Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis smiling in front of a dense cornfield

A man in a black jacket standing in front of a tree
Aaron Woolf

Filmmaker Statement

KING CORN began with a simple idea—we wanted to find out where our food came from. The initial surprise of course was that so much of our food came from corn.

From a storytelling standpoint, I was particularly engaged with this idea. The story of corn is one that is deeply written into our national mythology. From earliest childhood we are raised with stories of Native Americans greeting pilgrims on Massachusetts shores with armfuls of corn. Hollywood reinforces our affection for the crop by depicting the heartland in countless films as an endless landscape of gentle rolling hills, planted in neat rows of tall green cornstalks.

I first found corn when, like the plant itself, I moved from where I was living in Mexico to Iowa 18 years ago, to study film. I loved the Iowa landscape, and would ride my motorcycle through the fields, implausibly comforted by the notion that if I crashed, I would somehow be safe in those green rows. During those long rides, though, it never occurred to me that those plants would someday be the focus of a film that I would make, or that there was trouble growing in that rich soil.

Two men, one in a red shirt and one in a blue shirt, sitting in the middle of an empty field
Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis

It was through my younger cousin Curtis and his best friend Ian that I first began to hear about the tie between our agriculture and our troubled food system. They had studied the food economy and rural life in college, and we were all alarmed to discover that the American diet now threatened to make theirs into the first generation in our nation’s history with a diminished life expectancy.

But none of us understood the connection well. It was the fact that corn had quietly become the base ingredient for so many of our processed, packaged and least nutritional foods that lead us to the initial question in KING CORN: what would happen if we went back to the source of those foods, then tried to trace the course corn traveled into our meals. The revelation that Ian and Curt shared a family history in Iowa set in motion the entire project, and offered a level of access to the farming community that we were privileged to have.

We found solidarity in Greene, Iowa, with the distant cousins and new friends there who often had as many concerns as we did about the present system of food production. Our year spent growing and following corn became a shared project between us and our Iowa hosts, and among the most resonant revelations we took away was that the health of our food is profoundly connected to the health of our rural communities.

In this same spirit, I feel that the seeds of an improved food economy and food culture will come from forging reconnections everywhere––between farmers and consumers at produce markets and in CSA subscription farms; between constituents and legislators collaborating on an agricultural policy that makes us healthy; between eaters and the food we eat. I hope KING CORN can be a small part of helping these conversations and connections grow.

—Aaron Woolf

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