Caviar Dreams. Directed by Brian Gersten, Liv Dubendorf, Wei Ying. A Democracy through Documentary Kartemquin Films project in conjunction with KTQ Labs and Wake Forest University’s Documentary Film Program. 2017. 15 minutes. Available from The Video Project (videoproject.com)
David McMurray (Oregon State University)
The film opens with a funny excerpt from a 1996 “Iron Chef” episode that underlines the opulence, delicacy and desirability traditionally conjured up by the mention of caviar. The first talking head belongs to a historian of caviar named Inga Saffron, who is also a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. While she talks the camera pans the Philly skyline and then down to the big, red Robert Indiana “LOVE” sculpture that is so iconic of the city. Her own recounting of personal caviar consumption is accompanied on the screen by newsreel footage of people eating caviar in a French restaurant in what looks to be the Roaring Twenties, then a shot of Saffron nibbling a teaspoon of it, then her book cover, and then a pen and ink drawing of a Mod Era party scene that starts to bleed with the black ink associated with caviar. The film next cuts to a more downbeat Chicago fishmonger named Dirk Fucik. He is a kind of secular missionary for sturgeon roe, urging the walk-in clients to his shop to taste the many different varieties he keeps open and on hand for just such occasions. Cut to a clip of Tom Hanks in the 1988 film “Big” choking on caviar and crackers while Fucik extolls caviar’s virtues but warns that it’s an acquired taste. This is followed by newsreel footage of giant sturgeon being unloaded from Romanian fishing vessels sometime in the not too distant past.
Next we are taken to The Atlantic Caviar & Sturgeon Company plant, nestled in amongst the fields and foothills of Happy Valley, North Carolina. Here among the fish tanks Dr. Jeff Hinshaw, listed as a “caviar farmer,” delivers the bombshell that is the message of the film: all caviar today comes only from farmed fish. Even though an international ban on wild-caught caviar came into effect during the 1990s, poaching continued to decimate the sturgeon in the wild. Today, instead of pulling them into rowboats with gaff hooks during spawning season in the Caspian Sea, they use sonograms in North Carolina tank farms to determine when the fish have enough eggs to harvest.
The film ends with some short clips of caviar overconsumption as portrayed on various television series. In the voiceover Inga Saffron lectures us about the long-term ecological consequences of our desire to have everything available to eat at all times and places. Sturgeon roe went from being the food of the poor through the nineteenth century to that of the rich in the twentieth. Its transformation into a famous delicacy sent its prices skyrocketing and it sources into decline. Can size also declined proportionately, until today caviar is measured in dollars per gram. Sturgeon disappeared in the wild, according to Saffron, because nobody was paying attention to the long-term consequences of mass marketing a finite foodstuff. So rare and expensive has it become that many of us may pass through life never having tasted the original form of this decadent delicacy.
I recount the film almost scene by scene in the hope of giving the reader some sense of the extraordinarily clever editing and visual richness that characterize the whole work. With the possible exception of the slightly blurry “Iron Chef” clip at the start, there is absolutely nothing in it that suggests this is a student film. The dialogue and beautifully matched, humorous visuals never allow interest to wander. They carry the film along with confidence; never stumbling. I personally would have preferred a bit more didactic finger wagging about caviar being a canary in the ecological coalmine, but that would have begun to drag the film down and would have taken away from the equally important other subject of the film, which is the surprising role caviar has played in the popular culture of the twentieth century.