Andreas Johnsen’s Bugs, a documentary about eating insects, begins as a gleeful deadpan comedy and ends up as an exasperated cri de cœur against our current system of industrialized food production and distribution. The film follows Ben Reade and Josh Evans, a couple of researchers affiliated with the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen, as they travel the world, from Mexico to Uganda to the Netherlands, studying local entomophagic practices. You’re likely to watch in fascinated disgust as these hipster versions of Andrew Zimmern pull larvae out of tree roots in the Australian Outback and slurp down ant honey in Africa. Johnsen cleverly resists acknowledging our presumed reactions, mining laughs out of the gulf between Josh and Ben’s rapturous descriptions—a plump termite queen is referred to as “God’s handmade sausage”—and the viewer’s likely horror at the prospect of finding one of these monstrous-looking creatures in the wild, much less eating it.
It’s hard not to be won over by Josh and Ben’s delight at devouring bizarre delicacies. Despite the pair’s occasionally obnoxious foodie elitism—including a knee-jerk preference for “authenticity”—their passion for unique culinary experiences is genuine and infectious, as when they lovingly compare the flavor of a plump white maggot to roasted red pepper and garlic. Many of the duo’s descriptions, such as Ben’s likening of the ultra-rare termite queen to foie gras, make one realize that as gross as some of these bugs might seem, they’re not inherently weirder than some of the foods Westerners eat daily.
Late in Bugs, Ben leaves the Nordic Food Lab and things take an unexpected turn. The idealism and excitement of Ben and Josh’s bug-snarfing travelogue gives way to self-questioning, doubt, and despondency at the intractability of the problems inherent in our globalized food industry. Ben and Josh envision a world where insects are harvested from small-scale ecosystems where people stay close to the land, but this ideal runs up against the behemoth that is the food industry, whose sole interest in turning bugs into food is the profit motive. A representative for the Netherlands-based insect-meal company Protix Biosystems whom Ben encounters at a conference gives the game away: After Ben disagrees with the man’s claim that the product he sells has no scent, the man half-jokingly replies, “Yeah, I smell money.”
Playing almost as a parody of the sort of advocacy doc that ties everything up with a call to action and a URL, Bugs ends with a world-weary Josh delivering a speech that questions some of the basic assumptions of the insect-food debate, including even some of the context-providing facts that splash on the screen in the film’s opening minutes. By refusing to reconcile Ben and Josh’s holistic approach to food with the realities of global capitalism, the film is the rare social-issue documentary that embraces its own ambivalence, leaving us to ponder the tensions between sustainability and industrialization rather than spoon-feed us easy answers. Johnsen recognizes that eating insects isn’t going to solve anything, but by offering a worm’s-eye-view of the world’s food systems, his film allows us to see just how enormous the problems really are.