Finding North: Sundance Review

"Finding North" director and producer Lori Silverbush.
Impassioned doc examines the reemergence of widespread hunger in U.S.

Although technically adept, this hunger documentary displays little stylistic originality.

PARK CITY -- Social-issue docs are a mainstay of the Sundance Film Festival and there are few issues of greater immediacy than the resurgence of hunger in America.

According to the film’s statistics, one in six Americans still doesn’t get enough to eat on a regular basis and half of children will receive federal supplemental nutrition assistance at some point in their youth. As staggering as these statistics may be, Finding North only occasionally evinces the urgency necessary to motivate real social change. The best prospects for the 80-minute film’s further exposure reside with cable and public TV broadcast, which would net a broader audience than theatrical distribution.

A companion activist campaign supported online by Participant Media will also boost awareness and support. Producer-directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush source most of their material for the film from a series of interviews with academics, activists, experts and authors (including “Top Chef” Tom Colicchio) on food production and distribution, as well as several case studies, including profiles of a single Philadelphia woman with two kids, a rural Colorado family and a Mississippi single mother with an asthmatic second-grade daughter.

The filmmakers make the case that widespread hunger in the U.S. was essentially eliminated by the late 70s, but now more than 49 million Americans (including 25 percent of children) are considered “food insecure” –- uncertain of where their next meal will be coming from due to insufficient resources. Federal nutrition programs like food stamps, public-school lunches and supplemental support are deemed inadequate to meet current consumers’ food needs because reimbursements haven’t kept pace with the cost of living.

Instead, community food banks, soup kitchens and faith organizations have attempted to fill the gap, but are finding the ranks of hungry families increasing. The filmmakers contend that children are bearing the brunt of the malnutrition upswing, which is directly affecting their health and ability to focus in school. At the same time that many people are going hungry, obesity rates are soaring in the U.S., especially among kids. Experts indicate that distortions in government crop subsidy programs have resulted in the widespread production of foods that are high in caloric content but low in nutritional value.

The filmmakers cite figures estimating that the absence of healthy diets generates $167 billion in associated costs annually for the U.S. economy. This is the cruel dilemma for millions of the “99 percent” -- with only minimal income that nevertheless puts them above poverty thresholds for government assistance, the working poor continually struggle to get by. Interview subjects speculate that one reason widespread hunger may often go unnoticed is because of the humiliation and powerlessness that many hungry families feel when seeking assistance.

Actor Jeff Bridges, founder of the End Hunger Network, issues a rallying cry: "It’s about patriotism really,” he says in an interview. “Do you envision a country where one in four of the kids are hungry?” In the final analysis, the fundamental force driving widespread hunger appears to be poverty. With falling incomes, increasing unemployment and rising costs for healthy foods, many Americans are turning to government and charitable assistance more often than ever before to make ends meet and when those resources are unavailable, many are going without.

Addressing the issue of hunger in America is certainly complex and doubtless requires innovative initiatives by both policymakers and the impoverished to find solutions. Recommended fixes include increased government food assistance and better-targeted food education programs, but individual strategies that could benefit disadvantaged families are given short shrift. The filmmakers’ straightforward documentary approach, although technically adept, displays little stylistic originality -– talking heads alternate with first-person interviews that demonstrate the personal impacts of often-impersonal government policies and animated segments enliven dry statistical data.

Original songs and music by T Bone Burnett and The Civil Wars tend toward the forlorn rather than hopeful. The film’s title apparently originates from the filmmakers’ conviction that Americans have lost their moral compass and need to find new direction on hunger issues.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition
Production companies: Participant Media Presents a Catalyst Films/Silverbush Production
Directors: Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush
Producers: Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush, Julie Goldman, Ryan Harrington<
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Tom Colicchio, Christina Weiss Lurie, Jeffrey Lurie
Directors of photography: Daniel B. Gold, Kirsten Johnson
Music: T Bone Burnett and The Civil Wars
Editors: Madeleine Gavin, Jean Tsien, Andrea B. Scott
Sales: Submarine
No rating, 80 minutes