Piedmont (Italy), where Petrini comes from, the region next to Turin, the peasants have never lost their roots.
During WWII it was them who didn’t lost their ethics, when everybody was confused about what to do with the Jews, they were not confused at all, happy with them and hiding them in their houses. That’s very interesting because we accuse them of being worse than conservatives, and we think that progress is about changing.
But I’m astonished when in the last 40 years, the conservative have become the ones who put the change ahead. The Reagan-Thatcher era, but they were lost in ethics.
We are all pro-change, pro “new-taste”. I like the idea of fusion, fusion of contrast and taste. I like that. But if that means we are going to lose our relation to the roots, I want to ask what do that means? Who is right there?
Miracolo del Gusto is about taste, something everybody can understand, different than Mondovino that was just for a selected audience.
There is nobody who does not understand what it means to eat. And that allows me to be a little more complex. It’s always a challenge in the making of a movie not to be too complex, or you will put out a part of the audience.
The main challenge of our cultures is what happened to them in the past. We have accelerated so fast in the last 15 years. (We decide on Germany as an example).
They were the Germans who ran for modernity in 19th century Germany, and after WWII in the 50s, everybody was fascinated again by the new. With the beginning of publicity, the thing was to get a new lamp, a new couch or a car. New. And we are still fascinated about the new, but in the last 15 years we accelerated that much more.”
Because of globalization, internet…
“Globalization. And we are going so fast, that the transmission is about new to new. It’s about fashion; you don’t have enough time to make a transmission of taste. Taste is about time, it takes time. And time is objective right? You can’t call something fast or slow. But you’re not going to do in one year what you used to do in ten.
Taste is a miracle for me, hence the title of my film. And I think we are jumping over time too much.”
Miracolo del Gusto is a documentary, 100%, and Puntas del Este is fiction. How do you choose when you want to talk about taste? How do you talk about taste in fiction and in documentary?
“I think the challenge of my generation is that the border between documentary and fiction has become very complex. If you see the last Palme d’Or winner in Cannes (Entre les murs) you can see that Laurent Cantet is working in the middle. It’s documentary and fiction. And Mondovino is also working with both, because of the casting. You choose the actors, the people you are going to film. You talk to them, come back, and shoot. A lot. In documentary you end up with hours of film. Mondovino has about 500. Miracolo del Gusto will probably have 700. A complicated thing for the editing but that’s how it is.
For Puntas del Este we are going to shoot in Uruguay, in my country. We are going to choose the actors, work with them and choose locations.
If today in Europe or America you wan to shoot in this room (a hotel bar), and make it seem like a natural environment, you will have to send people to take pictures and rebuild the thing in a studio. Or you shoot here and close the place but the people are all extras, and you feel that on screen.
In South America you can still shoot in natural places, because the film industry is still so young. People will not complain. Of course there is a legal relation but that’s something else. It’s easy to put documentary in fiction.
If you want to shoot in Paris it’s a mess. I did that for a documentary about lies (Mensonges) and it was a mess. You are always stopped by people, or they don’t want to talk. Police asks you “What are you doing?” and you need authorizations.”
How do you represent taste on screen? How do you try to grasp and film it?
“It’s all about that. If you put four people here (points at a table), and in the middle you put the best Italian sandwich, you know, cheese and ham. You make them all eat it and then discuss it: you could fill a book with that.
It’s a funny thing because our culture is build on discussions about what we like and what we don’t like, that’s how we build our identity. I choose things, say “yes” and “no”. That ability of choosing is what we are loosing too, because taste has been manipulated, by the industry and by publicity.
Do you really know what you like and what you don’t like? You know blind-tasting? We are lost there.
You can see the difference when 20 year old people and 80 ear old people have this discussion together, it’s beautiful.
So you ask me “how do you put taste in the image”… There is an expert in the film, the founder of the Institut du goût (Institute of Taste) here in Paris. He has been working on taste for the last 40 years. When you ask him to describe or make a definition for taste the first thing he says to you is : “it’s impossible”.
The closest vocabulary to taste is Chinese characters. They say that in order to read a newspaper in Mandarin you have to learn about 4000 characters, and all the possible combinations that they make. A very cultivated person there knows about 20000. Patrick Mac Leod (the president of the Institute of taste) says that this is what taste would be like, an extremely huge complex of vocabulary and its combinations.
Something we are not used to talk. When you eat something you say that it is “sweet”, “salt”, “bittersweet”. The main structure is salt and sweet, and if tell you “chili” that will mean something to you. But those are only four things and you are lost immediately if you have to explain them.
Describe a well-done lemon cake made by your grandmother, you will be lost in words and get nowhere. And that’s fascinating; there is no way to have a transmission of taste in books or films. It has to be from father to son, from mother to daughter. Human being to human being. Someone has to show you a piece of bread and tell you: “this is good”. Then a different one: “this is not good”. That’s enough for your education. There’s no need for words because words come from another level.
