In Depth

PBS, ‘Independent Lens’: ‘King Corn’

The question the film “King Corn” wanted to answer was simple: Where does our food come from? The answer was complex and sprawling, but it was made easier to digest by the storytelling, which the Peabody judges said started off “like a post-grad goof.”

College buddies Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, the film’s co-producers and stars, set off for Greene, Iowa, with Mr. Ellis’ cousin Aaron Woolf, the film’s director and producer. There they leased an acre of land and planted it with corn, with the intention of following their crop to market.

Through the course of a year, they navigated federal subsidies (about $28 in their case), attempted to make high-fructose corn syrup in their kitchen and chronicled the transformation of family farms into high-yield industrial operations whose owners don’t eat their own product, instead sending it to be transformed into liquid sweetener and to plump cows that can’t easily digest it.

The three filmmakers, whose film aired as part of PBS’ “Independent Lens” series, had ancestors in the town. That allowed them to frame a narrative from their great-grandparents’ generation, where producing food was costly and time-consuming and efficiencies were highly sought-after, to that of Mr. Ellis and Mr. Cheney, whose “is the first to have the threat of a shorter lifespan, largely because of what they eat,” said Mr. Woolf, at 44 the eldest of the group.

The “light-bulb moment,” he said, came when the group realized that the Iowa farmers, who warmly received them, “knew as little about where their food went as we know about where our food came from.”

While they didn’t set out to change the food system, Mr. Woolf said, the experience left all of them caring deeply about the issue. Mr. Ellis is currently an IATP Food and Society Fellow, while Mr. Cheney is making films on environmental causes. Mr. Woolf, in addition to working on a PBS documentary about infrastructure, helped found the grassroots organization Food Democracy Now! and is part owner of a Brooklyn grocery, Urban Rustic, which sells locally sourced and organic food.

As a documentarian, “You’re living this observatory life,” Mr. Woolf said. “I think I had a yearning to do something participatory as well.”