Ahead of its premiere on Friday at SXSW in Austin, Texas, we caught up with Australian born, US based director Matthew Salleh to talk about his new documentary feature, Barbecue. The film takes us to 12 countries, from Shisanyama in South Africa, to Engangsgrill in Sweden and everywhere in between to talk about meat: how we cook it and how it reflects the pride of a nation. In our chat, we talk about the art of the BBQ, filming around the world, some wise Texan words and his earlier premieres at the Sydney Film Festival.
To Australians who haven’t travelled, BBQ is just a steak or snag thrown on the Barbie. What are your earliest memories realising that the rest of the world had a very different idea of what the quality of BBQ was meant to be?
Ever since I was a child, I remember classic Aussie barbecue. Sausage sizzles on the weekend. I never gave it much of a second thought. It was such an ‘everyday’ thing I didn’t even think about how other cultures must do it differently. A few years ago my partner Rose and I were on a road trip through Texas and we met with a spoke to a bunch of pitmasters. Their philosophy on life and unique way of cooking amazed and inspired me. It was then that we started talking to everybody we could find – luckily Adelaide is an extremely multicultural place – and everyone proudly proclaimed their version of barbecue the best.
How did you find and then make contact with all of these traditional BBQers?
Every country was different, and often a reflection of that particular culture. Introductions were very formal in Japan and organised well in advance. In places with difficult access, like the Za’atari refugee camp on the Jordan/Syrian border, we worked with the UNHCR and other groups to untangle the bureaucracy and allow us to film. I worked with my producers Daniel Joyce (Projector Films) and Rose Tucker (Urtext Films) to do as much work in Australia as possible before heading over to a country. But of course, once you’re there, everything changes in an instant.
Once ‘in country’, it was all about close working with local guides and translators, and adopting a flexible approach to filmmaking. We would meet somebody, they would tell us of their brother, we’d meet the brother, he’d mention a friend whose father was somebody we had to speak to. The journey to find our subjects was as much a part of the film as anything.
What sort of research went into learning about all the different styles and what surprised you most through that research?
An increasingly connected world is of great service to the documentary filmmaker. We would start conversations in our own backyard, reach out to people and have conversations. For a good year we would tell everyone what we were doing, and everyone had a recommendation. We’d be in a taxi, and the taxi driver would give us a contact from their home country. What surprised me through this ‘research’ part of the film is the pride people have for their own traditions. Barbecue is a great tool for discussion, because everybody we spoke to had a great historical understanding of their culture, even if they weren’t ‘experts’. Barbecue is something that has been passed down for so many generations, most people just take it for granted. That made for great subject matter.
Assuming that research included a lot of meat eating, did you discover a favourite BBQ style in your adventures (or did the experience just reinforce that a BBQ style you were already familiar with was your favourite)?
It’s always hard to pick favourites. The thing about barbecue is that it’s not served up in some stuffy restaurant. It’s a ritual, a gathering, a celebration. So you can’t just view the food in isolation.
Traditional Aussie BBQ, some might say that the ‘quality’ isn’t there like it is in a Texas brisket or a Uruguayan asado. But when we were filming in rural Moonta on a Sunday morning, soaking up snags and eggs on bread, drinking ice cold beers and listening to stories – it’s then that you realise that there’s more to this than just the food.
In terms of flavour and quality, how would you compare a Texan BBQ pit where the theme was some kind of decadence, and somewhere like Mexico where the BBQ was the family’s only source of income?
For those two particular examples, I think the quality and flavour of the food is a reflection of the culture it comes through. Mexican food, including barbacoa, is all about working cleverly with flavours and spices, and producing amazing food irrespective of the quality of ingredients. In Texas, it’s all about doing it big, huge barbecue pits where 20 sides of beef are cooked at once. It’s all about patience in Texas – sometimes a brisket cooks for more than twelve hours. When the meat melts in your mouth you can taste the generations that have gone into perfecting the process.
What were the most difficult locations to film in, especially using 4K cameras? Some of the landscapes looked quite isolated – not to mention the animal slaughter going on.
We filmed for over 200 days in the field. Just Rosie and myself, a team of two – I shot the pictures and Rosie recorded the sound. It was by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life.
But we love the do-it-all-yourself approach to filmmaking. I wouldn’t have it any way. From a technical point of view, we used a much smaller camera than your typical ‘big film crew’. We were able to fit our camera and sound equipment, plus a backup of each, into a single suitcase. We didn’t use a single light. Not just for practical reasons, but also because I believe in an incredibly small footprint as a filmmaker – there’s something very imperialist about stepping into somebody’s home and flooding bright lights into everyone’s eyes. Luckily technology has gotten to the point where naturally lit documentary can yield very cinematic images using cameras that fit into a backpack. What a time to be alive!
In terms of difficult locations, every place offered a new set of challenges, and isolation was often not the biggest challenge. In the isolated locations like Mongolia or New Zealand, at least you’re free to move around. It was in places like Japan where you have to be a little bit sneaky with your filming, or the Philippines where bureaucracy tangles up everything you do, those were often some of the most frustrating times. I remember when we found out that for some bizarre reason you can’t send hard drives through the mail in the Philippines. We ended up having to smuggle our footage out in a shoe.
But no matter where we filmed, we were always buoyed by our subjects, who were some of the hardest working people I’ve met. In Oaxaca, Mexico, our subjects spend over 24 hours straight preparing food for the market. One of the men was almost 80 years old, and he moved with ten times the energy I did. When you’re filming these amazing people, lugging a tripod to the top of a hill isn’t such a big deal.
What does it mean to you to premiere the film at SXSW and how do you hope the BBQ hungry SXSW Audience will react?
It’s exciting to premiere at SXSW, it feels like a homecoming for the film. The pitmasters we filmed with are coming to the screening and we’re looking to give them the red carpet treatment. And although Texas is an obvious barbecue-hungry crowd, I hope that by looking at the world through a lens of tolerance, and appreciation of other societies, that we can add something vital to some important conversations going on in America about the world we live in.
I’m sure this will attract plenty of scandal – but you have a favourite BBQ place in Austin?
No comment – I’m not interested in starting a war. As the Texan pitmaster Wayne Mueller said to me: there’s three things you don’t discuss at the table in Texas – religion, politics or barbecue.
Both ‘Pablo’s Villa’ and ‘Central Texas Barbecue’ premiered at the Sydney Film Festival – do you hope to bring Barbecue back to the festival?
Sydney Film Festival has been remarkably supportive of our film careers, especially through the Programs Manager, Jenny Neighbour. I believe they’re only in the earliest stages of planning their program, but we love any chance to bring our work to Sydney. Sydney Film Festival audiences are some of the most open and receptive I’ve witnessed to date.
Barbecue premieres this Friday at SXSW in Austin, Texas. For more details about the film’s SXSW screenings, head HERE.