Motion pictures, or video, can be used as powerful tools when yielded as such. When effectively done, there is no greater instrument of change than the documentary. Usually documentaries - especially politically-themed ones - are measured by how impactful they are, how accurate they are and how inclusive the message is. In other words, the film has got to have meaning, be told using facts and - in my humble opinion - told in a way that seems to include opposing points of view, so that when shown all together, the viewer can make the best judgment possible and then hopefully take action. In "A Place at the Table," a new film opening today about the hunger epidemic in America, all - or at least most - of these vital components are there.
Some documentaries shed light on an issue without taking a stand and are often criticized for not having a clear narrative or purpose. Other documentaries (think of the films by Michael Moore) seem to set out with a specific point and then they build a case within the movie to prove that point. There is nothing wrong with either approach, because when done well, the film can have a lasting impact on the viewer. But if the focus is too narrow, too lopsided in its approach, it becomes something more closely resembling propaganda.
"A Place at the Table" (formerly titled "Finding North") is enthralling and effective in how plainly it presents its case. Millions of Americans are hungry and/or starving in our country, not due to lack of food, but because of poverty. As a good argument should, it begins with common ground: No Americans should be hungry, or without the means to feed their children. But as this problem is examined, we find out the incredible challenges we face as a country and the political tokens in play.
As the film points out, many of us picture "hungry" people as those incredibly thin children or families that we remember seeing in informercials: Always somewhere overseas and always something dealing with giving a monetary donation. "A Place at the Table" excels in educating us on the thin line between starvation and obesity. People with little to no income eat what they can afford and in today's American society, that equates to cheaper, processed foods over more healthier fare like fruits and vegetables.
It should come as no surprise then, that our obesity problem is actually a by-product of the much larger issue of hunger that faces our nation.
I haven't seen a documentary so informative, so shocking, in quite a while. It effectively paints a picture but then does what many documentaries seem to be afraid of: It gives possible solutions and then calls the viewer to immediate action. So many films either forget this important detail or they refuse to go there, thinking that perhaps they will create enemies by taking too harsh of a stand. "A Place at the Table" takes a stand for common sense, and while I don't think that Republicans nor Democrats can argue that it isn't a problem, I fear that they will have drastically opposing views on what can - or should - be done to remedy it.
It's sad that actor Jeff Bridges - a long-time proponent of anti-hunger - may be the reason some find this film. In today's film market, you need a big name to draw people in. Many will see his face in the trailer, but whatever gets people in the seats, I guess.
"A Place at the Table" is a straight-forward and powerful documentary in its message as well as in its technical style. While I personally felt inspired to take action against hunger myself by the film's end, in today's incredibly polarized political environment, I already had a list of questions and concerns that I imagined "the right" would ask of this left-leaning film. Because there are no easy paths to change, I fear that most will find the path of least resistance and will find flaws in the film that will lead to more inaction and grid-lock. But the urgency of the issue asks Americans on both sides of the political spectrum to wake up to the horrible reality that millions of people face, right on our own front door. Clearly something needs to be done.
Nobody is asking for a handout. Just a fair shake. And if people can't agree that children shouldn't be going hungry in modern America, I'm afraid we're already lost.
I could list out the many incredible stories and points of reference from the film here in this review, but I'd rather you watch the film. It's a much more convincing argument to see unfold rather than to read about, and it is a film that every American should see.
Run Time: 1 hour, 24 minutes, Rated PG
Featuring: Jeff Bridges, Tom Colicchio, James McGovern, Raj Patel
Directed by Kristi Jacobson (Toots, American Standoff) and Lori Silverbush (On the Outs)
Opens locally on Friday, March 1, 2013 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time