Descended from a long line of small-parcel farmers, Andrew Beck Grace embarks on the project behind Eating Alabama in an attempt to get back to the land, only to find that the lifestyle he yearns for no longer exists. Accompanied by his wife Rashmi, the couple returns to their home state and takes on a trendy challenge: eating only locally sourced foods for an entire year. This proves more difficult than they’d imagined—a problem Grace uses as the impetus for a 62-minute exploration into food provenance and farm culture.
Less angry and strident than recent issues documentaries like Food Inc., the film operates on a personal ground level, opening with the couple’s first grocery run, which devolves into a two-hour, 800-mile journey. Combing the local landscape for like-minded food providers, they discover that such suppliers are disconcertingly rare. Unlike the mythical agricultural South inhabited by people like his grandfather, who eventually left the farm to settle in the suburbs, the current food landscape is now largely under corporate control, with food giants like Monsanto exerting tight control over the industry. Facing this harsh reality, as well as the truth that the past he romanticizes may not have been as rosy as he imagines, Grace resorts to combing through the weeds, finding the small farmers who remain and examining their stories.
What follows is a mostly clear-eyed, tonally balanced look into food in the 21st century, although the director at times surrenders to the very nostalgia he often worries about naïvely accepting. In a world of copyrighted seed and computerized chicken-raising, passed-down memories of big-table dinners, fiddle hoedowns, and freshly killed meat seem like elements of a vanished dream, contributing to Grace’s worry that he’s exploring an “unsustainable model for sustainability.”
His final conclusion, that small community farms, while not a complete answer, could be used to feed the small towns of tomorrow, is nice, but reeks of the same kind of dreaminess. Despite a brief visit to an urban farm in Birmingham, this solution ignores the harsh realities of big cities, which suck in most of the chemically tainted food the director and his wife hope to escape. Eating Alabama is vital when its asking key questions, but its ultimate answer feels like a concession to hope rather than a long-term solution.
The naïve nature of such yearnings becomes increasingly clear with something like La Camioneta, whose subsistence farmers are struggling to escape the same lifestyle Grace is trying to get back to. Following the progress of a discarded U.S. school bus as it makes its way to a new career in Guatemala, the film mostly sympathizes with small-time operators like Ermelindo, who’s managed to save enough money hauling corn to realize his dream of buying a bus.
But even this isn’t a guarantee for success. The bus, which goes from black and yellow to a wild red, white, and blue design, joins a motley fleet of independently owned vehicles, which provide inter-city and commuter transport in places like Guatemala City and Quetzal City. These transporters are frequently menaced by local gangs, which demand exorbitant extortion rates, turning to shooting and bomb attacks when their demands aren’t met. This is the clearest of a host of dangers threatening the bus, which begins its journey at a Pennsylvania auction. It’s then transferred to a Guatemalan driver, who ferries it across the dangerous roads of Mexico, and then handed off to a local dealer.
Through this connective thread the film explores the stories of the men and women behind the bus’s transformation, from automotive painters to Ermelindo’s team of drivers. The world they inhabit is one fraught with tension and fear; 130 bus drivers were killed in Guatemala in 2010 alone. But as director Mark Kendall skillfully posits, it’s the same world as our own; a bus inhabited by American schoolchildren may become, in a few short weeks, a vessel for workers hundreds of miles away. This connectivity is achieved by building the story around the bus itself, and while the jumpy narrative that follows sometimes feels a little shiftless, La Camioneta remains refreshingly specific, an extensive and convincing portrait of a redeemed piece of junk.
SXSW runs from March 9—18.