Directed by: Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush
Premise: A documentary about hunger in America. According to the filmmakers, malnourishment among Americans has gotten worse over the past thirty years, due in large part to decreasing government assistance and agricultural subsidies that incentivize unhealthy food.
What Works: A Place at the Table is an activist documentary like the work of Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald and it mostly succeeds in its goals. The picture intends to impress upon the viewer the seriousness of hunger in America and it does that with an appropriate mix of logical and emotional appeals. The sources are credible and the filmmakers effectively distill three decades of information into an eighty-four minute documentary. Hunger and malnutrition exist in a broader context of poverty, economics, and politics and the film provides that framework, at least in shorthand. As part of that context, A Place at the Table also includes a wide array of voices, including families in rural and urban communities and of a variety of ethnic backgrounds. This gives the picture a broad scope and conveys how widespread malnutrition is across the country. The moviemakers also deserve credit in the way they restrain their pathos appeals. Activist documentaries tend to overplay the moral or emotional aspects of their argument and a film like this could quite easily become obnoxious like the television commercials for UNICEF and Childfund. The filmmakers of A Place at the Table document the failure to care for the needy and let the evidence and the interviewees speak for themselves without ostentatious cinematic techniques.
What Doesn’t: Activist documentaries like A Place at the Table have two objectives to fulfill in order to be successful. First, the filmmakers must lay out a narrative about their chosen social problem in a way that tells the audience what caused it and who is responsible. Second, the filmmakers have to offer a solution. On the first count, A Place at the Table is generally successful and the filmmakers are able to caricature the problem of malnourishment in America. However, they are less successful in offering a solution. The filmmakers believe that government programs are the answer to the problem of hunger but they also demonstrate that individuals in government are unwilling or unable to allocate the necessary resources to those programs. This deflates the rhetorical push of the movie and it isn’t motivating or empowering in the way of more successful documentaries like Sicko and Food, Inc. The movie also has a very limited point of view. The filmmakers take for granted that society has an obligation to feed the hungry and they settle on governmental solutions without entertaining other options, even for the purpose of showing how inadequate they are. A Place at the Table would have benefitted from a more robust dialogue within the picture, as it would demonstrate more concretely why government must be part of the solution. It is also notable that the filmmakers largely ignore the notion of personal responsibility. Among the common denominators of the families profiled in A Place at the Table, nearly all are single parent households whose children suffer because their parents don’t have the resources to feed them. The filmmakers see these people as victims of circumstance as opposed to dealing with the consequences of their own choices and since the documentarians do not provide detailed biographies this becomes a serious rhetorical weakness of the movie.
Bottom Line: A Place at the Table is a useful primer on the seriousness of hunger in America. The picture comes up short as an argument for government involvement but it is a very watchable and well-made film.
Episode: #436 (April 28, 2013)