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The Reeler Blog

King Corn Crops up in NYC

By Cathy Erway

Compelled to unearth the reasons for their country's declining health, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, best friends from Yale, initially wanted to make a film about the American diet. After their research showed corn popping up in food ingredients everywhere, the pair decided to rent an acre of farmland in Iowa and grow the grain themselves. Tracing the production of their crop -- and where it ends up in our food system -- the new documentary King Corn (opening Friday at Cinema Village) demonstrates how corn has become the currency of the heartland.

Taste of reality: (L-R) Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, the amateur farmers of Aaron Woolf's documentary King Corn (Photo: Sam Cullen)

"We have this imagined agrarian utopia that looks very much like Iowa," said director Aaron Woolf, also the film's producer and a restaurant proprietor in Brooklyn. "I wanted to shoot the corn in that same reverent way, because this isn't a story about good and evil, but of good intentions gone awry and the complexities of the choices we make."

To that end, King Corn features Ellis perched atop a mountain of yellow kernels baking under a clear sky; he combs his hands through the grain and takes a penguin dive, evoking a cartoon character basking in a sea of gold. Woolf adds an array of facts and stats often communicated with the help of models built from Fisher-Price farm toys and stop-motion kernels. In other scenes, the rookie farmers traveled to feedlots and corn syrup processing plants in their attempt to follow their crop -- on its way to becoming hamburger meat and soda, respectively. Similar to the way Eric Schlosser's exposé Fast Food Nation launched the experimental diet in Super Size Me, author Michael Pollan's meticulous research on agriculture and food production in The Omnivore's Dilemma is an anchoring presence in King Corn.

"He was an advisor from the beginning," Cheney said of Pollan, who appears in the film. After a scene where Cheney and Ellis spit out their harvested corn in disgust, Pollan discusses the genetically-modified "liberty" seed, grown ubiquitously for its resistance to pesticides, high starch level and economic considerations, and which produces a crop that cannot be eaten until processed.

Moreover, the film provides a new glimpse into the job of a typical farmer in Iowa, a state that produced more than 14 million acres of corn in 2006 -- enough food to feed the entire country. Working alongside neighbors who offer their wisdom and opinions for the camera, Cheney and Ellis are uniquely tied to the land: Both of their great-grandfathers had lived in the same small town of Greene, Iowa. "I knew that this was a really special and powerful in," Woolf told The Reeler. "One of the biggest surprises [of the shoot] was that the farmers were all so cooperative."

Timed for release with the controversial farm bill pending in Congress, the filmmakers said they hope King Corn illustrates how the bill's issues will affect all Americans. Rather than call to any specific call to action, though, King Corn plows through many angles of the issues it raises, ultimately managing a smile while supplying the bad news. Meanwhile, Ellis will write a blog for, observing the road food he encounters while traveling for King Corn. Woolf plans an organic grocery, Urban Rustic, as a sister establishment to his Willamsburg eatery Lodge; he credits the documentary with inspiring his future choices. "There's this frustration with always being the observer and not the participant," he said. "I think it’s gotten a lot of us to change our lives."

Posted at October 11, 2007 1:40 PM

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