Cognoscenti of culinary documentaries relish how open the genre is, driving deep into technique, amazing spectators by revealing the profession’s depths.
Rarely, however, does a documentary decide to sidestep the well-known beats of the genre, step back and capture a bigger picture that asks about the nature of beauty and art rather than culinary craftsmanship per se.
“Indeed, things that are visible and audible are called beautiful,” says St. Thomas Aquinas in a quote which prefaces “Cocinar Belleza.” “In contrast,” he adds, as for other senses’ sensations, we don’t speak of beauty, of beautiful smells and flavors.”
“Cocinar Belleza’s” disparate voices vary from philosophers to painters to mathematicians and bullfighters as it ponders our understanding of cooking and whether it should be called an art. Stage center is the eloquent and quite mesmerizing arguments of Quique Dacosta, a Spanish chef, who has a clear position on the subject. Variety interviewed the doc-feature’s director Sergio Piera and creator Toni Segarra, just before their film opens at this year’s San Sebastian Film Festival.
What sparked this film? What was the question, as it were, that provided the point of departure for this quest? Was it intrinsically linked to Quique Dacosta’s work?
Segarra: The idea for the documentary came about after Quique asked us to help him understand who is really is, as a chef. When Jorge Martínez and I started working on that we soon realized we were dealing with an auteur, an artist with an exquisite awareness as far as his work was concerned, attempting to define himself through cooking, which is, in turn, conceived as a language in itself.
Of course, Quique isn’t the only one. For some reason though, this relationship between cooking and art hasn’t been fully explored. Chefs are usually extremely reserved when asked about the subject, no doubt because they are quite overwhelmed by the level of public attention they’re suddenly getting. As we delved further into the question, we came to see that within the malleability that surrounds the classification of Fine Arts, the sense of sight and the sense of hearing have always been looked upon in a rather privileged fashion. The Greeks, for instance, considered them superior senses. In fact, they considered them more sensual senses. We don’t usually speak of beauty when thinking of taste. So we pitched to Quique and The Mediapro Studio the idea of taking a deeper look at this strange relationship, this mis-encounter, with a group of top-notch artists from other disciplines, so as to broaden the horizon of the debate, and break the silence that currently reigns in this regard. The result is “Cocinar Belleza.”
Given the nature of the interviews, and given the way the documentary is structured, you afford yourself a freedom of form that allows you to construct images designed not so much to inform as to evoke. One is struck especially by what you choose not to show. The use of very tight, closed, shots, when you focus on food, on actual dishes. I don’t think we ever see a single dish in its entirety. What informed such a decision?
Piera: Toni, Jorge and I came to the conclusion that it would be very interesting not to show any dish, in order to make for a more open debate, so everyone could come to their own conclusions based on their own experience, and, in that way, also give greater focus to other senses. Those evocative images that accompany the interviews are intended to show the ephemeral nature of beauty in all its forms (such as in cooking), and offer the spectator moments of silence, for reflexion, to really get into the debate.
Dwelling a bit further: the camera, throughout, focuses on the hands of the people being interviewed. Where did that idea come from?
Piera: Body language, non-verbal communication, is a very special thing, and every person interviewed has their own way of expressing themselves. The way of looking, gestures, express each individual’s inner beauty. Not only is what they say important. The manner in which it is expressed is just as important.
How did Proust’s text come to appear in the process of creation?
Segarra: Quite naturally. The first task we set ourselves was to read every text we could put our hands on about the classification of the arts – specifically about the role of cooking within that hierarchy. The Proustian madeleine, from “Remembrance of Things Past” is perhaps the most famous text about the immensely evocative power of taste. From the very beginning, we thought that as a text it was absolutely essential to a work that sought to explore the capacity of taste for the construction of beauty.
The film, with such a range of opinions, doesn’t aim to offer a conclusive response to the question broached. It espouses the well-known axiom: “There’s no aesthetics without ethics”, at the same time that it tables the idea, that there’s such terrible hunger in so many countries while here in the Western world we sit around joyfully debating whether food should be classified as an art. In the final third of the film, the people asking the questions begin to appear more and more in every shot. Where do you stand in this debate, not as the creative minds behind this documentary, but as artists engaging in other disciplines?
Piera: It was never our intention with this documentary to reach any conclusion. We simply wanted to start a debate about something that had never been debated upon before; not very much at any rate. It was always our intention not to close the debate – rather, for people to continue to give thought to it. There will always be arguments for and against. The idea was to open the debate to interviewees with a sense se of voice,so viewers could get an idea of the broad range of opinion out there and start forming opinions of their own, if they are sufficiently spurred to do so.