It would have been so easy for Andreas Johnsen to make his new documentary “Bugs” a harmless, twee film about two Westerners traveling the world searching for edible insects. The set-up seems ripped straight from the Travel Channel or the Food Network: chef Ben Reade and researcher John Evans scour the globe sampling as many of the 1,900 species of consumable insects as possible. In Kenya we watch them attempt a disastrous hunt for a termite queen—nature’s “perfect sausage.” In Uganda they greedily munch on stingless bees and their succulent subterranean honeycombs. They trade spoonfuls of Italian cheese fermented with larvae, crispy African grasshoppers, and thumb-sized Japanese wasps sliced into bits or roasted whole. In addition to a fascinating travelogue, it’s pure food porn.
But “Bugs” resists the temptation to be benign or harmless. Reade and Evans are on a mission: to discover new potential food sources. With scientists predicting that the earth’s population will grow to over 9 billion by 2050 and that food production will have to increase 70%, many are scrambling for what could become an essential tool for the future survival of the human race. Both Reade and Evans are swift to point out that the revulsion against eating insects is largely a Western prejudice. They hope to rehabilitate insects as a food source in much the same way that sushi—literally just raw fish with rice—went from being unthinkable by early twentieth century culinary standards to one of the most ubiquitous delicacies on the planet.
But as the film goes on the antics become less frequent, the tone becoming increasingly somber and sober. They show how many poor African villagers routinely suffer snow blindness working all night under heavy powered lights harvesting locusts. At an international expo touting insects as a food source, Reade and Evans encounter venture capitalists who practically salivate at the thought of a cheaper way to produce cheap food. Both realize that far from possibly saving the world, insects might just be another way to further entrench global capitalization and the continued economic subjugation of developing countries who depend on bugs as a food staple. One can’t help but think of quinoa, a South American grain that, after being heralded as a wonder food in the West, became economically inaccessible to the very people who depended on it to survive for untold millennia. “Bugs” ends not with answers, but with a different set of questions than the ones it opened with. I wish more documentaries would be so upfront about their own inability to provide simple answers.
Score: 7 out of 10
Nate Hood is Screen Comment’s main film critic in New York. Follow him here @NateHood257