Documentary Review: ‘Open Sesame: The Story Of Seeds’

Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds is the latest in the recent wave of advocacy documentaries, of which Food, Inc. is the undisputed champion, about the industrialized corporate nightmare that is the American food system. As its title suggests, Open Sesame takes on the corporatization of the seed industry. What was once a highly local, extraordinarily diverse business, with thousands of seed companies across the globe and hundreds of different seed varieties of each plant available, has become—like so much else in American life—increasingly dominated by just a few huge corporations. These have vastly decreased the diversity of seeds available. A hundred years ago, thousands of seed companies exist; now Monsanto and just a few other companies account for almost all seeds sold in the United States. Seeds were once a commons, a resource used by all but owned by none. Now, Monsanto uses patent law to keep a tight control over its “intellectual property” in seeds, going so far as to sue farmers for patent infringement when its seeds move through the wind and pollinate organic farmers’ fields.

This is all excellent material to rile people up and motivate involvement in changing the food system. Unfortunately, director M. Sean Kaminsky completely botches the execution. Open Sesame is confusing, jumbled, repetitive, and, most damningly, light on actual information. Kaminsky’s preferred approach is to have five different people recite the same glittering generalities and then flash up some data points in text. Scientific information is provided inconsistently. In a sign of things to come, in the beginning of the film, several interviewees provide their responses to the question, “What makes a seed grow?” The answers range from “magic” to “love” to “that’s a very complicated question.” At no point does the movie actually attempt to explain how seeds grow. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a movie like this trying to suggest some of the grand mysteries of nature. But when you have interviewees going on about how there is some inherent connection between humans and seeds because “we all come from a seed,” then you’ve likely lost a good portion of the audience (including this reviewer) to groans and eyerolls.

But I could even stand some of the New Age mumbo-jumbo if it were integrated into a coherent argument. But Open Sesame confusingly shifts from patent battles to history to GMOs to biodiversity to seed banks to open source software without ever seeming to fully explore any one topic or quite explaining how they all fit together. But Open Sesame features shockingly little solid information and, more importantly, it rarely tries to explain its subject, preferring shots of interviewees welling up. (Seriously, the director must have earmarked every single time he caught someone crying on camera because it happens constantly in this movie.) Important topics like the Monsanto patent infringement lawsuit and the health questions of genetically modified foods remain only half-explained.

If good intentions were all it took to make a great advocacy doc, then Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds would be up there with the best of them. No one can doubt director M. Sean Kaminsky’s passion for his subject, and certainly no one can dispute the passion of the film’s many interview subjects. The hallmark of a good advocacy documentary is that it leaves the viewer with a healthy dose of rage and the ability to explain, with some degree of accuracy and complexity, the importance of the subject. Open Sesame unfortunately fails on both counts.

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