Pardon us for asking, but why Jimmy Carter? And why now? Filmmaker Jonathan Demme answers both these questions with his disarming documentary profile, Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains.
Most of us remember Carter, the 83-year-old former US president (he served from 1977 to 1981), as the leader who presided over the Iran hostage crisis and the OPEC “gasoline shortage” with its long lines of cars waiting to refuel. Carter’s crowning achievement was convincing Israel and Egypt to sign the Camp David peace accord in 1979. Nowadays, he’s mostly known as a sincerely religious peanut farmer from Georgia — he and his wife, Rosalynn, take turns reading Bible passages to each other every night — who devotes his spare time to building houses for Habitat for Humanity.
But as Demme’s breezy, informal biodoc shows, Carter is, among other things, a nuclear physicist and workaholic policy guru who has authored some 21 books. In 2002, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts — the mission of his Atlanta-based human rights non-profit, the Carter Center. The man has depth, but seemingly very little patrician hauteur. And his energy level is astounding.
The focal point of Demme’s doc is Carter’s late-2006 US publicity tour for his book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, in which he takes Israel to task for its cavalier attitude toward Palestinians inside Palestine, most particularly the construction of the hideous wall Israelis claim is necessary to keep terrorists at bay. The mere title of the book set off a firestorm of criticism from right-wing Israelis and their American supporters — most of whom had neglected to read the book — for the effrontery of using the “A word” in connection with Israeli affairs. Never mind that Carter takes pains to point out that it’s not Israel’s internal security measures he objects to, but rather their punitive actions inside Palestine. That, and his assertion that there have been no Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in Israel since the Clinton administration.
Carter’s chief complaint is that Israel systematically deprives Palestinians of human rights inside the Occupied Territories and Gaza — that is, in their homeland. The former president believes the first step toward lasting peace in the Middle East is for Israel to withdraw to the borders established after the 1967 Six-Day War and to allow Palestine to exist as a “non-challenging, democratic,” independent state. For this he is picketed by rabbis in Phoenix, challenged to a debate by lawyer Alan Dershowitz (Carter declined), and warmly greeted by Palestinian Americans in bookstores across the country.
Director Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) has never shied away from political content in his narratives, and his documentaries have tackled such thorny subjects as turmoil in Haiti and the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans. Demme’s access to Jimmy Carter was completely unrestricted, beginning at the former president’s hotel door in the morning and ending at the next hotel door that night. Demme and director of photography Declan Quinn shot about sixteen hours per day in high-definition digital, and Demme had final approval of the doc’s content. It’s clear from the very beginning, in a folksy sequence at a barbecue with Georgia neighbors in Plains, that Demme admires Carter. But the filmmaker’s skepticism for authority manages to pop out occasionally.
Carter displays great stamina and good humor on a schedule that would fatigue Brad Pitt — swimming each morning in a hotel pool, speeding to interviews in his Secret Service SUV, doing endless TV guest appearances, and politely fending off obnoxious radio talk show hosts. In passing, it’s established that Carter does not take speaking fees, and that he travels on regular commercial airliners with his Secret Service escorts. The book tour’s payoff scenes come when Carter does consecutive interviews with broadcast reporters from both Israeli TV and Al Jazeera, finally getting down to cases with correspondents who know the subject well. Wonk to wonk and point to point, the octogenarian statesman is truly in his element. It’s clear that he wants the job of negotiating a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. Maybe one day after the current US regime decamps, he’ll get his wish.
It’s not too far from the pine trees of Georgia to the cornfields of Iowa, where Aaron Woolf’s documentary King Corn fires the latest salvo in America’s ongoing culture clash over food, nutrition, agribusiness, and government support of the latter.
Filmmaker Woolf, creator of TV docs on human trafficking and Cuban baseball, enters this contentious field of dreams through a pair of Yale grads from Boston, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis. In a coincidence we wouldn’t accept in a narrative fiction, the two friends’ great-grandfathers both came from the same Cornbelt town, Greene, Iowa (pop. 1,015). Say, why not go to Greene, find a friendly farmer, arrange to farm one acre of commercial corn (not the sweet corn you buy at the market, but the stuff that gets sold to gigantic food corporations), and then observe what happens to it?
We learn a few things from the two daffy guys. First and foremost is that the feds subsidize corn up the ying-yang, with an array of price supports and subsidies but also by encouraging farmers to plant as much “industrialized corn” as possible — the better to feed livestock (burgers, McNuggets, tacos, etc.) and to produce vast quantities of high fructose corn syrup, the cheap, nutritionally worthless sugar substitute that goes into practically every processed food there is.
Bottom line: You probably ingest more corn every day than you realize, and it’s killing you. As one expert declares, high fructose corn syrup is “the raw material for an overweight society.” The key is low price. America demands cheap food. Cheney and Ellis pay a visit to Earl Butz, the aged former US Secretary of Agriculture, who proudly points out that “we feed ourselves with sixteen to seventeen percent of our take-home pay.” But we pay for that grub later in medical bills for treating obesity, diabetes, and related ills. Corny but true.