SBIFF 2020 Serves Up Cuisine

From Urchins to Appalachia, Our Rundown of the Annual Foodie Film Sidebar

'Master Cheng' | Credit: Courtesy

The Amber Light: With Scotch whisky expert Dave Broom as your guide, this doc dives into the history and culture of Scotland’s beloved brown booze, relying on poetry, music, and literature to drive home how critical the beverage is to understanding the country. Scotch fans will be enthused by the famous distilleries on display, but more memorable are more visceral discussions of how taste and smell can connect us with the surrounding world.

Born in a Ballroom: This film is a love letter from a filmmaking granddaughter to the late Eleanor Mailloux, who co-founded Hütte Restaurant in the rural Appalachian outpost of Helvetia, West Virginia. After a globetrotting life raising five kids, the stern, stubborn, but always fair Mailloux returned to her hometown to cook Swiss-inspired cuisine that TV foodie Andrew Zimmern made famous. The film is about family, community, and how cuisine can be the through line for a life well lived. 

Breaking Bread: Using fame gained by winning MasterChef Israel, Arab-Israeli chef Nof Atamna-Ismaeel organizes a cross-cultural cooking extravaganza in Haifa, inviting Muslim chefs to cook in Jewish kitchens and vice versa. The resulting meals stir hope for peace through food, introduce a number of chefs we should get to know, and showcase drool-worthy cuisines from multiple cultures.

The Delicacy: Six years in the making and shot entirely on film, this doc about Santa Barbara sea urchin by Somm director Jason Wise may be the hit of the festival. Intended to be a nature film about people, it’s a portrait of our commercial fishing community, an anthropological lesson in the history of food, and an examination of the environmental issues surrounding the sea. Next week’s issue will feature an in-depth interview with the director.

Gutterbee: Apparently based on a true story (now that would be a doc!), this quirky, darkish comedy concerns a German man who’s hellbent on opening a traditional sausage restaurant in a small American town where xenophobia is running hilariously rampant. When a down-on-his-luck local joins the cause, the town’s morals are called into question by the wacky, entertaining populace.

Fatei and the Sea: About shellfish farmers in the Sea of Japan near Vladivostok, Russia, this documentary is so intimate and character-driven that you think you’re watching a narrative film. As Fatei and his family scare off poachers, plead with politicians for protection, and feast on their harvests, the screen fills with stunning underwater scenes. 

Man in the Field: The Life and Art of Jim Denevan: Before farm-to-table dining was even a thing, Jim Denevan was bringing tables into the farm through his Outstanding in the Field dinner series, which has enlisted star chefs and respected farmers to serve more than 1,000 meals in all 50 states and 16 countries since beginning in Santa Cruz in 1999. This artistically shot and strewn profile tells that origin story while showcasing the complex logistics and mystical passion required to pull it off each time. You also learn about Denevan’s career as an outdoor artist, where he creates massive ephemeral designs on beaches and desert sands, only to watch them wash away. Of course, there’s some darkness behind it all, and that’s uncovered, as well.

‘The Wandering Chef’

Master Cheng: This charming fictional tale is about a Chinese chef and his son coming to Finland when his mother dies and breaks down borders in heartwarming ways. As the chef helps an overwhelmed restaurateur learn to cook and serve nourishing food to her ailing community, love is sparked, and healing ensues. It’s feel-good for sure, but a solid film as well.

Sovereign Soil: Being under snow for much of the year does not deter residents of Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon Territory from pursuing agriculture, from frozen Brussels sprouts to hothouse fruit trees. This doc profiles a number of the most ambitious efforts, including a First Nations learning farm, and ponders the meaning of local sourcing and sustainability as the climate quickly changes. 

The Wandering Chef: The slow-paced style of this doc ​— ​which follows a celebrity chef from Korea as he wanders the countryside to make food from indigenous plants for elderly neighbors ​— ​perfectly reflects the contemplative nature of his mission, which proves restorative for all involved. As he forages lichen, seaweed, reedy weedy, and thorny twigs and then prepares meals on rustic equipment, the diners learn that species they once thought poisonous are instead medicinal. Eye-opening and emotional.

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