A long, warm ovation greeted the filmmaker Aaron Woolf Friday night after the Bartell Theatre screening of his documentary King Corn. He looked relieved amid the applause. It was, he said, the first heartland screening of his film about the heartland, and he was nervous about the reaction.
He needn't have been. King Corn is penetrating and graceful, an uproariously funny and unexpectedly moving look at America's food supply, and especially at the massive corn-farming operations that have come to dominate the placid landscapes of the American Midwest.
The film follows two wry young Boston men (Curt Ellis, Ian Cheney) as they relocate to Iowa for the better part of a year. With the help of local farmers, they plant one acre's worth of corn using the latest in farming technology. As they wait for their corn to grow, they investigate how the American food system has changed over a couple of generations, especially as farmers began to grow corn in superabundance thanks to Nixon-era agriculture policies.
Especially they examine high-fructose corn syrup, the common sweetener that is contributing to America's obesity epidemic. In one particularly amusing scene, they whip up a batch of high-fructose corn syrup in an everyday farm kitchen.
Ellis and Cheney interview numerous experts, including the journalist Michael Pollan, of An Omnivore's Dilemma fame. But their most moving conversations are with the Iowa farmers they live among, who seem puzzled by the project but happy to help.
A lesser film would ridicule these rural people as hicks. King Corn very respectfully lets them talk about what's on their mind, whether they are discussing farm policy or explaining how to spray for weeds.