A chance encounter in Texas led two Adelaide film-makers into an adventure of a lifetime as they catalogued the one thing that links almost every culture in the world: barbecue.
“The day we turned up in the Philippines, the airline had lost all our cameras,” says Matthew Salleh, one half of Urtext Films along with Rose Tucker.
“So, for a week, the cameras were lost until we found them in a shed full of live chickens and fruit at the airport. You have to be pretty versatile when you’re flying around filming like that.”
Salleh is talking about just one of the dozen stops made on their epic documentary feature, Barbecue. Visiting 12 countries over nine months, Tucker and Salleh delved deep into the world’s myriad barbecue cultures to produce their diverse, humorous and inspiring documentary about the bonds forged between people over meat and fire.
The quintessential Australian barbecue features in Salleh and Tuckers documentary (Photo: still from Barbecue)
“Everyone thinks that their barbecue is the best,” Tucker says. “Everywhere you go, their barbecue is the best. There’s no arguing.” Salleh and Tucker’s affinity for the world of barbecue is a natural predilection for the Australians raised on typical backyard barbies.
But their interest deepened on a trip to the US to screen their short documentary Pablo’s Villa. On this trip they stopped by a traditional Texan BBQ pit, and were inspired to immediately film another short documentary which became Central Texas Barbecue.
It was at a subsequent screening for this short that Screen Australia quickly approached the pair to ask, “Well, what do you want to do next?” Urtext’s answer, Salleh says, came as quickly as the question: “We just said, ‘Oh you know, that [barbecue] all around the world’ and they basically said, ‘Yep, sounds good!’”
In that moment, Tucker and Salleh’s dream, indeed a dream for many of the world’s carnivores, ballooned into reality. The team picked up funding from Screen Australia and the South Australian Film Corporation, brought on Daniel Joyce from Projector Films as Producer and quickly began to decide on which countries they would visit – a daunting task when a veritable menu of the world’s barbecue styles are laid out in front of you.
Barbecue in Mongolia has a very different style (Photo: still from Barbecue)
Counting on her fingers, Tucker tells The Adelaide Review the places they visited. “We did, in order, Sweden, The Philippines, Mongolia, then South Africa, Armenia, a refugee camp on the border of Syria and Jordan, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and then finished it off this year with Uruguay, Mexico and went back to Texas.”
Some of this collection of nations could be predicted, but it includes a wide range of unexpected choices. Why, for example, choose Uruguay, a relative unknown on the seared meat scene over the famous Gaucho-driven Argentina?
“We chose a lot of ‘underdog’ type countries really to give exposure to those cultures and prove the barbecue-tradition is a global thing,” Salleh says. An added bonus was the hospitality those nations offered the filmmakers, he says, explaining that “the Uruguayans that we found were so proud that we didn’t go to Argentina, that that sort of galvanised them to say ‘We’ll do whatever you need.’”
A remarkable spread from a Uruguayan barbecue master (Photo: still from Barbecue)
Tucker and Salleh are bursting with stories from their carnivorous odyssey. One quirky tale comes from one of the first countries selected to visit, and perhaps most surprising from the Australian perspective: Armenia.
“We were picking what countries we were going to go to, and we saw this video of this old man talking about Armenian barbecue, saying things like ‘Armenian barbecue is best barbecue’,” Salleh says.
“His daughter had posted it online and gotten five million views or whatever. We thought it was hilarious. We just messaged them, his daughter lived in Melbourne. We skyped him and he arranged a room for us in Armenia. “
The viral video that inspired Salleh and Tucker to learn more about Armenian barbecue
The consistent theme in all of the spots that hosted the Urtext team was that all-encompassing hospitality and sense of community they encountered. “One of the most amazing places was that refugee camp, about 20 miles out from the Syrian border,” Tucker explains.
“Even in that place there’s a barbecue restaurant. Even in that place, that insane despairing place, everyone was super-hospitable. These people had almost nothing but they were taking care of us.”
Barbecue is an intimate examination of those cultures visited, the people that keep these ancient traditions going across the world, and the things that all humanity has in common. Salleh says he and Tucker wanted from the outset to interview the “real people” in these places, not “PhDs in front of bookshelves” talking theoretically about barbecue.
Tucker and Salleh interview a barbecue worker in the Zaatari refugee camp (Photo by Daniel Joyce)
“I just love the concept that some barbacoa chef in Mexico is musing on the same big world issues as a guy cooking snags at the Moonta pub, which is what we shot in Australia,” Salleh says.
Tucker explains that at the outset of the project she and Salleh decided that, “Rule number one: this is a film about meat. Rule Number two: this is not a film about meat.” That human-focussed approach was aided by Urtext’s bare-bones approach to production. The team is made up of Salleh, who directs, and Tucker who produces and does sound.
“We try to get really close and intimate in with our subjects,” says Salleh “I don’t know if you would have been able to do this 10 years ago, but we were able to make it with a crew of just the two of us, which is how we’ve always worked.”
Barbecue will be submitted to festivals in the coming months, with a wider release coming in 2017.