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On the Unusually Specific Theme of Food in 2017 NZ Films

This year’s batch of Aotearoa films has had a lot to say about our country’s attitude towards food. Whether it’s the main subject of the film or a simple off-the-cuff gag, this is an unusually specific theme that’s come out of our cinema stories this year.

I don’t know if being vegetarian makes me the best writer for this article or the absolute worst, but I think there’s a good reason for all this food talk showing up – one that taps into the heads of many New Zealanders. Let’s start with the most obvious example.

David White’s film Meat is a getting-the-record-straight documentary following three farmers and a hunter sharing their experiences and philosophies on killing animals for consumption. They’re not out to demean; they’re out to dispel any myths and misunderstandings surrounding how they work.  They respect the animals they convert to food – a respect they want all Kiwis to understand before they buy that $8 cooked chicken from Countdown.

White has made a concise film that’s sure to enlighten anyone who has given even a fraction of thought to our local meat industry. He also makes a mean BBQ sauce.

The Catch, from director Simon Mark-Brown, brought a similar eco-friendly attitude towards our local fishing communities – albeit as a narrative comedy that has no interest in subtlety. Set in the Kaipara Harbour, the film’s heroes are honest-to-goodness blokes who fish in moderation and to the law restrictions while the capital A Asshole of the story is a twerp who destroys schools of sea life in a boat he named Killin’ Machine.

Like I said; the film isn’t subtle, but its heart is in the right place. It asks New Zealanders to respect the craft of fishing or, at the very least, try not to be a dick about it.

Then there’s Matt Murphy’s Pork Pie, which introduced us to vegan millennial Keira (Ashleigh Cummings). I can’t recall a time I’ve seen a vegetarian, let alone a vegan, in a New Zealand film. I asked Murphy about it in this interview, who went on to explain: “I wanted a strong female character, someone who was passionate about their beliefs.” It would have been easy to make Keira the Evil Vegan cliché who constantly yells at the faces of every meat-eater she sees, but Murphy chose to use her veganism as something that strengthened her sense of self.

I also never thought I’d see the entire country rooting for a vegan’s ideals, but they do in Pork Pie.

Even simple jokes say something greater about our attitudes towards meat, especially the ones that make us believe a character cares for the animal only to have them gleefully consume it. The opening gag for Gary of the Pacific works because we think he’s going to save a dolphin, only to flip our expectations onto a hot plate. Pecking Order earned similar laughs with a scene where a chicken breeder, who takes huge pride in his passion, indulges in a greasy bag of KFC.

Both gags play on an idea of respecting animals. For Gary, it already assumes that you somewhat care for mammals like Māui dolphins. We don’t have the same respect for chickens (they’re definitely not an endangered species), so Pecking Order exposes you to an hour of breeders caring and grooming for them before it double downs on the K-Fry scene. That’s why it gets you.

If there’s anything that threads these films together, it’s the idea of respect – not just for the animals we eat, but also for the process of turning them into food and the choices to eat them. With the disdain for factory farming, news of our fish stock diminishing, and the rise of vegetarianism in New Zealand, our collective angst over food sustainability has very likely crept into our films in the form of this theme.

One Thousand Ropes gets a special mention for how it touches on the cultural importance of local bakeries. It’s an aspect of New Zealand I have huge adoration for and am surprised hasn’t been explored more on our screen.