SXSW Film Review: Barbecue (Australia, 2017) is food porn with a good back story

If there was one thing Jiro Dreams of Sushi did, it was set a precedent that documentaries can be about literally anything. The evidence is in cable broadcasting and the phenomena of reality TV series. There are entire channels dedicated to reality TV programs, filling endless time slots with narratives on cat trainers or house flippers; subjects that conventionally wouldn’t make good viewing.

The interest in these stories comes from elsewhere. It comes from a transition from the subject to the people. Audiences aren’t tuning in to Duck Dynasty every week to see some ducks getting shot out of the sky; they’re tuning in because the people doing the shooting are genuinely interesting.

This is the formula that works for Barbecue. It’s not just a film about meat getting tossed around on hot coals or animals being carved and prepared like an episode of No Reservations. It’s about the people and the traditions that make barbecuing sacred within different environments. Well that, and about one hundred minutes of smoking food porn.

Barbecue starts not in Australia or the Mid West of the U.S, but in South Africa. The film opens with a monologue from a distinct voice speaking native Zulu and telling viewers about the power fire has to bring people together. It sets an ethereal tone that carries through most of the film, from the scarce fields in Mongolia to the untouched mountain land in New Zealand.

The people behind the utensils form the film’s cast. We meet a Shawarma chef with seven years restaurant experience, preparing food from a refugee camp on the border of Syria and Jordan, he tells the camera that he wishes to return home. Also, a Mexican woman, who couldn’t afford to fulfil her dream of studying tourism management, and now works vigorously to assure her family’s business remains profitable.

Each of these human narratives play out like mini-plotlines within a segmented film. We meet people from polarised cultures, people who share no common history, but people who all share a tradition in barbecuing. It is the one thing that is consistent throughout the film. The BBQ, while always changing form and utility, is never too far from the human story.

The BBQ does however, become quite foreign. The moments when Barbecue shifts temporarily from the people back to the subject is when we are introduced to some of the more obscure cooking customs. The Mongolian segment is difficult to watch and difficult to look away. For the uninitiated, prepare yourself for skinned animal balloons.

The Australian, Armenian and American segments return the viewer to more familiar frontiers. The emphasis here shifts from survival to community as we see some snags being flicked at a rural pub, the Southern BBQ traditionalists paying homage to their predecessors and a group of Slavs having a good time drinking vodka and cooking meat. The twelve locations have been planned meticulously and considerately, allowing for a universal representation of barbecue traditions to reach the screen.

It’s a dense film for a team of two. South Australian filmmakers Matthew Salleh and Rose Tucker thought of the idea whilst traveling through the U.S and meeting some meat-traditionalists from a Southern Texan BBQ-pit. The pair were inspired by the artisans, eventually making a short documentary Central Texas Barbecue, before working with Screen Australia to fund a feature length film on the same subject.

 

 

The cinematography is akin to a nature documentary, shooting the fields, cities and countrysides through smart angles and wide shots that accentuate the conditions behind each barbecue. Often too joined by harmonious music that fosters the narrative setting.  The food is always placed centre frame, never being too far from the focus but also never taking attention away from the stories behind the meat. Tucker and Salleh themselves remain behind the lens, everything paving way for the human stories to reach the vanguard.

Barbecue is one documentary of many to examine different cultures through a lens. It is the only film however, to make that lens a barbecue. It may seem like a gimmick, especially for Australians, to try and add depth to or make the common BBQ edifying, but Barbecue is successful in transcending the humble cooking style beyond cultures and religions. It forces us to recognise a mutual human connection; everyone’s equal before the BBQ.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Barbecue is screening at SXSW, where it was reviewed. To find out more about the film’s remaining screenings at the event, head HERE.