Reviewed at the 2017 Sydney Film Festival - Tickcets on Sale here.
A few weeks ago my buddy Johnny asked what I was up to in the next few weeks. I replied with the usual for this time of year, Sydney Film Festival. He immediately told me that there was one film on his list, "Barbecue," a film that at that time I hadn't heard of, until now.
While Australia blissfully throws shrimps on the 'Barbeeee' and assumes that we're the world's greatest snag turners; Matthew Salleh's "Barbecue" takes us around the world to reinforce the elemental practice of cooking meat over fire for your tribe.
With an unobtrusive style Salleh observes the grilling customs of folks from around the globe (The Philippines, Mongolia, South Africa, Australia, Japan, and Sweden to name a few). Apart from the longevity and significance of certain processes and method or the peccadilloes of the subjects; the unintended (and intended) consequence of their fire side chats is that you get a deeper insight into that country's contemporary society.
In South Africa, at the beginning of the film, Salleh directly contrasts the white affluent 'Brai' (BBQ) experience with that of the townships - places that feel like they'd be havens for danger when instead around the 'Brai' - they are warm communal spaces. The "brai" in the words of the subjects, is a race-less space, an equaliser.
A Japanese chef says that there's a spiritual serenity acquired in the perfect timing and cycle of preparation. The chef proposes that there's something inherently human about the Barbecue. In Australia, conversely it's keep it simple or 'f' off. The pub's weekly 'BarB' in a microcosm, echoes the simplicity they're seeking in their lives. Sameness is Anglo Australian cultural propaganda. Keeping snags, onion, "googy eggs" and keeping out anything that's too complex to cook (foreign/fancy) is reflective of an undercurrent of conservative conservation and xenophobia in Australian society.
Watching the painstaking and repetitious proficiency of a Phillipino spit roast (or Lechon) is a kind of art. From the shaving and preparation of the pig, the rough and precise application of the seasoning and the constant focus on the revolution of the roast to create that lip smacking perfection not only induces many groans of the stomach but admiration for such hands-on food craft.
Getting a peek into the Mongolian steppe, watching the preparation of their traditional Marmot cuisine, grills inside - by gutting and hollowing the body and slowly inserting blazing hot stones inside the skin - and outside - removing the hair with a flame thrower/torch - is a kind of a time machine to the days of Khan's.
What's almost tragic is the commodification of the grill. In Sweden, the land of IKEA, you won't be surprised to see the emergence of a pop up grill. This one and done, single serve apparatus is the weapon of choice for a country that can go six months of the year without sun. It is beautiful to see the rapture created when the drizzle passes and the Sun enters the fray; the entire population floods out of their buildings and into open spaces.
Salleh, while empathising with that lack of sunshine and the drizzle killing the opportunity for a communal fire; looks on a Swedish meat section of a supermarket in abject horror. The plastic covered, synthetic feeling meat products are framed like an autopsy; the silence of the movie in those moments is deafening.
"Barbecue" isn't asking the big questions, but through the haze of sizzling meat, its subjects provide the big answers.
Maybe Johnny is a more contemplative and philosophical character than I first estimated.............Nah.