For the past 11 years, ReFrame Film Festival has served us an amazing platter of engaging, insightful, moving and tasty stories. Every year the Festival helps us gain a deeper understanding of critical issues related to human rights, the arts, environment and social justice, all framed through the lens of the best film-makers in Canada and beyond. This time, festival organizers sprinkled an extra dosage of delicious offerings: nine food films! Truly a bumper crop!
The theme for this year's festival was Film Worth Talking About. Indeed, all the movies I watched offered powerful platforms for engaging conversations. This post, in fact, grew out of my reaction to one of the movies I watched: The Starfish Throwers.
It was a powerful film with a strong narrative and engaging characters. It is anchored around the lives of 3 fascinating individuals, two men: Narayanan, a five-star chef from India, along with Allan, a retired teacher from the States; and Katie, a teenager also from the States. All three of them are deeply committed to feeding people who are homeless, people who are sick, people who are left on their own, without any support system.
The title of the movie derives from the well-known story about the young man who, coming across a beach filled with starfish that have been washed ashore, sees an old man, who is carefully picking up one starfish after another and throwing them back in the ocean. Startled, the young man admonishes the elder by saying "why bother? There are so many of them here. You will never save them all. " Gently, while stooping and picking up yet another starfish, the old man says, "Maybe, but it makes a difference to this one."
As the Starfish Throwers' website points out "[d]espite being constantly reminded that hunger is far too big for one person to solve," the characters in the movie "persevere and see their impact ripple further than their individual actions." Their compassion and love for fellow human beings struggling in utter poverty and isolation is palpable and food is the platform through which they express that love.
While watching the movie I was acutely aware of the reaction of viewers around me - I could hear and sense they were moved by the story as it unfolded on the screen. One couldn't help being taken by the main characters in the story and the struggles they face to keep on going in spite of all the adversity they encounter. Later on, a friend of mine mentioned that the movie brought tears to her eyes. Yet, I left the theater feeling rather annoyed. I couldn't help wondering why I was so insensitive to the amazing dedication and commitment the main characters powerfully embodied.
The movie showcases the work of three clear heroes - three individuals who truly commit themselves to the cause in which they believe and I admire them for that. Where I fail to go along for the ride is the idea that their action builds a movement designed to address hunger. It doesn't and it cannot. Their actions, while valuable for the individual members of their community they reach, do not address the structures and policies that generate hunger and poverty in the first place. Their work, for instance, doesn't come to grip with the fact that racialized members of their communities make up the bulk of the people who go hungry. It is not a coincidence. It is the outcome of deliberate policies that privilege a few to the detriment of the many. So while the work of the main characters is admirable, it is not transformative in the long term. To do so they need to add the missing key ingredient in their recipe: Justice.
Love, when devoid of justice, can only foster charity. Charity is a powerful and valuable force in society. It helps us address emergency needs after a fire, a flood or any disaster of that nature. What charity cannot do, however, is to effectively respond to entrenched, systemic issues such as poverty and hunger. Its incapacity to deal with the root causes of poverty and hunger comes from the fact that it operates as though such issues just happen, as though they were the outcomes of sheer bad luck. They are not. If they were, we would all be equally impacted by them. Yet, we are not.
I was disappointed by The Starfish Thrower. While it does remind us that love is a powerful force for good in the world, it obscures the fact that, by itself, it only perpetuates the dominant structures that foster poverty and hunger. Love needs Justice to create meaningful change and build equity in the long term.