The Documentary, King Corn

King Corn (film)
King Corn (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Documentary, King Corn

I have shown many films in class over the last five years. I tend to shy away from documentaries and use commercial movies to make points. For instance, I use the film, Sabrina, to bring up the issue of class differences, and it is a consistently successful film commanding class attention and getting intelligent responses when they analyze the influence of class.

However, I have two documentaries that have been consistently successful in class use. One of them is Gasland, the other King Corn.

King Corn is story of two men who do a simple experiment in the pursuit of truth. Concerned by the diminishing life spans of Americans, they discover that their diet is primarily corn. They journey to Iowa and grow an acre of corn to see how the process works. They talk to many people in their travels and these conversations are the best part of the film.

The issues of corn, overproduction, factory farming and high fructose corn syrup are very controversial and can be very emotional. The documentary’s approach, the humble seeker after truth, sets the emotional level very low and the film is amusing and relaxing. Nevertheless my students do leave the film uneasy about the state of American agriculture and there are usually a good many comments about what we should be eating.

I usually add some lecture material on the Cuban Embargo, and go into more depth on the high fructose corn syrup controversy.

If you are a fellow instructor I recommend you use the film. It used to be available of Netflix but now you have to purchase it or find it on the web.

It can be purchased here – for the very reasonable price (today) of $10.49 for a new copy.

James Pilant

From around the web.

From the web site, PBS.

As Ian and Curt discover, almost everything Americans eat contains corn.
High-fructose corn syrup, corn-fed meat, and corn-based processed foods
are the staples of the modern diet. America’s record harvests of corn
are supported by a government subsidy system that promotes corn
production beyond all market demand. As Ian and Curt return to Iowa to
watch their 10,000-pound harvest fill the combine’s hopper and make its
way into America’s food, they realize their acre of land shouldn’t be
planted in corn again—if they can help it.

From the web site, Docurama Films.

Engrossing and eye-opening, KING CORN is a fun and crusading journey into
the digestive tract of our fast food nation where one ultra-industrial,
pesticide-laden, heavily-subsidized commodity dominates the food
pyramid from top to bottom – corn. Fueled by curiosity and a dash of
naiveté, college buddies Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis return to their
ancestral home of Greene, Iowa to figure out how the modest kernel
conquered America.

From the web site, Food Democracy.

There is legislative logic to the flood of cheap corn-based foods. In
2005, federal subsidies spent $9.4 billion in taxpayer money to promote
corn production. For Iowa farmers, these payments often mean the
difference between profit and loss on a given acre. With subsidies
promoting production beyond market demand, the raw materials for an
obesity epidemic are readily at hand.

From the web site, Eco Streaming.

My father calls this part of the U.S. “God’s Country”. And I do believe
that he is correct. It is an amazing place in our country, and in the
world. But now the corn grown there is not for us to feast on as it used
to be.  It is used primarily for manufactured sweeteners and animal
feed. You can learn more about this when you see the film by two young
men determined to discover the genesis and path of our food production.
They set out on a journey to grow one acre of corn, and they learned
more than they ever knew they would. See King Corn. You can rent it at your local video store. It is worth a watch.

From the web site, Groundswell.

Live from the Union Square subway:  A big food message that tips its hat to changing consumer perception.  When I saw this poster, the first thing I thought of was the film King Corn
The filmmakers explain that grass-fed cows used to take 2-3 years to
get fat and ready for our beef consumption.  Once we started feeding
them corn, however, they got to the same weight in just 15 months
By changing the diet of our cows, we’re forcing them into false
maturation.  With this, and so many of our industrial food ways, we
wrestle nature into the ground.

From the web site, Abagond.

Things I liked about the film:

  • They talked to Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, a book I have. Cool.
  • Professors talking in measured tones about terrible things.
  • The public relations woman for a high fructose corn syrup plant was suitably reptilian.
  • They put on safety glasses and made their own high fructose corn syrup, sulfuric acid and all.

