Talking With Curt Ellis from "King Corn" About His New Film "Big River," Part 2

Today’s post is the final half of a two-part interview with Curt Ellis (the first part of our "Big River" article is here), who will be in Minneapolis this week showing “Big River,” a companion to his 2006 documentary “King Corn.” Both films will be screened at the Riverview Theater on Wednesday, November 18 at 7:00, with a panel discussion afterwards. Admission is $10.

Simple, Good, and Tasty: "Big River" is a very serious film that addresses very serious issues. Was it a conscious decision to make the film less “light” than “King Corn”?

Curt Ellis: We looked for places for levity and jokes - we found Elvis impersonators in Louisiana, we went to Mardi Gras and did other fun things, but at the end of the day, it’s depressing news we had to tell. The ecological implications of the way we farm today are pretty depressing and it didn’t feel right to make light of that reality in our story. At the end of the day, industrial agriculture isn’t very funny.

SGT: What do you want people to know or do after they see the film?

CE: “Big River” is coming out at an interesting time. The federal government has just announced $320 million in federal funding to be directed towards improving the biggest trouble spots along the Mississippi River. Being smart about this will really lead to a shrinking of the dead zone.

The EPA has reopened their investigations into Atrazine to see if it’s as safe and harmless as we’ve been assured it is. There are lots of indications that Atrazine does terrible things to frogs - and it’s been implicated in human health issues as well, including Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

With “King Corn,” we really learned there are a whole lot of people who are engaged as food consumers, people who buy organic food or shop at farmers markets and try to keep corn syrup out of their cupboards. So many of those people have not been engaged in policy work, but that’s where some of those people need to shift their energy. We all need to become advocates for food and farm policy. We need to change the direction of the Farm Bill. Instead of subsidizing the production of commodities, we should be subsidizing green things and paying farmers for long term thinking and conservation and protecting water and soil quality for all of us.

SGT: One of the things that really struck me in “Big River” was how we continue to try and atone for past agricultural sins by creating new ones.

CE: We’ve put our trust in a food and agriculture system that’s fragile, a system where we began mining the nutrients out of the topsoil we were farming which forced us to add in artificial nutrients, then we added phosphate to keep our harvests up. This came with the unintended costs of downstream pollution and dependence on foreign oil. The question is this: do you try to fix the symptoms and develop some [amazing technology] or do you address the cause of the problem by changing the way we do things?

It’s hard to see what we saw about where America’s food comes from and then go back to working a day job where you ignore these very powerful costs. There’s nothing more fundamental than the food we eat - food and clothing and shelter and water are what really matter. The way we’re stewarding these fundamental things is reckless right now, and for Ian and me, the chance to spend our time encouraging people to think about these things feels like work worth doing. People are hungry for information now.

SGT: What’s next for you?

CE: Right now, besides the movie, we’re working on the Truck Farm project. The 1986 Dodge pickup featured in our films is now a mobile garden. We put a green roof on top of the bed of the truck, and we’ve got a 20 member CSA working right out of the back. It helps us show that you can grow food right in the city and gets people thinking about urban food deserts. We could be growing food all over.

SGT: Wow, that’s so cool. Read any good books lately?

CE: I’m reading a great book by Jennifer 8 Lee called the “Fortune Cookie Chronicles.”

SGT: I love that book. I was blown away to learn that there are more Chinese take-outs in the U.S. than McDonald’s.

CE: Yeah, it’s great.