Food & Culture

The food documentaries to watch at the Sydney Film Festival

Including stories about a beekeeper in Macedonia, and the grandmother of French New Wave cinema (and her penchant for heart-shaped potatoes).

By Lee Tran Lam
Honeyland (Photo: Deckert Distribution Gmbh)
"Someone once said that curating a film festival is like cooking for a dinner party," says Jenny Neighbour, documentary programmer for Sydney Film Festival. "Because you don't just cook what you like."
So the line-up for this year's festival (5–16 June) features 307 wide-ranging films from 55 countries. There are screenings at 10 venues across town, with movies for every taste – from music features about Aretha Franklin and PJ Harvey to documentaries about everything from economics, the environment and yes, even Satanism. There's also plenty to savour in the festival's program of food documentaries, which tells culinary stories from around the world, from the reigning queen of Mexican cuisine to a tiny Greek community looking to make ends meet through tomatoes and Mozart.

The Biggest Little Farm

The Biggest Little Farm follows award-winning filmmaker John Chester and food writer Molly Chester as they pursue their dream of running a sustainable farm in California – only to find their property beset by coyotes and an infestation of snails. "They learn they have to let the ducks loose in the orchards to eat the snails," says Neighbour. But when the drought strikes, the ducks can't survive, because there's not enough water in the ponds.
Mother Nature deals them plenty of other wildcards, too (toxic algae, wildfires!), but if you think the doco is just stress and gloom, you have to watch the trailer, which is legitimately moving. "It makes you think twice about everything," says Neighbour. "It's an absolute delight." It's no surprise that this movie has already won several film festival audience awards.

Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy

The festival will also screen Nothing Fancy, the award-winning documentary about Diana Kennedy, the celebrated food writer dubbed "the Mick Jagger of Mexican cuisine". Born in England, she arrived in Mexico in the 1950s "with $500 and a half-promise of matrimony," as she describes in her MAD talk in 2017. There, she spent six decades teaching and documenting the local cuisine, and was awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle – Mexico's highest honour for foreigners – in recognition of her work preserving Mexican food culture.
And despite her age, her passion for what she believes in (a restaurant should be judged by its rubbish bin, garlic doesn't belong in guacamole) hasn't mellowed. "She's in her '90s now and she's so fierce," says Neighbour. "You can feel it coming off the screen."
Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy (Photo: Dogwoof)

The Gleaners & I

Also in the festival line-up: Viva Varda, a retrospective of the late French filmmaker Agnès Varda. Credited as the "grandmother" of the French New Wave cinema style (even though she was 27 when she made La Pointe Courte in 1955), Varda's work includes The Gleaners & I, about the art of "gleaning" – an age-old practice of salvaging produce left behind by agricultural harvests.
The resulting film is a moving portrait of the people left behind by contemporary French society - and a reconsideration of food waste that was ahead of its time. In it, Varda is seen rescuing unwanted heart-shaped potatoes, with the scene becoming so notable that fans continued sending her heart-shaped potatoes long after the film's 2000 release, and up until her death in March. "I never found one, but if I had, I would have sent her one," says Neighbour.
Agnès Varda in Varda by Agnès, her final film (Photo: MK2 Films)

And more food documentaries from the Sydney Film Festival

The Wandering Chef (Photo: Wide House)
A portrait of Korean culinary figure Jiho Im, aka The Wandering Chef, who is famous for foraging for ingredients across his homeland; Honeyland, about a Macedonian apiarist whose relationship with wild bee colonies is jeopardised when neighbours interfere with the delicate local ecosystem; and When Tomatoes Met Wagner, which follows Greek villagers as they deal with austerity by growing organic tomatoes for the overseas market (as the documentary title suggests, they do actually blast Wagner and Mozart music to their fields of tomatoes).
Sydney Film Festival, 5-16 June, various Sydney venues, sff.org.au