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Berlin’s Culinary Cinema Explores World Politics and Food

In 2007, when Dieter Kosslick launched the Berlinale’s inventive Culinary Cinema section, it had been simmering in the back of his mind for decades.

A foodie since way before it became fashionable, Kosslick, who is a former film critic and journalist, in the early 1980s had a monthly column in German magazine Konkret in which he wrote about “the organic world” and “the terrible treatment of animals,” he recalls.

Kosslick is being honored at the Berlin festival with Variety‘s Achievement in International Film Award.

Kosslick says the two most formative experiences in his “food life” are being taken to Berkeley’s Chez Panisse by his then-girlfriend, IFP founder Sandra Schulberg, who introduced him to eminent chef and activist Alice Waters, and going to restaurants with late great German food critic Wolfram Siebeck, whom met while at college in Munich.

Culinary Cinema, which tapped into the Slow Food movement zeitgeist, sprung forth as the brainchild of Kosslick and his close collaborator Thomas Struck, who is the section’s curator. Struck says the section was innovative because they were pioneers in exploring taste and the origins of eating and food preparation. But it was also a first because they started serving a dinner prepared by a top chef inspired by the evening’s film to its audience after the screening, thus “breaking the viewing habit of lots of people who when they go into a movie munch all kinds of stuff while they are watching,” he notes.

“They key element of Culinary Cinema is that we separate food and film,” Struck stresses.

Waters and Telluride Film Festival founder Tom Luddy were instrumental in helping set up the inaugural edition, which initially drew hostile reactions from some critics who lashed out with “really nasty and ugly articles about me … for starting such a thing at a prestigious film festival. They were just fools!” Kosslick laments.

“Today, it’s the section that sells out the quickest,” he notes. Culinary Cinema is also now being replicated at film fests around the world.

Besides Luddy and Waters, first-year attendees included ace U.S. film editor Walter Murch, revered British producer Jeremy Thomas and German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who died in 2017.

Ballhaus talked during a panel about how being on set with Martin Scorsese, you always got “real food,” Struck recalls. Titles unspooling at the inaugural event included Doris Dorrie’s doc about a Zen priest and vegetarian chef “How to Cook Your Life,” and Alexander Payne’s California wine country-set “Sideways.”

Kosslick remembers a pivotal moment in 2010, when, for the Berlinale’s 60th edition, Waters cooked a special organic dish for 100 people following an open-air screening of the restored version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” at the Brandenburg Gate. Pictures of this event went around the world. “That is when people got what we are doing here: that food is much more than just eating. That there is a big philosophy behind it; and it’s also politics at the same time,” he says.

Kosslick also reminisces about when food advocate and author Michael Pollan attended the Berlin screening of doc “Food Inc.,” the Big Agriculture expose that opened the section in 2009. It was “really a stepping stone in food films,” he says “because you could see how much politics and the agriculture industry are linked with each other for a bad thing.” The film grossed a healthy $4.9 million in the U.S.

On a lighter note, he points out that last year, Culinary Cinema hosted then 19-year-old U.S. culinary whiz kid Flynn McGarry for the doc “Chef Flynn,” directed by Cameron Yates.

But what Kosslick is most proud of is the potential for this section to help change the world.

“Things changed from the moment that people thought we were [not] just eating there and seeing films,” he says. “They suddenly realized that we did this because we want to have a better world when it comes to food, to cooking and also the way we think about people who have no food,” he says.

“There are one billion in the world [who have no food]. And it would be easy to feed them if we had a different system,” says Kosslick. “With the food we throw away around the world we could feed 850 million people every day. So now people get it: a private thing like dining is a big political issue.”

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