Documentary filmmaker Curt Ellis was an American history major at Yale, graduating in 2002. The idea for his film “King Corn,” about the agricultural industry, started rather quietly, as he and his friend, Ian Cheney, another history major, would go eat at Dunkin’ Donuts after class.
“As it turns out, more than a dozen of the ingredients in Dunkin’ Donuts come from corn,” Ellis says. In order to figure out where corn comes from — at the very beginning — the two buddies moved to Iowa for a year and became farmers, and discovered the little-talked about reason why 90 million acres of America’s heartland is used to produce this one crop, which is processed into everything from ethanol to high-fructose corn syrup, a cheap sweetener which has been linked to obesity and the growing epidemic of Type 2 diabetes.
Ellis and Cheney will appear at the reprise screening of “King Corn,” on Saturday, January 10, at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, where “King Corn” was the most well attended film in last year’s festival. The screening is a double bill with Ellis and Cheney’s newest film, “The Greening of Southie,” about “green” construction from the viewpoint of South Boston construction workers.
The festival runs Friday, January 2, through Sunday, January 11, at the Princeton Public Library. “It’s not your typical environmental film festival,” says Susan Conlon, the library’s teen services librarian and coordinator of the event. “We all make choices, and this is about the connections between how we live and what we do. It’s about everybody’s role in the environment.” A total of eight filmmakers will be featured in post-screening discussions.
On the cusp of graduating from Yale, Ellis and Cheney “realized that we knew basically nothing about the food we’d been eating,” says Ellis. “Somehow that felt like a big gap in our education.” He realized that most of the food he ate, and most of the food we eat, at least the fast food and processed food, has lots of corn and soybean-derived products in it.
Ellis and Cheney decided to grow food for a while and rented a home and farm in Greene, Iowa. Their crop of choice? Corn, of course. “King Corn” chronicles the two friends’ experience in growing the corn and tracking where it ends up. “We put a lot of debt on our credit cards and asked everyone we knew for support,” Ellis says. Also credited as a filmmaker on the project is Aaron Woolf, Ellis’ cousin, who had already made some public-TV documentaries.
“There were a lot of surprises,” Ellis says of life on the farm. “The first thing we learned was that farming is not at all like gardening. We grew 10,000 pounds of food during our year in Iowa, but we never had to touch the soil to do it.” It took the duo 18 minutes to plant their entire acre of corn using a donated $300,000 planting machine. Later, they sprayed their plot with a powerful herbicide called Liberty. “We learned how industrialized, mechanized, chemical-dependent, and technology-dependent the whole industry of agriculture has become,” says Ellis. Less than a day’s worth of total work produced enough corn to sweeten 10,000 cans of soda, Ellis says.
“The other thing we learned was that a central reason why 90 million acres of the heartland are planted in this one crop has a lot to do with government policy,” he continues. The subsidy system, he explains, has made corn production abundant and cheap, so the government encourages farmers to plant the crop. However, the statistics about diabetes are undeniable. “The (Centers for Disease Control) says that 1 of 3 children born in the year 2000 is going to have Type 2 diabetes during their lifetime,” says Ellis. “For all the progress we have made in America, we are falling behind in one fundamental area, which is the way we eat.”
Ellis, 28, lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife Caitlin Boyle, a graduate student. He is originally from Lake Oswego, Oregon, the son of an attorney father and schoolteacher mother. “I had a nice, friendly, American childhood,” he says. “I was the youngest of six kids, and there was always a bunch of us around. I was the wayward one; everyone else has much more conventional lives and careers.”
As a youngster, Ellis had deep connections with the land, and with food, connections he would later lose. “We lived on the edge of the country, in the suburbs, about 15 miles out of town. My dad always had a big garden, growing vegetables, so digging in the dirt was always a big part of who I was as a little guy.”
“The Greening of Southie,” the other Ellis/Cheney film to be shown at the festival, takes place in South Boston, the controversial, traditionally blue-collar Irish American enclave in Cheney’s hometown. The film premiered in Boston this year on Earth Day.
The idea for the film began when one of Cheney’s friends told him and Ellis about the Macallan Building, a redeveloped condominium building in South Boston that was to be the first “green” residential construction in the city. “He wanted to know if we could make a little time-lapse video of the project, to set up a camera and maybe take a picture a day,” says Ellis. “We decided that we wanted to make a more ambitious project about that building, a feature film. What really sparked our interest was not the building itself, or even the green technologies that were going into it. It was the chance to spend time on the construction site with a dozen workers who were undergoing this incredible transition from building a regular building to building a green building. In many ways this was a story about blue-collar jobs going green and how a group of unlikely environmentalists came to terms with the burgeoning environmental movement.”
Southie was the poorest white zip code in the U.S. for a long time, Ellis says. Working class and Irish Catholic, very poor and insular, Southie was isolated geographically from the rest of Boston. Things changed, however, in the 1960s and ’70s, with forced busing, as members of other ethnic groups were bused in to schools in the area. “The race riots there were some of the worst in the country, and it’s still the type of place where you still feel that kind of palpable tension, where people talk about busing and race riots as if it were yesterday,” says Ellis. Organized crime was also prevalent in Southie. “For these reasons, Southie was one of the regions in the community that was the most resistant to change. But gentrification has really come home to roost, and there are a huge number of young people coming in, and this is causing a real shakeup.”
“Greening” combines feature film, documentary, and animation. “We hooked up with some young animators in Boston to try to explain visually the transformation of this community,” says Ellis. “Green building is a complicated constellation of technologies. Rather than just give a kind of litany of information in one format, we found it kind of helpful to turn to animation to explain how the different pieces come together.”
Ellis is still young as a filmmaker, and as a man. But he enjoys the choices he has made, personally and professionally. “Filmmaking has been a really good fit. It’s a chance to ask questions about the subjects I’m most interested in, and a chance to meet people whose books I’ve read,” he says. “I can call my Senator and actually get a call back. That whole process has been really exciting.”
Princeton Environmental Film Festival, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Wednesday, January 2, through Sunday, January 6. Visit www.princetonlibrary.org/peff/schedule.htmfor complete schedule of films and speakers. 609-924-9529.