Docs from the Past: ‘Ilha das Flores’

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Jessica LeeInspired by the growing number of docs about food that have been coming out lately, POV staffer Jessica Lee recently took another look at an older film that inspired her.

Recent documentaries such as The Price of Sugar, King Corn, and Black Gold address how food is inextricably linked to politics and social justice. For those interested in watching an older film that takes a look at the business and politics of food, check out Ilha das Flores, a 13-minute 1989 documentary short by Brazilian filmmaker Jorge Furtado.

I had never heard of Ilha das Flores before I saw it as a student in a film course. I found the film affecting and provocative, and when I did some research about it, I learned that it was both critically acclaimed and very well known. The film won the Silver Bear award at the 1990 Berlin Film Festival, and in a show of populist acclaim, IMDB users voted it one of the top 50 documentaries of all time (as of January 28, 2008 it was ranked #11).

Ilha das Flores is ironically structured like a high school science film: it features dry narration, clever but boring diagrams and explanations of the most basic concepts like humans, or vegetables or money. At first, it’s hard to tell where the film is going. But then you realize that the film’s trajectory follows the life of a tomato, starting from its cultivation and growth. You follow the tomato to the supermarket, to the kitchen of a middle class family, to the garbage, to a pig farm, and eventually to a dump on an island called “Ilha das Flores,” which translates to “Isle of Flowers.” The island is a Brazilian municipality that houses landfills, and is inhabited by impoverished families who have nothing to eat but garbage. As the film comes to an end, you realize that along with showing the trajectory of the tomato, the film has expressed a powerful social commentary about food, capitalism and politics.

Watching Ilha das Flores was one of the first times I witnessed a personalized view of a very depersonalized system. Just as food justice and food politics encourage us to think about what we eat, where it came from and who produced it, well-made documentaries like Ilha das Flores push us to look at how we fit into larger political and socio-economic structures, and how our way of life affects everything. In regular fiction films, if you see something upsetting or wildly unfeasible, you can always say, “Well, it’s just a movie.” But with documentaries, you can never make that statement. The final images of Ilha das Flores — of people eating garbage that had been deemed too spoiled for pigs — is indeed shocking, but for me, it is the natural conclusion to a linear argument. The film has been condemned as sensationalist, but I think that it is a depiction of an uncomfortable truth; there really are people who are so impoverished that they are forced to eat garbage, in Brazil, here in America and in other places around the world.

Watching Ilhas das Flores again, I was reminded of the power of documentaries, and the ways in which they can affect each and every one of us. In 1998, filmmaker Arthur Dong‘s Licensed to Kill (POV 1998) showed us portraits of imprisoned men whose attitudes towards homosexuality led them to murder. Dong said that he made the film to show how “normal” and everyday the murderers are, and to reminder viewers that the subject matter isn’t one that they can …shut away and say ‘Oh, that’s not us.’” Ilhas das Flores, like Licensed to Kill, reminds us that there are stories that we can’t shut away, because they are a part of the world we live in. It makes us re-examine and question the complex relationships between human beings and the systems that we create.

Jessica Lee
Jessica Lee
Jessica Lee was a former Outreach and Development Manager for POV.
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