Differences in language, culture, political and religious beliefs may present barriers to establishing relationships between, say, a Hattiesburg resident and a citizen of Bangkok, Thailand.
But a short documentary produced by students in The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) School of Communications’ Media and Entertainment Arts (MEA) program, in collaboration with counterparts at a university in Thailand, intends to show its audiences that despite the differences among people around the world, coming together over a delicious meal can bridge those chasms.
The “Breaking Bread Film Project,” a collaboration between Breakthrough Now Media and The Innovation Station at the U.S. Department of State, brings film and media creators from international and U.S. Gulf Coast locations to work on new short-form content inspired by their shared experiences and ideas. Through this collaborative, creators from five U.S. states and five countries are paired and tasked with conceptualizing and creating a short film or other project addressing the intersection between food insecurity, traditions, and innovation. The program culminates in a showcase of the collaborative projects.
Mississippi/USM is partnered with Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand, for their production “The Food That Binds: Building Cultural Relationships Across the Table” to be screened in July at the Capital Screening Series in Washington, D.C., at the United Nations, and at consulates and partner stakeholders in the U.S. and in the partner Asian country’s university and consulates. It will also be screened at the Catalyst Festival in Duluth, Minnesota in September.
Representatives of Breaking Bread connected with Dr. Mary Lou Sheffer, professor in the USM School of Communication and senior faculty member in its MEA program, about participation from her students for the project. They include Zack Eddy of Petal, Mississippi; Mia Slone of Alexandria, Virginia; Eli Goff of Gautier, Mississippi; and Alisia Powell of Picayune, Mississippi.
With advisement from Dr. Sheffer and her MEA faculty colleague Jared Hollingsworth, these students focused their research on the communal aspect of food, examining the dynamics of preparation and interaction at mealtime through the input of restauranters, chefs and other culinary experts, as well as ‘foodies’ from across the Magnolia State who love sharing meals with family, friends, and even strangers.
Eddy noted how both cultures use many of the same staple foods – rice, fish, and a variety of vegetables, as examples – in producing time-honored recipes, using distinct types of seasoning and preparation styles, in the farm-to-kitchen-to-table process unique to the communities profiled in the documentary.
“What we want to show with this film is the commonality between people, revealed through the enjoyment of preparing and eating delicious meals, no matter where they are prepared or with whom they are shared with,” he said.
Goff said he didn’t expect the project to be as expansive as he originally assumed. “I’m more of an ‘eat-to-live’ kind of person as opposed to the ‘live-to-eat’ people who are passionate about food in ways I couldn’t understand,” he continued. “It wasn’t until we started really listening to other people’s perspectives on food culture - in Mississippi as well as other places in the world - that I realized food plays a significant role in not only people’s personal lives, but in building community as well. In fact, it’s made me understand my own family more, as I think back to all the times my family would come together and bond over cooking.”
He said this concept was cemented in his mind as the team reached out to local chefs and restaurant owners and saw how excited they were to tell them about what they cook and why it matters to them.
“Cooking is not only an activity to bond over, but it is the basis for building relationships in Mississippi as well as Thailand,” Goff continued. “We all have to eat. Why not do it together?”
Slone concurred. “When you sit down at the table for a meal, you come to see that you’re not as different from people from other cultures, other places, as you think,” she said. “It shows we’re more alike than not.
“You put some good food in front of me at the table with other people, and I can be friends with anyone.”
For Powell, the project underscored for her what she already understood about how true this dynamic is in her native South. “Being ‘Southern’ means close bonds, and when we get together for a meal, it doesn’t matter about race, ethnicity, gender, or politics, because we’re all family in the end.”
Teamwork and patience have been valuable traits exercised by the team in working with another group of students at another university halfway around the world, only a couple of whom can speak English. “It’s been a learning experience for all of us,” Dr. Sheffer further noted.
Dr. Edgar Simpson, director of the USM School of Communication, praised Dr. Sheffer for facilitating a project for her students with such prominence in profile and reach.
“Our faculty are always seeking opportunities to provide our students with new and unique opportunities,” Dr. Simpson continued. “This project is an example of how technology, such as sound and video, transcends traditional boundaries."
Goff hopes when audiences see the team’s documentary, they come to understand food is “a love language spanning culture.”
“Even though Mississippi and Thailand are worlds away from each other, and no matter how different people seem around the globe, everyone comes together when they’re eating,” he said.
For information about the USM School of Communication, visit https://www.usm.edu/communication/index.php.