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A reflection on MIFF – Food and Wine in Film (or why popcorn just won’t do)

Words by: Victoria Jacobs
Photography by: Mr LB

Why do we want to see food and wine on film? Why can an on-screen meal make for a great movie? These are questions an expert panel promised to ponder during this Melbourne International Film Festival Talking Pictures event.

Hosted by Dani Valent (The Age food writer), the panel comprised of Warwick Ross (producer and co-director, Red Obsession), Max Allen (Australian Gourmet Traveller) and chefs George Calombaris (Masterchef, Hellenic Republic, Gazi), Ben Shewry (Attica) and Guy Grossi (Grossi Florentino).

The conversation took some lively and hilarious digressions, but food and wine in film were invariably their basis. Dani raised Hitchcock’s famous egg-phobia and his use of chocolate syrup as blood in Psycho to show that films that aren’t about food actually are. This brought the discussion to the most typical association of wine and film: red wine as a blood motif. In the 1935 film A Tale of Two Cities, a cask of wine is dropped and broken, spilling its contents on to a Paris street. The wine is, of course, a metaphor for the bloody French Revolution.

Not surprisingly, wine is Max’s favourite topic. He mentions the important research he’s undertaking into hangovers caused by cheap versus expensive booze. Max thinks the best wine scenes are the evocation of drinking and experiencing wine, showing what it’s like to get and be drunk. He cites TV series All Creatures Great and Small and Black Books as the best for scenes which revel in the joy of drinking too much. Because food and wine are such singular and subjective experiences, the key to a good film, in his opinion, are the characters experiences of the food and wine, not food and wine on its own.

This is a good observation, and one that Warwick seems to share. When he set out to make Red Obsession, he was determined that it would not be like Mondovino, presumably because of its lack of good characters and prose. He also disliked Mondovino’s “crap treatment of Bordeaux” because Bordeaux is close to Warwick’s heart. The booming and unprecedented demand for Bordeaux by a new Chinese market is the subject of his outstanding documentary, out now in cinemas.

The treatment of these famous and hugely expensive reds as pure commodities was explored by Guy, who talked about the western tradition of guarding and hoarding a $25,000 bottle of red as opposed to the concept of “face” in Chinese culture, where such a bottle is proudly shared and enjoyed. His favourite relevant film experience was shooting SBS’s Italian Food Safari because it showed how food brings people together, not only by the act of eating but also through the experience of passionate foodies sharing their knowledge. Guy’s food-in-film recommendation is Big Night, about two immigrant brothers’ failing Italian restaurant.

Italian Food Safari brings us to probably the most popular of Australian food shows, MasterChef, and its co-host George. Now in its fifth season and with a number of spin-offs, MasterChef is proof that we want to see food on our screens. I didn’t catch the name of George’s favourite movie, but it was one in which a woman settles an argument about who makes the best ravioli by grinding up her competition to use as filling!

It turns out that as well as running Australia’s top restaurant (World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards) Attica, Ben is a film-maker. He has made a number of short films and we were treated to one called What Grows in the Garden. The first film Ben made was born of necessity – he was giving a presentation in Madrid and film was the only effective medium for a non-Spanish speaker to communicate with his Spanish audience. He has plans to eventually make a feature, and describes how film-making offers him a creative outlet that cooking doesn’t.

You can watch Ben and collaborator Johnny Abegg’s short film called Spindrift, a beautiful tale about mussels, friendship and sustainable food practice here:

Red Obsession is currently out now at selected cinemas around Melbourne.

Food in pictures

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