This summer, Barbican hosted a mix of films and conversations exploring the ways food and culture combine in Eat the Screen: Films to Feed Conversations About Food. A curated season of short films, features and documentaries, alongside panel and audience discussions, give viewers the opportunity to think about the role food plays in culture and identity, but also how it relates to sustainability, community, and resistance to corporate powers.
Tamara Anderson, Barbican Cinema curator, says
Curating this season has taken me on a nourishing tour of the world, celebrating the joy of food and eating, whilst feeding a general curiosity on the subject. If there is one thing clear, it is that food – and everything around it – makes for a deeply complex subject, and no one solution fits all. This season presents a kind of constellation of ideas about what food is, or means: a cultural inheritance, craft, a job, a path out of the lowest rungs of society to a more stable future.
I personally attended London Feeds Itself… on Film, curated in partnership with author and food writer Jonathan Nunn. The night featured a series of contemporary and archive documentaries, exploring how the city has fed itself during the past 50 years and celebrating the wide diversity of London’s food culture. The films took us on a journey through various cultures, exploring the margins of a commercial city that teems with life and personality at the fringes. In two hours we journeyed between Latin American communities under threat from development in Elephant and Castle, a century-old family-run cafe in Bethnal Green, allotment owners resisting developers in Stratford, the famous Beigels of Brick Lane, the Lewisham foodbank keeping communities together, and the vast swathes of independent businesses where Londoners gather each day for a good meal.
This was not the story of corporate capital, filled with shiny buildings, high-end restaurants and reviews stuffed with complex words. This selection of shorts aimed to celebrate the places where most Londoners actually eat and sell food without fanfare. Across shopping centres, markets and cafes, from quick takeaways to spaces where people sit for hours, and more than one mention of the Kray twins stopping by for a bite to eat, each film pulsed with the unique stories of many lives lived within the walls of these businesses. These were the tales of ordinary people connecting with each other, of found family forming over common loves, and of unique insights into how communities are built and transformed over time, in the day-to-day.
Yes, these were films about food but, more importantly, they were about people. We saw, in close detail, the power of the humble allotment. Not just a place for growing but also for connecting to the land, to each other, and to the legacies of those who pass these green spaces down to their children and grandchildren. We learned how the communities of Lewisham rose to meet the challenges of the pandemic. When demand for their services skyrocketed from a handful of households into the thousands, volunteers stepped up. Donations were piled high in the homes of ordinary individuals, fridges overflowed with donated food while they searched for a central space, and those working from home transformed into an army of delivery drivers, bringing kindness and compassion to all who required the extra help. Some were straight-up hilarious; interviews with throngs of drunken Londoners grabbing a beigel in the early hours on their way home provided particularly hilarious insights, that had me both snorting and hankering for a good beigel myself.
And yet, not every story was a successful one. The need for foodbanks at all is a dire indictment of a country as wealthy as the UK. Resistance to new developments in Elephant and Castle wasn’t successful, and allotment owners eventually being removed from their land so developers could build the Olympic park was a heartbreaking microcosm for corporate displacement that is all too common across the globe. But these are still vital tales that need to be told, calls for compassion that need to be heard. These are ways to understand each other and, in the process, understand ourselves.
Screenings were followed by a panel between Jonathan Nunn and Valerie Rosa, Migrant and Ethnic Business Organiser for the charity Latin Elephant, writer and author Ruby Tandoh and Deidre ‘Dee’ Woods, co-founder of Kilburn’s Granville Community Kitchen and award-winning cook, community food educator, urban agriculturalist, broadcaster, and researcher. The discussion was a rallying cry for why these methods to understand communities need to be embraced.
If we are to sustain ourselves and each other into the future, we need to know how to build together. Food is culture and identity, but these are also the places where real people with real lives are found. Whether the local cafe or a foodbank, it is here we find the hearts and souls of our neighbourhoods. It is here we come together to care for each other, to forge connections, to dream of a different future. Food is a place of connection and, through these films, we can find ways to cultivate empathy over common struggles when other aspects of our lives may vary greatly. It is here we can practice more ways to care for each other. It is here we can realise our power, and here we can begin building to take it back.
Catch the final parts of Barbican’s Eat the Screen – Films to Feed Conversations About Food until 24 August.
ÉLEFAN (UK 2022 Dir Daniel Díaz 27 min)
E. Pellicci (UK 2016 Dir/Prod Simon Poon Tip, Camera/Edit Rick Stanton 4 min)
Feeding Lewisham: Foodbanks in Crisis (UK 2021 Dirs Cara Bowen, Tom Coleville, Dominic Soar 12 min)
This Was Forever (UK 2007 Dir Mark Aitkin 10 min)
Pie & Mash (UK 2016 Dir/Prod Simon Poon Tip, Camera/Stills Jake Green, Edit Jarrad Templeton 4 min)
Chicken (UK 2014 Dir Lindsay Knight 6 min)
Beigels Already (UK 1992 Dir Debbie Shuter 10 min)