I’m very biased: I consider the filmmaker and several of the film’s characters to be good friends. But one of the reasons behind our friendship comes from the great deal of insight I’ve gained from knowing and working with them.
Spoiler alert: Like all good stories, this film gives us a problem, an apparent solution, an arising conflict and finally a resolution. But unlike all good reviewers, I’m going to talk a bit about the latter elements of the story as well as the former. So if you’d rather watch it an be held in suspense, please stop reading at the point (just below the screenshots) where I say ‘I have only one criticism’…
BUGS tells the story of a gastronomic research project: the team at Nordic Food Lab (the non-profit research arm of Michelin-starred restaurant Noma in Copenhagen) secured funding from the Velux Foundation to travel the world for three years investigating the deliciousness of edible insects. Along the way, they share their optimism, curiosity and joy with many, yet ultimately end up tormented by the inadequacy of their original vision.
In the film, Josh, Ben and Roberto take us on a journey spanning six continents and many fascinating humans and insects. I can’t comment reliably upon the main characters in Bugs, because obviously I think they’re wonderful. But I can say with confidence that they’re personable yet genuine. Having seen Andreas (the director/producer) in action, I know that he worked hard to ensure that the people caught in his lens were habituated to his unintrusive presence, allowing him to capture moments of excitement, conflict and disillusionment without gloss or pretence.
This is not a film that tells the world to eat more insects. It’s a film that tells the world to think more deeply.
I love BUGS primarily because for me, it ticks all the boxes: Visually, it is mostly beautiful and perhaps occasionally disgusting. Tonally, it makes me giggle at times, and makes me sigh despondently at others. Intellectually, it has moments that expose characters’ utter obliviousness alongside their deeper thoughts, conflicts and insights.
So it hits all the extremes, and never strays toward mediocrity.
I have only one criticism.
While BUGS certainly goes a lot deeper than any other publicly-distributed edible insect feature I’ve seen or read, I do think that at some points, it could go a little further.
In one memorable scene, Ben poses a rhetorical question in a conversation with an African smallholder: ‘Like, who cares how much money you’ve got in the bank account if you’ve got really tasty food in the garden?’
Josh replies with, ‘It’s easy for us to say that, because we already have that … for a lot of people who don’t - the grass is greener.’
I think this is a very salient point, and one that I'd like to expand on.
...Have you ever lived as a smallholder farmer in a developing country with delicious food in the garden?
While many rural farmers with biodiverse smallholdings do indeed have access to delicious food, the majority of them—those I know at least—aren’t satisfied with that.
In a culturally diverse world, they’re not particularly proud of being the world’s rice basket, despite attempts to aggrandise this image of rural smallholders. In practice, many farmers have aspirations for their children and grandchildren that go beyond primary food production. They wish to see their descendants flourish in a world that offers a range of knowledge, choice and opportunity beyond their own experience.
However, this hardly means they all want to produce and eat industrial-scale freeze-dried mealworms to make their dreams possible! Fortunately, there is no ultimatum between multi-national monoculture and pastoral poverty. There are always more than two options.
I don't believe that we should be telling the other 50%, Marie-Antoinette-style, what will bring them happiness and prosperity. After all, it’s our accumulation of wealth and assets that makes their extreme poverty possible in the first place.
Instead, if we believe in the power of insects, or any food, to change the world, perhaps we should start foraging for them, farming them and eating them ourselves, too. Perhaps the real potential of the edible insects movement lies in a greater connection to the – cultural, political and ecological - environment around us. And perhaps watching BUGS is a good place to start - it's a beautiful reminder of this environment and its complexities, and a provocative conversation starter.
I've been told there are plans for a follow up series that will look at some of these issues in more depth. Which is great news, because BUGS also gives us a sense of some fascinating stories that lie behind the footage that made it to the final cut, and I'd love to find out more about them.
Meanwhile, if you're interested and want to know more, there are some great ideas and info about insect foraging at www.bugsfeed.com.