Award-winning film “Modified” is beautiful beyond words — a review
It’s August 2002 and Aube Giroux is following her mother, Jali, through the leafy maze of her prized vegetable garden. Jali Giroux is on her hands and knees, digging into the soil with her bare hands to harvest potatoes and remarking that it is like giving birth, reaching deep into the soil to pull out the tubers this way.
The younger Giroux, at this point in her early twenties, is recording it all on her very first video camera. Her mother agrees to be filmed, but admonishes her daughter, “Just don’t film my big butt.”
“My film isn’t about your big butt,” replies Aube. “It’s about onions and potatoes. And the garlic.” Then, as an afterthought, she adds, “Your butt isn’t that big.”
Video clips like these, which capture the lighthearted but deeply affectionate exchanges between mother and daughter over the years, are interwoven into the powerful and poignant 2017 documentary film by Aube Giroux, “Modified.” They offer welcome interludes and glimpses into the warmth and wisdom of the woman in whose garden Giroux learned to love food, the woman who inspired her to take on this ambitious film project, which has taken her more than a decade to complete.
Despite what Giroux says to her mother in that clip though, this remarkable film that she wrote, directed, produced and narrated, is about much, much more than onions, potatoes and garlic.
It’s about her mother, who instilled in her the conviction that a great recipe starts not in the kitchen but outside, in a healthy garden planted with diverse crops and seeds.
It’s also about food in all its beauty. The time, love, dedication and emotion that went into this film are evident in its splendid interplay of stories, images and interviews that blend into each other as smoothly as the flour, eggs and cream that Giroux, a farm-to-table video blogger whose work appears on PBS, mixes together to prepare the Homemade Nettle Fettucine Alfredo, one of ten delectable recipes featured in the film to showcase her love of slow, nutritious and healthy food.
But most remarkable of all is the fact that all of these cinematographic ingredients fit so perfectly in a film that at its heart, is concerned primarily with genetically modified crops (GMOs) and how they are — or rather are not — regulated in North America. It raises questions about the way that large companies have seized control of seed markets around the world by patenting seeds, and about promises that the use of GMOs would result in higher yields and lower pesticide use.
Ingenious creative touches abound in this film; Giroux uses an audio clip from a 2001 episode of CBC’s science program, Quirks and Quarks, to recap how widespread concern in Canada about the way GMOs had been introduced to the country in 1996, without regulation or adequate labelling, led the government of the day to enlist the Royal Society of Canada to study the issue. The 2001 Royal Society report came up with 53 recommendations for regulating GMOs, only two of which were ever implemented.
Giroux also interviews the co-chair of the Royal Society’s Biotechnology Expert Panel, Dr. Conrad Brunk, who points out that there is a fundamental problem with the science that Health Canada uses to determine how to regulate — or not to regulate — GMOs. The studies are undertaken and submitted by industry, and so are not peer-reviewed. This is not how genuine science is done.
What was meant to be a film about food, Giroux says, eventually “became a film about democracy and about who gets to make our food policies — our elected officials or corporations and lobbyists.”
Compelling and compassionate
With such a weighty subject as its focus, it is a testament to Giroux’s deft story-telling that “Modified” is so compelling and compassionate, and that it can evoke such a range of emotions. This film made me smile, laugh, weep, feel the urge to throttle a couple of people, and to hug a few more.
The clips of Giroux and her mother preparing meals and desserts are mouth-watering and heart-warming.
Not so the footage of Giroux on the phone with media relations from Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, trying (in vain) to get an interview with someone who can speak with her about how GMOs are regulated in Canada. As infuriating as it is, the incredibly diligent, patient and persistent filmmaker keeps her frustration in check through it all. When “Suzanne” from Health Canada finally informs her that there is “nothing more we can do for you”(when in fact they have done nothing for her at all except give her the royal run-around), she does point out, politely, that this is a tax-funded regulatory body and that this should be public information. But in Canada, apparently it is not.
Giroux is a gifted investigative journalist and filmmaker. She leaves no stone unturned in her determination to find out why GMOs are neither labelled nor adequately regulated in North America, when they are banned in 38 countries and clearly labelled in 64. She takes us to France, to hear from anti-GMO farmers and protesters, across the United States to meet with scientists and farmers concerned about the lack of transparency surrounding the research of GMOs, particularly the long-term effects of genetically modified crops on food sovereignty and of herbicides used on fields of GMOs.
The film details how industry lobbying foiled attempts in California and in Canada to pass legislation that would make labelling of GMOs mandatory . And it brings to the screen globally respected scientists and activists, including renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, and Rachel Parent, founder of Kids Right to Know.
Farmers and independent scientists debunk industry claims that GMOs will feed the planet, lead to increased yields and decreased use of pesticides. Rather, according to studies Giroux cites, yields have not gone up while pesticide use has.
Into this meticulously researched and masterfully developed narrative of how governments in North America have been captured by agrochemical giants, Giroux weaves the deeply moving personal story of her mother’s never-ending struggle to protect seed and food sovereignty from corporate takeover, and then, when she was fifty-six, her diagnosis with cancer, and finally her death. The film left me with tears rolling down my face that had still not dried when the final credits had finished.
In importance and relevance, this documentary ranks alongside other crucially important films about our food and food systems in recent years, including the Oscar-nominated Food Inc., Cowspiracy and The World According to Monsanto. It has already earned five awards at film festivals in Canada, and brought audiences to their feet in standing ovations at each of those. “Modified” will be making its US debut at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on February 1 at 4 PM and February 2 at 10:20 AM at the Fiesta 5 Theatre in Santa Barbara, California.
For anyone who cares about what they put in their mouth, where it comes from and how it is produced — and I would like to think that is all of us — this film is a must-see. It is also beautiful beyond words.