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Foodies share their favorite films on sustainability

Favorite Things: Sustainable Cinema

Foodies share their favorite films on sustainability

Focus Features takes an alternative look at food and movies by soliciting examples of “sustainable cinema” from five prominent figures within the food movement.


Joel Berg's Five Favorite Movies

Sullivan's Travels

In this classic Preston Sturges satire, a movie director, played by Joel McCrea, longs to make a socially relevant drama, and travels the country undercover, posing as a penniless “hobo,” to supposedly develop empathy. Making the point that the non-poor can never truly understand the harsh impact of poverty, the movie turns on a dime from rollicking comedy to stirring drama. As relevant today as when it was premiered in 1941, Sullivan’s Travels reminds us that merely showing empathy for a problem – such as by volunteering at a soup kitchen – is no substitute for enacting structural economic and social change society-wide.


Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

Like in most Capra films, the radical message is often overlooked because the storytelling and acting are so masterful.  Set in the height of the Great Depression, the movie is about Longfellow Deeds, a man who surprisingly inherits millions and then frolics in a lavish lifestyle. Confronted by a dispossessed farmer who scolds him for ignoring the plight of millions of Americans on the brink of starvation, Deeds decides to use his money to purchase farms for homeless families if they agree to work the land to grow their own food for a number of years. Tellingly, in a recent re-make, rather than providing hungry people with  food-producing land, the Deeds character buys everyone in the town Corvettes.


Hoop Dreams

This documentary provides a gripping chronicle of talented urban youth who hope for a chance to make it rich in the N.B.A. Yet, not only does this film provide a riveting narrative about people we can easily care about, it also aptly places their stories in a deeper social context. The movie questions why our society continues to promote the myth that basketball is a serious way out of poverty, instead of dealing with the realities that millions are afflicted by a broken education system, dilapidated housing, joblessness, teen pregnancy, and fragmented families.


Trading Places

Often viewed as little more than a light comedy vehicle for Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, this film has a serious subtext. On a whim, two ultra-wealthy titans of finance decide to swap the lives of one of their wealthy, Harvard-trained lieutenants (Aykroyd) with that of a poor street hustler (Murphy). In short order, Murphy is a model citizen and Aykroyd is a petty crook, demonstrating that economic and social status in America is now more frequently the result of how someone was born than how intrinsically virtuous they are.


The Grapes of Wrath

Henry Fonda is unforgettable in this John Ford adaptation of the classic John Steinbeck novel about an Oklahoma farm family, who, after losing their land during the Great Depression, become migrant workers and move to California. The movie shows both what happens to real people when the private enterprise system collapses and how New Deal government programs countered the problem and literally saved lives. Nothing beats Fonda’s closing speech: “I’ve been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin' fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin'. And I been wonderin' if all our folks got together and yelled...I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there.” Whenever I watch this, I sob for a few minutes ...and then rush right back to work! 

Honorable Mentions

My Man Godfrey: A screwball comedy about a socialite who falls in love with a homeless man she hired to impersonate her butler.
Harlan County, USA: An enormously powerful documentary about striking Kentucky coal miners in 1972.

Pather Panchali: Satyajit Ray's story of Apu, a boy born into a bitterly poor family in rural Bengal, where starvation is the norm.

Seven Samurai: This Akira Kurosawa masterpiece works as both an action epic and a movie of ideas, with astonishing acting, dialogue, direction, and set design. While it is most noted for its epic swordfights, I’ll never forget what they are fighting about in the first place: preserving the poor village’s precious rice supply from bandits.

Gandhi: The movie demonstrates how a peaceful, grass-roots social movement can bring a mighty empire to its knees.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Senator Jefferson Smith: “I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don't know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them; because of just one plain simple rule: 'Love thy neighbor.'... And you know that you fight for the lost causes harder than for any other. Yes, you even die for them.” That says it all.

Joel Berg
Joel Berg

Joel Berg

Joel Berg is a nationally recognized leader in the fields of hunger and food security, national and community service, and technical assistance provision to faith-based and community organizations.  He is the author of the book All You Can Eat: How Hungry is America?, which challenges the President and Congress to make hunger eradication a top priority — and offers them a simple and affordable plan to end it for good.Since 2001, Berg has led the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, which represents the more than 1,200 nonprofit soup kitchens and food pantries in New York City. Prior to his work with the Coalition, Berg served for eight years in the Clinton Administration in senior executive service positions at USDA. He is the past winner of the US Secretary of Agriculture’s Honor Award for Superior Service and the Congressional Hunger Center’s Mickey Leland National Hunger Fighter Award. 

A leading figure in the food movement, Berg was an ideal candidate to pick five movies that he felt fell into the category of “sustainable cinema.”

Joel Berg: Below are my five top films on hunger/poverty that have inspired my career. I couldn't stop at just five, so I had to add a few "honorable mentions," at least for myself.

Two points about my list: 1) The reason that none of my films are particularly recent is that films on this topic are rarely produced any more. 2) I would have included The Wire, but I assume that is characterized as a TV show and doesn't fit under your guidelines.

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