It may sound counterintuitive at best, tone-deaf at worse, to label a documentary focused on food providers aiding people in the wake of disasters as a feel-good movie. But that’s an honest, accurate and, yes, appreciative label for “We Feed People,” Ron Howard’s technically polished and emotionally stirring close-up view of celebrity chef José Andrés and his nonprofit World Central Kitchen.
The movie effectively begins in media res, with the robustly gregarious Andrés and his dedicated crew years into their vocation, providing hot meals to isolated residents of Wilmington, NC, in the wake of 2018’s Hurricane Florence — and coming perilously close to tasting their own disaster when floodwaters almost topple their delivery truck — before backing up to explain just who Andrés is and what started him on his mission.
A native of Spain, Andrés moved to the US in 1990 and proceeded to become the protagonist in his very own version of the American success story, gradually and profitably establishing himself as a high-profile restaurateur with upscale eateries initially in the Washington, DC, area, then nationwide. He hosted a cooking show in his native Spain, wrote books that were New York Times bestsellers and tirelessly proselytized for the epicurean delights of tapas.
And then, while he was vacationing in the Cayman Islands, a massive earthquake tore Haiti asunder in 2010.
“I’m good at seeing opportunity where others see mayhem,” Andrés says during one of the many interviews throughout the film that would sound outrageously self-promotional were they not demonstrably truthful. “I’m good at seeing big problems and seeing they have very simple solutions.”
In the case of Haiti, Andrés’ simple solution to the problem of aiding so many displaced people lacking food was to go to Haiti with a small group and, well, prepare food for them. And not just any food. “We Feed People” emphasizes that this first act of beneficence was also a learning experience for Andrés. Journalist Richard Wolffe — a longtime friend of the restaurateur and also an executive producer of this documentary — notes that a defining trait of his meals-on-wheels program is his eagerness to cook food the way locals prefer, “and not the way some white savior thinks it should be cooked.”
While often shown trying to gain moral and financial support from established entities like FEMA and the Red Cross, Andrés nonetheless comes across as a maverick when it comes to what he describes as his “calling.” He clearly views red tape as something to be ignored, or shredded, if it slows down the delivery of food to people in need. And other members of his nonprofit, globe-trotting World Central Kitchen obviously share his attitude. When asked during their 2019 mission in the hurricane-stricken Bahamas whether they actually have permission to fly a helicopter into a remote area, a Team WCK member shrugs and replies: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness.”
Even so, Team WCK members repeatedly insist that they are supportive visitors, not the vanguard of an occupying army, with the guiding principle of helping temporarily helpless people help themselves “so that what we leave behind keeps moving on its own.” They make use of resources on the ground — hurricane-damaged hotels, makeshift food banks, etc. — while encouraging locals to operate them in the future and, not incidentally, giving them a sense of rebuilding their own lives and finding new purpose in the here and now.
Structured with savvy storytelling skill by Howard, whose expertise as a documentarian (previous credits range from “Made in America” to “Rebuilding Paradise”) is more impressive with each new project, “We Feed People generally” steers clear of politics. But it does underscore the difference between empty gestures and practical solutions by including clips of a 2017 visit to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico by a preposterously smug President Trump, who makes a ghastly joke — “I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you ‘re throwing our budget a little out of whack!” — before his infamous tossing of paper towels. Meanwhile, Andrés is on the ground with Team WCK, working himself to the point of physical and mental exhaustion, much to the distress of his supportive yet deeply concerned wife and three daughters back home in the US
(Fun fact: In 2015, Andrés was ready to open a restaurant at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, before Trump kicked off his presidential bid with vicious remarks about undocumented Mexican immigrants. Andrés walked away from the deal, leading to a series of suits and countersuits. The restaurant never happened.)
Andrés survived and pressed on, earning laurels (including a 2016 National Humanities Medal bestowed by President Barack Obama) and bringing food during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic to the unfortunate everywhere from the Navajo Nation in Arizona to New York City. The movie doesn’t make it entirely clear how he funds these and other activities — but there is an invitation to visit the wck.org website in the closing credits.
And the story continues. On the very weekend that “We Feed People” had its world premiere in Austin at the SXSW Film Festival, Team WCK was feeding residents and refugees throughout Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Moldova and Hungary. One is never at a loss to find places where there is good that needs doing in the world. And if you’re actively searching, it’s even easier.