From the web site,  The Public Amateur. (If you want a cinema based analysis of the film this is where to go.)

On the odyssey of the pilgrim researcher, many experts are consulted. In the set up they visit a lab where they have their hair analyzed to get the data version of the typical American eater. Yup, the hair speaks counter-intuitive truth to reason: a diet of soda and hamburgers and snack foods delivers what they suspected: the main ingredient in their hair is corn. Look in the bioinformatic mirror and you read what you eat/are.

One of the strengths of the film is their respect for the Iowa farmers they encounter. They don’t assume anything about their informants’ lives, opinions or class affiliation. They refrain from interpreting and judging what they learn, but the knowledge they acquire complicates the decisions they have to make. And despite their restraint, those complications are ethical ones.

From the web site, BE: Nutrifit.

King Corn is a documentary about two men, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, who
study where their food comes from.  The film begins with the
realization that corn is in most of our foods and that it is one of the
most productive and most subsidized grains in the United States.  Iowa
alone produces 2 trillion corn crops which is the largest in American
history and is enough to feed the entire United States (Wolfe, Cheney,
Ellis, & Miller, 2012).  Ian and Curt move to Iowa to plant their
own crop of corn and then follow it through the food system.  They end
up raising all sorts of questions about the food we eat, how it is
farmed, and what happens to it after the harvest.

From the web site, The New Home Economics.

It’s just amazing to see how much Earl Butz‘s farm policy in the 1970s, which I’m sure he enacted with really good intentions, has changed family farms, our health, and our environment, and all for the worse.  Does that mean the old farm policy of the 50s and 60s would work now?  I don’t know.  But something has got to give, and the farmers in the documentary were in agreement that the ridiculous amounts of corn they produce are, well, ridiculous.

I wish I knew what the solution was.  Simply educating consumers to make informed choices is a start, but I just don’t think it’s enough, not when our government is pouring giant subsidies on a crop that no one can eat.

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Josh Fox Under Attack

Josh Fox Under Attack

“They’re the Birthers of Fracking.” A Conversation with Josh Fox.

Earlier this week, a group of House Republicans were treated to a screening of FrackNation—a KickStarter’d documentary that aims to debunk the Oscar-nominated, fracking-skeptical Gasland. I reported a bit on the screening (which ended with free DVDs for attendees) and reviewed the movie, paying notice to how filmmaker Phelim McAleer appeared to frazzle Gasland director Josh Fox. Early in the film, McAleer shows up at a Q&A with Fox and asks him why his movie didn’t explain that methane has been in some water supplies for years, and that shocking video of water being lit on fire wasn’t as shocking as it looked. Fox asks for McAleer’s credentials and calls the question “irrelevent.” McAleer, duly inspired, makes a movie.

It’s a bit much, says Fox. “I gave the guy, not knowing who he was, a long, academic answer,” he explains. “I’d just gotten off the plane, and I just found out somebody robbed my house! I wasn’t thinking about it in a media context, and unfortunately there was nobody else in the room taping. So they pulled a kind of Shirley Sherrod thing where they completely misrepresented the Q&A session.”

Since making Gasland, Fox has become a sought-after speaker and activist for the anti-fracking movement. With that comes criticism, and with that occasional, judicious pushback against the allegation that the water-on-fire scene is misleading. “I’d been asked the same questions before, and answered them before,” says Fox. “I’ve been part of something like 250 debates around the U.S. and the world. At almost every one, some oil and gas shill says something like this. They’re the birthers of fracking. This argument about biogemic and thermogenic gas is one of the things that the oil and the gas industry brings up as a distraction. Both biogenic and thermogenic gas can be released by drilling, and the industry says so.”

“They’re the Birthers of Fracking.” A Conversation with Josh Fox.


