Setting the table: Wakefield Doc Fest weekend features film about food and friendship

Diners commune over food in a scene from Theater of Life by Peter Svatek. Photo: Courtesy the National Film Board.

The Czech-born, Montreal raised film-maker Peter Svatek is known for making documentaries with a strong social focus. His latest film, Theater of Life, is a co-production with the National Film Board of Canada and Triplex Films.

It examines the work of the Italian chef Massimo Bottura, who has turned food waste into a way to feed the poor and hungry through a soup kitchen he founded in Milan, Italy in 2015 as part of an exposition. He enlisted 60 other chefs to join him in theRefettorio Ambrosiano’s effort to repurpose food left uneaten during the Expo. The idea is now moving around the planet. Bottura is one of the best known chefs in the world and his restaurant Osteria Francescana was named the world’s best in 2016.

The award winning documentary, though, is about much more than the soup kitchen. It is also about the people who were helped by the kitchen … the poor, the drug addicted, the dispossessed. It tells their stories too. Theater of Life is an award winning documentary and it will be screened in Wakefield this weekend as part of an emerging second fall series for the very successful film festival that takes place every February. Svatek talked about his career and his film in this email interview with ARTSFILE.

Q. Your career in film has been quite varied. Where does it begin and how?

A. Like a lot of film-makers of my generation on my Dad’s 8mm movie camera in Montreal.

Q. Although your career is varied, you have chosen to focus on documentary I believe. Why does that media work for you?

A. People like to put you in a box. I don’t. I love my ‘varied’ career. Fiction, doc, TV, movie theatres. I’m curious, restless, practical. One of my favourite fiction film-makers is (the Polish director Krzysztof) Kieslowski. He started out making docs and turned to fiction. When asked why he’d say because glycerine is more decent, less intrusive, more humane than real tears. I get it. Nevertheless, as you suggest, my voyage has gone in the opposite direction. Having done my share of work for hire in fiction, I love the reality, intimacy, social relevancy and less bullshit-ness of doc.

Q. Tell me a bit about your company Triplex Films. Where does the name come from?

A. My wife Josette Gauthier never wanted to do fiction. She was always into doc. I encouraged her to start her own company and she asked me to get involved. Originally we had a third partner, Bill Litwack – hence Triplex Films.

Q. When you choose a subject, what catches your eye? What are you looking for?

A. I’ve discovered my subject over time. It is compassion.

Q. Why did you decide to film Theatre of Life?

A. Chance, more or less. Massimo Bottura is from Modena. My stepdaughter was living in Modena with her husband, a Modenese like Massimo. They know each other. 

Chef Bottura greets his guests. Photo: Courtesy the National Film Board.

Q. What is your impression of the man who started it all Massimo Bottura and his creation the Refettorio Ambrosiano?

A. Most people don’t become worldwide successes without wanting it. Massimo certainly does, but he arrived at a point in his life where he was looking for something more than continuing to create and serve amazing food to the wealthy. I began with some skepticism. Was he just out to polish his own star? As I followed his project I came to admire it and him. He really didn’t need to do it and in a lot of ways, it has changed him. To some degree, the film documents that, but it was not the subject that truly interested me.

Q. The chefs in the film take wasted food and turn it into meals for the hungry. The idea has caught on and is being recreated in other communities? Why do think this is happening?

A. There is a lot of media about food waste. It is shocking when you realize people are starving around the planet and yet we throw away a third of the food we produce. Here, we throw away good food just because it doesn’t look good enough. How crazy is that? People are waking up to the issue. A lot of famous chefs like Massimo are helping to publicize it.

Q. Waste not want not is one of those aphorisms that we are all supposed to ascribe to and yet people are not following this simple instruction. Should we?

A. There are so many things we ought to do. I believe in people more than causes. Of course wasting food is bad.

Q. Do you? Is Massimo’s message part of your life?

A. Honestly, yes and no. Like almost all of us, I could do a lot more.

Q. The film has done very well picking up awards and screenings at festivals. Has it turned out as you had hoped?

A. I had no idea when I started where I’d end up. I love that uncertainty, I love that voyage of discovery in documentary film making. The value of that voyage is a question for the audience.

Q. Is there more to be said?

A. Frankly you haven’t asked a single question about what really matters to me in this film. Far more than the chefs or food waste I was intrigued by the coming together of two opposite worlds. The elite of haute cuisine and the hungry they fed. Refugees and homeless people who had no idea who these famous chefs were. The film tries to look at all its subjects with compassion and empathy. 

Q. What is next on your agenda?

A. Too superstitious to say.

Peter Svatek. Photo: Josette Gauthier

Theatre of Life
Wakefield Doc Fest Weekend
When: Saturday, Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Gwen Shea Hall at Centre Wakefield La Pêche 38 chemin de la Vallée-de-Wakefield
Tickets and information about the festival lineup:
The director Peter Svatek will be in attendance. 

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.