King Corn, Aaron Woolf, Curt Ellis & Ian Cheney (2008)
Documentary made by two young Americans who are wondering why corn is becoming a very important part of our daily diet (and even our body!). They start to plant and grow corn on an acre in Iowa. But farming is not what they had expected… And in the process they find out where our food comes from.
What is Iowa more than a boring state with covered bridges? One of those that some in a derogatory way call “flyover states”. When two “city slickers” Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis, stars of Aaron Woolf’s film King Corn, set out to get their own acre to grow corn it turns out that the idyll of Thoreau’s Walden is far away in modern day American farmlands.
In David Sutherland’s superb PBS series Farmer’s Wife we got to see the hardships that a relationship goes through and what farmers face today. In King Corn Cheney and Ellis try to follow where their corn ends up, whether it be feed stock processed into food or ethanol to find a new way to keep America on wheels.
A lot has changed since the days of sharecropping, the time when the Okies of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath were forced to head to California during the depression as they faced the tractor and the truck that were changing the ways of farming. These and other new tools would be needed even more when millions of Americans left from farms to go abroad to fields of another kind, places like Midway, Iwo Jima and Normandy in the 1940s. Improved reapers and plowshares would cut the amount of workers. The slow demise of the family farm had started and the pace would only keep increasing.
The initiatives presented during the New Deal to help the people in the “dust bowl” would be taken down by the 70s. If before government controlled how much you grew, now it wanted you to “get big or get out” as the then Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz put it. This would give birth to one of America’s ”best kept secrets” of cheap food and put an end to it’s price being an issue “on the ballot”.
One of the most refreshing aspects about King Corn is that it approaches the subject in a calm way. It does not shout or ridicule and, possibly for the surprise of some viewers, shows ordinary Americans and not a cardboard collection of stereotypes as recently has been the style in some other films. One can imagine what kind of attack the over 90 years old Mr. Butz would have to face by some other filmmaker.
King Corn talks about important issues but is decent in its methods, just like the image we like to have of the small towns of America, surrounded by golden fields and hard working people, somewhere out there on the Great Plains and the Heartland of the vast country.