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I Showed the Documentary, Gasland, Today

Films receive a wide variety of responses in the college classroom. The response to Gasland was excellent. The class paid careful attention, had good questions and comments. I knew of the film but did not intend to use it in class. My Tuesday-Thursday class actually asked to see it. So, I read up on it, and it struck me as useful. I’ve shown it in three classes now with the same positive results in each class.

Josh Fox

This is a Josh Fox film. The first time you see it, you are shocked by his story of unregulated drilling of natural gas known as fracking. But is only the second time, you realize the skill of our documentarian. The film never sags. It always keeps the audience engaged. The film is well paced and its plotline beautifully constructed. I’ll be watching for any of his films in the future. It may well be that his work will grow in skill as time goes by.

It is troubling to consider that for most of us, Josh Fox is our only defense against the practice of fracking. Only a handful of states regulate it, and the response of most of officialdom to complaints is basically to drop dead.

You see, an act of Congress relieved the giant energy companies of the need to comply with federal environmental laws. Federal agencies aren’t even allowed to study what the companies are doing. We only have partial knowledge of the chemicals being used, and the very fact that these companies essentially placed themselves outside the law through a compliant Congress raises suspicions of their motives.

I think until strong regulation is enacted to deal with the fracking problem, I will be using the film in class.

Below is a link to the web address for Josh Fox’s film, Gasland.


And here is the link for the trailer.


Here is the link to buy it on


I recommend it for classroom use at the college level.

James Pilant

Tapwater that ignites.
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Andrew Comments On My Post, Gasland – The Documentary

Andrew Gates once again provides his usual intelligent commentary to one of my postings, in this case, Gasland – The Documentary.

These companies will DEFINITELY take advantage of land owners in a second if they can.

My paternal ancestors were coal miners from Kentucky. My great grandfather worked for the mining company for a very long time. When he retired, the company gave him a piece of land on one of the mountains (that they thought was worthless, of course) that they owned. That was sort of a tradition back in that time.

Anyways, about 10 years after he retired, another company comes to him and says that they found more coal on that mountain and that they wanted his permission to mine the coal from under his property. They offered him a fixed amount per month for the rights to mine.

My great grandfather, being a veteran of the mining industry, knew that the company would mine the coal as quickly as possible without regard to his property, so that they would only have to pay him a few thousand dollars for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of coal.

So my great grandfather told them that he would not give them rights to mine unless they paid him a fixed amount per ton of coal that was mined from his property. The company did NOT like those terms and tried everything in the book to get around it, but eventually they caved and accepted his terms. Because the company gave him so much grief about the terms of the mining deal, he also forced them to pay him a fee for every truck that went up and down HIS road to the mountain.

Its always a good story to tell to people who think that one man cant stand up to a large company.

I’m glad for the comment. There is no one in my family that has that kind of experience. (Pilants tend to be ministers, teachers and farmers although on rare occasions they may be found as Internet bloggers.)

Here’s another preview of Gasland:

Gasland – The Documentary

From the Huffington Post

Josh Fox’s home sits in the woods of Milanville, Pennsylvania, near the rushing waters of the Delaware River. In May 2008, a strange letter appeared in his mailbox. A natural gas company was offering him $100,000 if he granted them permission to drill on his property.

Instead of signing, Fox decided to investigate. Armed with a video camera and a banjo, he set off on a journey up and down the Marcellus Shale, a massive reserve of natural gas that stretches 600 miles from Pennsylvania to Maryland, Virginia and into Tennessee. Known as the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” the shale contains billions of dollars in untapped fuel.

Fox wanted to know: What happened to other families who agreed to drilling on their property?

What he found was a heartbreaking collection of severely ill families whose aquifers had become so tainted by the gas, they could literally light their tap water on fire. He edited his footage into a modest documentary, Gasland, which was soon embraced by outraged viewers across the country. It won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, the Lennon-Ono Peace Prize, and now has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.

I was reading about the Academy Award nominations when I came across this film. I read up on it. I find it compelling, it’s a moving story about real people who lose the right to have clean water.

James Pilant