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'King Corn' opens Public Philosophy and Film Series

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – An award-winning film set partially in an Iowa corn field will start the new season of the Monmouth College Public Philosophy and Film Series.

But rather than starring actors Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones and depicting a host of old-time baseball players, King Corn investigates the role that corn plays in what it portrays as an increasingly complicated and dysfunctional American food industry.

King Corn will be shown at 6 p.m. Sept. 20 in the Barnes Electronic Classroom on the lower level of Hewes Library. Free and open to the public, the film will be introduced by Monmouth biology professor Eric Engstrom, who will also lead a post-film discussion.

“I think it will be appealing to a college audience on a number of levels,” said Engstrom, who has used the 2007 film in his classes. “For one, it was made by two recent college graduates, so they were not far removed from the age of our students when it was filmed.”

Engstrom said the Peabody Award-winning film also employs “critical thinking,” as the filmmakers were inspired to create it when they learned that their generation was the first in history not expected to live as long as their parents.

“They talk to researchers about diet, they talk to an agronomist at Iowa State University,” said Engstrom. “Eventually, what they decide to do is rent an acre from a farmer in Iowa (outside of Greene, just north of Waterloo) and grow their own corn. The movie tracks that – what goes into growing an acre of corn.”

A key moment is when the filmmakers travel to a retirement home to interview former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, who headed the federal department from 1971-76.

“He certainly had a role in the transformation of the food industry,” said Engstrom. “This is exactly what he was setting out to do – to make food so cheap and abundant that it ceases to be a concern for Americans. They can worry about other things. Food has never been anywhere as cheap, relatively, as it is now. But the film asks what’s the cost of that? Are we paying for it in other ways? The filmmakers try to answer that question.”

Engstrom said King Corn is likely to stir some debate.

“Were the filmmakers looking for certain answers, or are they really explaining this is a non-partial way? Are the farm families of Iowa represented well? Did the filmmakers leave anything out?” he said.

A review in the Washington Post said the documentary ought to be “required viewing by anyone planning to visit a supermarket, fast-food joint, or their own refrigerator.”

Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies Ermine Algaier organized the Public Philosophy and Film Series, which began last spring.

“This series provides an informal, multidisciplinary platform for raising awareness of pressing contemporary public issues,” said Algaier. “Both educational and entertaining, the series aims to provide the campus and Monmouth community with an informal space that intellectually challenges the broader community, while also creating a safe space to confront culturally diverse topics and ideas.”

The other films to be shown in the series this fall are Behind the Lines (1999) on Oct. 25 and Hell House (2001) on Nov. 15.