In any form of creative work - whether it is painting, writing, music, cooking, or even business – one is constantly refining technique and personal style. The most successful of creatives are those that acknowledge that they are in constant conversation with their predecessors, elaborating on their successes and taking heed of their failures, as part of a continuum of the craft that they count themselves a part of.
And yes, this reflexive act of looking down upon the giants on whose shoulders you stand can also apply with cooking, and business, of which is the subject of my forthcoming documentary, Thought for Food. Focusing on the aptly named ‘Slow Food movement’ of New York City, producers and business owners build off of models from the past and present New York food industry to create new social and economic relationships. Peter Freeman, Co-owner and head “jerk” of Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain, illustrates that the ethos of Slow Food comes two-fold: the product and the process - that being the refinement and ethical coordination of the process of food production reflected within the quality of the food produced.
The vessel of this Slow Food story – that being film (not as the physical format per se, but as the discipline) – also comes with inherent methods and techniques of which have been refined and elaborated. As a documentarian, one must reflect upon the work by previous and contemporary documentarians to take note of their methods, strengths, and weaknesses. One must strategize where your work is placed in the canon of your topic of interest: is it reiterating existing concerns? Is it conveying new ideas and posing new questions?
To mark a reference point for my documentary in connection with contemporary work, I screened director David Gelb’s debut documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012), at IFC Center in West Village. The film depicts 85-year-old sushi chef Jiro Ono, owner of the small sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro tucked away in the basement of a Tokyo high-rise in the Ginza shopping district. Jiro is hailed as the greatest sushi chef alive, and commands the respect of his two sons, the restaurant staff, respected food critics, Tokyo fish vendors, and customers. Winner of a 3-star rating in the Michelin Guide – the first sushi restaurant to do so – Sukiyabashi Jiro boasts a 10-seat bar reserved for lunch and dinner a year in advance, with dinner prices ranging close to $300 per person. Gelb draws us into this tucked away space with a Red One camera, a microphone, and a translator. What transpires is the ecstasy of watching a master at his work, elaborating on his perfectionism, his work ethic, and his constant fascination with sushi. Anecdotes from his two sons, who have been conditioned to inherit the family business, reveal that his legacy is in danger of being lost when Jiro passes. The documentary thus serves as a sort of historical preservation, as a testament to Jiro’s work as well as an affirmation of his eldest son Yoshikazu’s will to sacrifice his own interests to perpetuate his father’s legacy.
The film’s strength comes from Gelb’s depiction of a craftsman in his element. In an interview with Giant Robot magazine, Gelb – who professes to be a sushi connoisseur – found it important to approach the filming of the documentary with a level of craft as close to Jiro’s as possible. “We wanted to the film to feel as elegant as the sushi itself; as if Jiro were making the movie.” Gelb chose to use the Red One high format digital cinema camera to focus on the subjects with exquisite detail. Jiro’s weathered face, the slow motion nuances of the cooking and preparation, and the traditional decoration of the inside of the restaurant are brought into crisp, shallow focus. But what steals the show – what makes the piece a testament to Gelb’s style and the Red One’s capabilities – is the depiction of the sushi. After being molded and glazed with soy sauce, each individual piece of warm sushi settles onto the wooden plate, the rice deflating under the tender slice of fish. Gelb is successful in portraying Jiro’s mantra of “purity in simplicity,” by letting the sushi represent its handcrafted process – methodical, detailed, and with importance in every step.
While Gelb’s success comes from portraying the glory of Jiro’s perfection, this is also in some part the film’s greatest weakness. The drawn out declarations of excellence leaves little room for exposition on the small details of the sushi, or that of discussions on Jiro’s life outside of the restaurant. A consummate workaholic, Jiro passes day in and day out working on improving and perfecting his craft. But with the sons, an Jiro’s mysterious upbringing after he ran away from home at age 10 to apprentice at a sushi restaurant, the audience is left to question Jiro’s family life. Who raised him after he ran away? Where was his wife, or the woman who bore his sons? Where was his home? These questions may come naturally with the inherent dilemma of documentaries concerning confidentiality, and the guarded nature of Japanese family life. These are also healthy questions for a documentary to raise, as any documentary should leave some issues to ponder for further discussion. But should this documentary, focusing on the celebration of an old man’s distinguished life, bring his family into question? Is family a question Jiro has thus far failed to answer to himself completely while in the tunnel vision of his work?
