Can we tempt you with a taco with roasted ant larvae? A termite queen on a bed of greens and mango? How about dung beetle stew with a side of fried hornets?
"BUGS" serves up a feast. Tracking a team of chefs and researchers from the Nordic Food Lab, Danish director Andreas Johnsen takes the audience on a global culinary journey into the world of insects – from Mexico, Japan and Australia to Kenya and Uganda and on to Holland and Italy. Nordic Food Lab experiments with foods and tastes from around the world and was founded by Noma chef René Redzepi, who a few years back created a hotly debated appetizer from lettuce leaves, crème fraîche and live ants.
With his small team of culinary wizards, Johnsen digs deep into the topic of insect eating, also known as entomophagy. Now that forecasts call for a global population of nine billion people by 2050 and the UN recommends insects as an important future source of nutrition, it's tempting to see our creepy, crawly fellow beings as the answer to the world's food shortage. Can we save the planet by eating insects?
Appealing Humour and Depth
"BUGS" had its world premiere in April at Robert De Niro's prestigious Tribeca Film Festival. Ever since, things have been moving at anything but a larval pace.
"Since Tribeca, the film has been in demand at a sea of festivals," producer Sigrid Jonsson Dyekjær says. "Truth be told, I've been pretty surprised at all this interest in our film. There are so many films about food, some of them even about eating insects. But ours seems to have struck the right note." Dyekjær ascribes the positive response partly to the film's unique drive.
"People often tell us that the film has 'good energy.' There's humour and lightness, with these nerdy characters trekking around the globe and experimenting with a thousand different ways of preparing insects. But also that the film sticks to deep discussions about resources. Audiences mention that as appealing," she says.
"It was also surprising to see so many young people, and sometimes children, too, react in such a positive way. I think it has to do with the film's playful approach to the subject, but also because the film is pretty descriptive about taste. Every time the main characters taste an insect, they put their experience into words – termites can taste creamy or like 'grilled red pepper,' while ant larva has a tinge of avocado."
BUGS Photo: Andreas Johnsen
Larvae Under the Bed
The team was working for a full year, including while the film was being made, to promote and distribute it. A key component was their website, BUGSfeed.com, which fostered early engagement in the subject.
"On our website, we started out by discussing the idea behind insect eating, even before the film was ready for release. From the beginning, it was conceived as a site that would slowly build a dedicated audience from around the world. Subsequently, it was easier to promote the film in the US – they could tell that we already had a large group of followers," Dyekjær says.
The website offers information about anything from the culinary excellence of ants to the strong protein qualities of grasshoppers, plus, not least, a string of recipes putting theory into practice.
Engaging the audience by inviting them to actually taste what all the fuss is about is key. In conjunction with the world premiere in New York, the team organized insect tastings and popup events all over town.
"One time, we served ice cream made from ant eggs, and 300 people showed up based on one Facebook post. We also teamed up with a tiny take-out restaurant, where we served 'escamoles' – ant eggs – which are a big delicacy in Mexico. It's their caviar."
Touring the festivals, the team met scores of passionate bug eaters. Some even took matters into their own hands.
"When 'BUGS' premiered at Edinburgh, we were contacted by a man who wanted to serve his homemade falafels made from larvae that he farmed in his bedroom under his bed. They tasted amazing! Real crunchy, dipped in chilli sauce. We should all start farming bugs under our beds, he said. It's a fine place for them to grow and you get to make your own protein. Pretty wild, I think."
"BUGS" hardly provides a cut-and-dried answer to whether insects are the super food of the future, rankling those among the audience who burn for the insect-eating cause.
"People are a bit offended that we, and the film, don't flat out say that insects can save the world. They were expecting a clear yes to insects. But the film is less unequivocal."
Others have identified this equivocalness as a strength of the film, the fact that it doesn't lecture, Dyekjær says.
"The film is more about discussing the many aspects of insect eating – what it is, why it's so hard for us in the West to eat insects. It's not a political film. We don't say that the UN is misguided or that Nestlé is just out to make a buck by building big factories. Sure, it might be a bit unsettling to learn that there's an emerging insect industry. At present, it's only for animal feed, but within long it will be for people, too. Is that what we want?"
"Andreas and the others are big proponents of biodiversity – that we shouldn't just eat one thing but a little bit of a lot of different things. Another important point the film makes is that the world does not, as it stands, have a food shortage. But the distribution is broken. And we don't quite get it yet that we need to eat the food that's near us. This is the idea of sustainability that we have adopted in Denmark and Scandinavia in recent years, focusing on local ingredients and tastes, which has made Nordic cuisine something that people are taking very seriously today."
BUGS Photo: Andreas Johnsen
Whether the film's Danish premiere on 7 September will be accompanied by servings of termite queens, melted fly fat or ant gin has yet to be decided. But tastings are a must, Dyekjær says.
"When you've seen the film, you really want to taste for yourself. People get disappointed if there's nothing for them to sink their teeth into.
"There are already several Danish players working to spread awareness of edible insects, and we'll be teaming up with them in connection with the tastings at the Danish premiere. This fall a new Danish cookbook on food with insects is set for release, and right now the first Danish network of food producers with a focus on edible insects is being established. So awareness about insect eating is also creeping up on the Danes," says Dyekjær.
The article was published in August, last revised 16 September 2016.
More about the film
"BUGS" is produced by Sigrid Jonsson Dyekjær for Danish Documentary Production with support from the Danish Film Institute. Autlook Filmsales is handling international sales.
Since its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival in April, the film has covered a great number of festivals around the world, including in Warsaw, Seattle, Tel Aviv, Edinburgh, Durban, Melbourne and Hong Kong. As per August, the number of festivals having selected the film is now approaching no less than 40.
The film is screening at September's San Sebastian Film Festival (16-24 September) in the Culinary Zinema programme.
See more on the film's community website bugsfeed.com.
Find more about film and director in factsheets right.