Taste has its own vocabulary. I think we are loosing that secret thing.
Taste is also about something that is getting more sophisticated. And probably a peasant from the Piemont is more sophisticated regarding food than an executive from Wall-Street. So what happened to us? In our history the noblesse were the ones who had the taste. That’s not the case anymore, it’s not the noblesse nor the bourgeoisie, they’re lost.”
(He points at my notes) “eating in front of the TV”.
“The way we eat is very important when talking about taste transmission. I have the chance to spend time with my daughter because I have this kind of job where I can work very early and have the afternoon free.
I spend time with her and I remember how my family spent time with me.
One day my father said to me, and this is going to be the heart of Miracolo del Gusto, a beautiful thing that took me years to put into something concrete. We were eating in an asada (special occasion barbecue in Uruguay), and he said “Do you know what time is?”. He was just joking being happy. I was 14, I didn’t understand. And of course I did not answer. So he answered it: “Time is love”.
And this is one of the most beautiful things I ever heard.
The time you spend eating with people, the new generations do not spend that time. You don’t eat with your parents or grandparents, and thus you don’t have any transmission time. There’s no time for your grandparents to tell you that the supermarket orange is not the same than the Sicilian orange. There is a difference: “taste it!”.
One day you will understand why it’s better.
The others put thing in their products that manipulates your brain, makes it think it’s good.”
Just like in Mondovino where you hear about the manipulating globalization wine that gives you the impression it’s good but is artificial…
“Yes, the traditional wine from Burgundy, for example, has acidity. And my daughter doesn’t like acidity, she likes what’s sweet. That’s infantilisation du gout (infantilization of taste). If you put too much wood in wine it becomes sweet. It’s a taste of ketchup and peanut butter. But what I’m talking about is something worst than that, they are terrible. They are special molecules they put in food that forces your brain to understand it’s good but it’s not. Your body doesn’t need that.
The food industry came up with it; it’s in the cookies for kids. Cookies that have maybe 10 % of good stuff and 90% of something your body doesn’t need.”
Fat and liquor?
“Addicion! It’s pure addiction. I wouldn’t give the industry more than 5 years before they will be accused of addiction.”
Like the tobacco industry?
“They used it too but not anymore.
There is a Canadian expert that is going to be in the film, saying that all the evolution of humanity comes from the capacity of the brain to recognize what is good for you and what is not. The brain has taken his own evolution, to distinguish in nature what is good for him. Regarding to this expert it wouldn’t be astonishing if in time we will have a regression of the brain due to today’s food industry and habits.”
If you type cell phone messages all day the responsible part of your brain for the thumb movement will grow…
“It’s easy in that, but here we are talking about something that went over centuries and centuries.
Now just to go back to the point “time is love”: that non-transmission of time, because we are going too fast, watching TV and eating alone, or in restaurants with friends, but not with your family. This whole thing will affect the newest generation, and what they will be able to transmit. If you have eaten at Mc Donald’s for 20 years, what are you going to share and give to your son? “Mc Donald’s is better than Burger King”?
Okay maybe in time the food at Mc Donald’s will be OK, they are working hard on that. Nobody will criticize anymore the fact that it is bad for your health. OK! But it’s bad for your culture. Taste is the most complicated and fascinating thing we have.
If I put you here a real Chinese food you will not eat it. I will not eat it!
Did you go to China?
I went to Taiwan, years ago, and I remember walking in a market during the night. They have this thing called “stinky tofu”. I don’t want to get near to that! I mean, for me, that’s degoutant, asqueroso (disgusting). They love it!
They even tell you: “yeah it smells strong”, but that’s like the camembert, and I like camembert. I mean all this relations are fascinating, but we are loosing all that.
In the movie (Miracolo del Gusto), after doing this critic on taste, I will critic the critic. Put it upside down. Saying “OK”, we are loosing all this taste, but isn’t that how life is?
Why are we so afraid of change? Maybe the future has the right answers.
There is a restaurant called “el bulli” in Barcelona. With Ferran Adrià, who is considered the greatest chef in the world. He is one of the biggest representatives of deconstruction (molecular gastronomy). Which I think is dangerous. Deconstruction is a whole movement. In France there is Derrida the philosopher, who launched the idea.
Now they use it for deconstruction of taste. I didn’t go but a friend has told me it is astonishing. You are waking up to something you have never tasted before.
They are working a lot with chemistry. Chemistry between you, and what you eat. Why not? Maybe they are right and we are wrong.
With Miracolo del Gusto I want to talk more about complexity. It’s not just a film that accuses the industry. Finding the culprit… Of course there are bad guys, but there are bad guys everywhere!
Michael Moore does that, he looks for a culprit. He thinks he’s right and everything else is wrong. And maybe that’s why Americans are easily manipulated, because they have those kind of films. I don’t know; that’s not my field.”
By Maximilien Van Aertryck