Talking With Curt Ellis from "King Corn" About His New Film "Big River," Part 1

I recently had a chance to catch up with Curt Ellis, whose “Big River” documentary picks up where his film 2006 “King Corn” left off - in the banks of the Mississippi River. Where “King Corn” was a light-hearted look at our industrial food system through the lens of two wide-eyed Yale graduates (Ellis and his partner-in-crime Ian Cheney) cultivating a single acre of corn in Iowa, “Big River” - which shows at the Riverview Theater this Wednesday, November 18 - is a harsh reality check, examining the impact industrial farming has on the Mississippi River.

The new film is excellent - 27 minutes of smart, compelling film, highlighting one of the many differences between Iowa and Las Vegas: what happens in Iowa definitely does not stay in Iowa. One of my favorite parts of the film shows a Louisiana shrimp farmer describing the havoc Iowa corn farmers have wreaked on his livelihood. Throughout our half-hour conversation, Ellis was personable and funny, speaking with passion and intelligence about our industrial food system and what needs to be done to fix it. He was both realistic and hopeful. Here’s our interview:

Simple, Good, and Tasty: Tell me what you’ve been up to the last few years. I understand you've got a Minnesota connection now through IATP (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy).

Curt Ellis: I’m doing a Food in Society fellowship with IATP, which gives me half time for two years to do food advocacy work, to talk with people about a more sustainable, more just, greener food system. “Big River” is part of that project. My focus is on showing the way large-scale industrial agriculture works - and showing alternatives. I travel, show films, get people riled up, then talk to the media and try to give them a reason to cover things like food deserts.

I want to be sure to mention Ron Kroese and the McKnight Foundation, they’ve been great. The bulk of the money for the new film came from them.

SGT: One of the things that made "King Corn" so accessible was that it looked like you and Ian didn't entirely know what you were doing. Was that true?

Curt EllisCurt EllisCE: [Ian and I] had no useful background in farming or on farms, but in college we began to get interested in the fact that we knew so little about the food we were putting in our bodies. We became activists on campus at Yale and did things like start a freshman orientation program [that included farm exposure] and encouraged our dining room to serve more sustainable food. So we knew what questions to ask when we stared the film but we didn’t know the answers.

We wanted to learn about corn from our own perspective, and along the way, inherently, we became farmers to some extent. And we’re also life long consumers of food. So in one way or another, we were environmental advocates who came to realize there are serious consequences of the way we process food.

SGT: Tell me about the new film. "Big River" is a companion to "King Corn." At what point did you decide "King Corn" needed a companion? Why?

CE: When we finished “King Corn” we already felt we’d left something important out of the story. We’d seen so many clues in our year in Iowa of the ecological implications of what we were doing that we knew we had another story to tell. But we didn’t want to confuse the simple message of “King Corn” - that we subsidize obesity in this country by subsidizing big agriculture.

In “Big River,” instead of looking at the corn itself, we decided to look at the water around it.

Continue to Part 2 of our interview here.