Indie film director Nick Bertelsen didn’t know what to expect when his six-minute short, The Coffee Shop, was invited to screen at the Tucson Slow Food & Film Festival this past January. Bertelsen had stumbled across the niche festival’s call for entries while browsing through listings on Withoutabox.com. “It sounded kind of interesting,” explains Bertelsen of the festival, which combines food-themed films with culinary events. “After all, it was being held in Arizona in January and I live in Iowa.” The possibility of escaping the Midwestern winter weather, if only for a few days, seemed worth the $20 entry fee.
It was a gamble that paid off: Bertelsen walked away with a $500 Audience Award and a full belly. Over the course of four days, he hop scotched from screenings of famous foodie features like Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985) and Lasse Hallström’s Chocolat (2000) to some of Tucson’s finest restaurants, where he indulged in complimentary gastronomic experiences like a Japanese noodle brunch and a chocolate molé-themed dinner buffet. For closing night, the festival’s organizers even arranged to have a local French bistro recreate the elaborate meal depicted in Gabriel Axel’s 1987 Danish classic, Babette’s Feast. “We got treated like royalty,” says Bertelsen.
The Tucson Slow Food & Film Festival, now entering its third year, is the brainchild of retired corporate PR and communications executive Bob Berzok and his wife Linda, a food historian. “It touches a nerve,” says Berzok of the food-film combo. “People love to eat and people love to watch movies. When you have a good film about food and a strong storyline, it’s a natural fit.”
Both active volunteers in the Tucson chapter of Slow Food USA—a nonprofit organization that promotes biodiversity and locally-grown, sustainable food production—the Berzoks created a festival that is among an emerging crop of events worldwide taking the tried-and-true combo of dinner and a movie to a whole new level.
While some of these nascent fests have a clear consciousness-raising mission to present films that educate people about weighty subjects such as the food supply and the threat of corporate agro-business (think Fast Food Nation and Our Daily Bread), others are using food as a way to catalyze audiences to connect with each other beyond the last credit roll.
“Food is the great organizer,” says Brian Pu-Folkes, a Queens, NY-based immigrant advocate and community organizer. “It brings people to the table.” In September 2006 Pu-Folkes launched the 7 International Arts Express Jackson Heights Film & Food Festival.
After running for city council in 2005, the civic-minded Pu-Folkes learned that residents were craving art and cultural experiences in their own backyards. When he lost the election, Pu-Folkes decided to put together a series of monthly screening events last fall at a historic movie theater, now occupied by a popular local Colombian restaurant.
Rather than market his festival exclusively around food-oriented movies, Pu-Folkes used universal themes such as “family” and “love” as umbrellas for the mostly short works. Instead, he threw a party and invited scores of local ethnic restaurants to donate their culinary riches.
“We thought we would market our neighborhood and help it become a destination,” says Pu-Folkes. Together the Jackson Heights and Elmhurst sections of Queens comprise the most ethnically diverse zip codes in the United States. “Here you can get great, authentic food,” enthuses Pu-Folkes. “The clusters of people we have here are new immigrants who are catering to their brethren… It’s one of the things that’s so rich about our community.”
While Jackson Heights and Elmhurst may be chock full of Burmese immigrants sharing sidewalk space with Ecuadorians and Tibetans, not to mention the urbanites who have flocked to these neighborhoods in recent years for cheap(er) rents, the diverse compatriots don’t necessarily interact much. Pu-Folkes thought that a food-oriented film festival might spark a change.
His festival experiment got off to a good start. With 2,000 in attendance last year and an expansion planned for 2007 that will include an afternoon food fair, ultimately Pu-Folkes would like his festival to be “sustainable” so that he can give back to the local restaurants that helped transform his vision of community-gathering into a reality.