The Army's Stomach
War is indispensible as a subject of newsreels, but it does not often find favour as the subject of creative documentary. The reason is perhaps that it is too difficult a subject to do justice to. There is the danger that tackling war head on – e.g. dealing with it explicitly using archival footage – would turn the effort into some sort of exploitation because stark images of war are readily consumed, without attention to what the film might actually be wanting to say. The best method for dealing with war is perhaps to focus on smaller but crucial issues relating to it, thereby commenting on the organized violence of war and man’s inhumanity in a more covert way. Georges Franju’s Hotel des Invalides (1952), for instance, is a classic short documentary that deals with war by looking at how it is remembered in a museum.
“An army marches on its stomach,” declared Napoleon Bonaparte famously, and the director of Cooking History was perhaps inspired by this because what he does is to look at several modern military engagements through the eyes of military chefs. Peter Kerekes is a young Czech filmmaker and he deals with war throughthe characteristic lack of solemnity that appears to mark the nation’s outlook when it deals with the subject, Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky, 1966) perhaps being the archetypal example – although Menzel’s is a fiction film. Cooking History achievesits effects in several ways and its ‘irreverence’ is emphasised by the mock Wagner on the soundtrack, featuring as ‘theme’.The military engagements that Kerekes deals with are; the Russian in Chechnya, Hungary and Czechoslovakia; the Germans in Russia during World War II; the French in Algeria and the fighting between the Serbs and Croatians after Josip Broz Tito’s death and the fallof Yugoslavia. Kerekes goes about his task interviewing military chefs on the logistics of providing food (mostly) to invading armies. Many of the chefs are now very old, but Kerekes gets them to reflect on the horrors of war, although their memories are always refracted through the notionof food. What makes Cooking History so inventive are the visual parallels the filmmaker draws, for instance, between the making of ‘Coq au Vin’ by a French chef recollecting Algeria – in which the final touch is administered by the chicken being soaked in wine and set alight – with French soldiers blowing up a rebel hideout. There is also a comparison between what a chef does to a dead chicken – cutting its head off and disembowelling it – to what soldiers on opposite sides do to each other. In one of the final segments, a chef who once worked on a submarine demonstrates what it is like to cook on a sinking sub. The chef is on a beach during the interview – during which he also cooks – and, as the tide rises and submerges the beach, his equipment is gradually floating and the pieces ofmeat descend to the bottom of the water to be eaten by crabs. The chef also announces the number of drowned sailors at this moment and we get an almost visceral sense of how the same crabs might once have treated dead sailors. ‘Meat is meat eventually’, the film blandly suggests, whether they belong to a slaughtered cow or to a drowned sailor. One of the key interviewees in the film is Tito’s personal chef who oversaw the nutritional aspects of the Yugoslav leader’s daily life, and the film includes some extraordinary footage of guests being entertained by the leader. Among them are not only leaders of the non-aligned movement like Fidel Castro, but also others like the young Saddam Hussein who later went on to great infamy and also to historical tragedy. Since this is intercut with the almost banal outpourings of the nutritionist, the film also becomes an acidic commentary on how those who play a part in the actual workings of history – like providing food at the most crucial moments – often have no clue as to what history is all about or about how it is being writtenunder their noses – with manycompletely oblivious to everything except their given tasks. All these things are put together by Kerekes as a series of distinct chapters with a summary presented at the conclusion of each one – as a bill for food materials – so many tons of port, so much paprika and so on – with each summary concluding with ‘a pinch of salt’. What makes Cooking History such a welcome addition to the documentary film is perhaps its understanding that, regardless of the seriousness of the subject matter, a film’s primary obligation is to cinema. Documentary filmmakers dealing with war may decide on the moralist’s approach to the subject, but it is perhaps the cineaste’s view that will be more helpful. It can be asserted without hesitation that Peter Kerekes’ Cooking History will take the genre of the war documentary forward owingto its intelligence and creative appeal.
Edited by Tara Judah
© FIPRESCI 2009