I have the good fortune of seeing a number of films each year at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival. For the most part, I’m tasked with seeing a handful of Canadian-made documentaries on the behalf of my organization, in order to determine what’s goin’ on each year in the Canadian doc scene. I managed to see a few fun entries this year, notably a right-up-my-alley soft-science doc (How To Build A Time Machine) and a sorta-bonkers daredevil “musical-doc” (Aim For The Roses).
In addition to the Canadian films that I was able to see, my colleague was able to score me two tickets to see the Dutch food documentary Ants on a Shrimp. This seemed like a good choice for a night out, as the film promised to involve two of my partner’s favourite subjects – food and Japan. A foolproof plan for light entertainment, yes?
Ants on a Shrimp revolves around the chefs behind Denmark’s absurdly celebrated high-cuisine restaurant, Noma. Having conquered the Western food world, head chef Rene Redzepi and company decide that they are tired of the slog of serving lunch and dinner at the world’s most highly-rated restaurant. Instead, why not open a pop-up restaurant in Japan? Then the world would really see how smart they are and how smart the Japanese and everyone else in the world isn’t.
The whole thing comes off as almost impossibly self-indulgent. Redzepi is an insufferable figure, giving the impression of being some kind of food-Bono. He is at once completely infatuated with his own genius and completely assured that he is a kind and benevolent god, doling out wisdom and guidance to his lowly underlings. His underlings don’t come off much better, all seeming completely game to keep scrubbing their leader’s turds with their effusive praise of his skill and seeming absolutely lost in the game of being the best of the best of the better than the rest. Some of them made me sad. Redzepi just made me furious.
I suppose that standing in judgement of a film’s subject is not necessarily a reasoned take on the value of a film itself. I’ve seen plenty of fine documentaries about people who are total pieces of shit. This film, however, seems to be an incredibly mercenary affair. It’s as though Redzepi just approached the filmmaker and said “We’re going to be doing something really amazing in Japan. I’d like to give you this immense pile of money to come and document it. Oh… no, no… You’ll be directing it. Don’t worry!”
“Hey, get a shot of me cleaning this oven! That’ll show people how down-to-earth and cool I am!”
“Hey! Get this shot of all of us learning how to bow to Japanese people! That’ll make it seem less shitty when I later shake hands with them, say ‘This is how we do it’ and only then say ‘Now we’re colleagues’!”
“Hey, get this shot of me checking the shuttle bus that brought my staff from the airport to make sure that none of them left a bag behind, because that’s how much I am the most conscientious and kind man who ever strode the face of the earth.”
There’s no critical eye here. There’s never a question of why things are being done, or whether or not things should be done. There’s no real attention paid to cultural sensitivity or any real reverence shown for the Japanese or their culture of food (beyond “let’s take this storied culture of food and make it fucking interesting for a change”). The only crises and challenges that arise are contrivances of Redzepi himself, while those around him rush to adhere to his infallible whims.
The film’s structural weaknesses and the feeling that the whole thing is just a strange infomercial for Noma makes for a spectacularly unlikeable viewing experience. The last five minutes of Ants on a Shrimp may be the least satisfying conclusion to a film I have ever seen – an opening night run-down of the dishes that had been on display already for the entire length of the film, followed by Redzepi’s speaking the film’s final words, “Seeing some really good vibes in here, guys” or some such nonsense.
What the viewer is left with is Food Network-level coverage of a bunch of white chefs running around in a Japanese forest, eating twigs and enjoying the smell of their own farts. If you’re interested in 88 minutes of a bunch of Europeans and Americans being generally snotty to Japanese people, talking about how ahead-of-the-curve they are and torturing animals in the name of high cuisine, you might enjoy Ants on a Shrimp.
For my part, while I enjoy a good dining experience, if I were to find out that the food that I’m eating was prepared by people who carried themselves in this way, that food – no matter how exquisite – would turn to ash in my mouth.