Another more obvious weakness of the film is the overplayed classical music and standard arrangements for film by Philip Glass. This musical space is very familiar to me, and associates with other documentaries. I personally would have preferred other musical iterations of the perfection of crafting sushi – Japan is home to hundreds of accomplished traditional or classical composers who could have achieved this. But this is nitpicky; Gelb’s music choice comes from a good place and is effective just the same.
In the context of my documentary project on Slow Food, Jiro Dreams of Sushi’s strengths and weaknesses are important to consider. Thematically, both documentaries are concerned with parallel, if not identical, issues on food ethics. Like the artisans depicted in Thought for Food, Jiro practices the handcrafting of food which has taken years of practice and discipline. Jiro’s slow process and work ethic is enforced upon is diligent sons and apprentices. Jiro himself complains of the younger generation, saying “young people want less work hours, more downtime, and more money.” The value of the process is lost in the fast-paced lifestyle. This is most definitely an issue to confront regarding Slow Food in the midst of the bustle of one of the world’s busiest cities, New York City. Also, the slow process of handcrafting food is conflicted economically with the looming shadow of industrialized food distribution. A segment of the film brings to question the restaurants adaptation to overfishing and the abundance of conveyor belt-style sushi restaurants. Jiro and his colleagues in the restaurant and the Tokyo fish markets are observant of these changes, and the limitations posed to their method. Slow Food’s methods of adapting products to the availability of ingredients and the slower pace of production poses a great challenge in Thought for Food, and are addressed as a question to ponder.
Stylistically, Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Thought for Food will feature some parallels – based on production limitations and thematic similarities they both share. It is safe to say that my screening of Jiro has been a major influence in the depiction of the subjects in Thought for Food, based on the comparison of the scene from Jiro above and the scene from Thought for Food below. Gelb’s depiction of handcrafted sushi as an art form can apply to the scenarios of Slow Food, where food is crafted, enjoyed, and respected. Where Gelb’s portrayal of Jiro lacks – a human story behind the food god – I hope to elaborate on with a focus on the business owners and producers that put so much personality into their food. While the art of making sushi is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and philosophy, Slow Food of New York has within its context a deep well of cultural history unique to the city, the purveyors and entrepreneurs of Slow Food their own unique business ethics. Thought for Food thus poses some different questions within the context of its geography and socio-cultural origins. If anything, this may be familiar territory in regards to documentaries pressing the flaws of the American food industry. However, the major differences will be in its celebration of food solutions, and the inherent problems within these new solutions that have come of the flaws of industrialized food.
Aside from the thematic similarities and visual style of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the final lessons I draw from David Gelb’s process is universal to documentary film and to filmmaking in general. Gelb iterates the long-held fact that documentary filmmaking is an expensive proposition with potentially reverse financial consequences, and that the return investment is solely based on the draw of audiences. With Jiro, the risk is mitigated by the fact that sushi is a popular topic of interest (and a glorious sight on screen). With great luck Gelb was able to secure distribution from Magnolia Pictures for theatrical screening of the film. With Thought for Food, the challenge will be similar, but without as high risk of financial return (the film is being made with a low/no budget, and the anticipated release will be through the internet and New York film festivals). Thankfully, the Slow Food scene in New York is graced with a strong and supportive following, so I look forward to introducing the film to an already-present support base.
Last but not least, Jiro’s effectiveness comes not just from the strength of its content, but from the context of the filmmaker’s passion for the subject. As a fan of sushi, Gelb sought to try the best sushi restaurants in Japan before focusing on the documentary. The documentary must be treated as an immersive experience, where the filmmaker draws from social interactions with their subject to familiarize themselves with the topic and accurately portray them on screen in an honest way. What I take from this is that a documentary about food, and the love of food, cannot be done accurately without yourself enjoying the food and the company around it. With an appropriate method and attitude, like the food it depicts, only then can the film be an accurate reflection of the process.