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Cooking from Haiti to Ukraine
The Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival presents We Feed People
Change was very much afoot at this year's Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival (PEFF), including the Philly premiere of We Feed People, an illuminating documentary about famous Spanish American chef and restaurateur José Andrés and his World Central Kitchen NGO, which feeds people in war and disaster zones around the globe.
The festival, which began in 2017, was held virtually in 2020 due to the pandemic. In 2021, the Philadelphia Film Society announced that it was taking over the production of PEFF, including a Green Screen program that ran as part of last October's Philadelphia Film Festival.
A program running Thursday, March 31 through Sunday, April 3, 2022, marked the first standalone incarnation of the environmental festival under Film Society auspices, now titled Green Screen: Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival, held entirely in person at the Philadelphia Film Center. The documentary-heavy program featured 10 new films, as well as a 30th anniversary showing of 1992's Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.
On Saturday night, the Green Screen program featured We Feed People, which premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March. Andrés, in the film, is shown cooking food in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian, and everywhere from New York City to Navajo lands in Arizona during the early days of the pandemic. In recent weeks, Andrés has set up on the Polish-Ukrainian border, helping to feed refugees from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The film shows Andrés as a memorable, larger-than-life character, one who would go down as a major figure in American culinary life even if not for his humanitarian work (he essentially introduced the concept of tapas to American restaurants.)
More intriguingly, the film goes deep into the logistics of how these humanitarian missions work. They use planes, trains, and even amphibious vehicles, and sometimes need to set up in places with no running water or electricity. And foreign governments, in these cases, aren't always entirely cooperative, and neither are more established NGOs.
The boss in the kitchen
But it isn't pure hagiography. The film briefly explores whether Andrés and his partners should be considered white saviors, and a World Central Kitchen CEO at one point reveals that after once feeding the wrong type of black beans in a Central American country, the organization has come to prioritize authenticity and local familiarity in the food they serve.
We get a fascinating picture of Andrés, depicted as a huge personality who's likely used to bossing people around in restaurant kitchens, and the film makes clear that those skills have helped him, and sometimes hindered him, in distributing food in disaster zones. He also admits that his work, both in restaurants and disaster zones, has led him to spend less time with his wife and three daughters than he would like.
A Ron Howard doc
We Feed People is directed by Ron Howard, the A-list filmmaker who has emerged in recent years as a first-rate documentarian; his 2020 Rebuilding Paradise was a fantastic look at the aftermath of California's 2018 wildfires. This run, which also included an acclaimed doc about Luciano Pavarotti, has happened at the same time that Howard's fiction films, most notably the misbegotten adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy, have been among the worst of his career.
Yes, We Feed People feels at times like a commercial for Andrés’s ventures, and World Central Kitchen's CEO, Nate Mook, is credited as an executive producer. It only briefly gets into the question of how World Central Kitchen is funded, raising it on the group's first mission and mostly dropping it after that. It also sidesteps the question of who looks after the chef's 30-strong restaurant empire while he's away on humanitarian trips for weeks at a time.
Stream it soon
The showing was followed by a brief talk from local chef and activist Valerie Erwin, who discussed the work of the People's Kitchen, a group of chefs and others who do something similar to what Andrés does, on a smaller, more local scale.
Like the fantastic Fire of Love, which was the opening night film at the environmental festival, and Becoming Cousteau, which opened the Green Screen section at the Philadelphia Film Festival last fall, We Feed People is headed for the National Geographic tab on Disney+, set to stream starting May 27, 2022.
What, When, Where
We Feed People. Directed by Ron Howard. Screened at the Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival on April 2, 2022. Available to stream on Disney+ starting May 27, 2022.
Philadelphia Film Center is a wheelchair-accessible venue, with assistive listening devices available. Visit its accessibility page for more info.
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