First there was Central Texas Barbecue. The short film grew out of a road trip that director Matthew Salleh and his producing (and life) partner, Rose Tucker, were taking across Texas. Inevitably, they came across a number of Texas barbecue restaurants, and the practice, so different to the Australian tradition, piqued their interest.
“We just started chatting to a few people,” Salleh tells us, “and found that the very simple thing that we Australians take for granted, the backyard barbie, these guys had taken to whole new level – almost biblical proportions. That really excited us, so we made that film.”
Central Texas Barbecue had its world premiere at the 2014 Sydney Film Festival and was very well received, but the short film had also planted the seed of an idea: if Texas barbecue differed so much from the Australian style, what might the practice be like in other countries? Say, another dozen countries? And so Barbecue, the feature documentary, was born.
Backing proved surprisingly easy to procure. “We went to Screen Australia and said we’d like to do this in 12 countries and they said yes. So we did! It was as simple as that!” Salleh tells us. “We still had to go through the whole process and all that, but I think they were really excited by it. It’s funny, whenever we tell anyone about the film, I think people instantly have a story to tell about barbecue, and the way that their family did it, or a memory that they have associated with it. I think when we started telling people that we wanted to do it on a grand scale, it made sense to people. I think they were very excited by it.”
The film takes off from the wilds of Mongolia to country Australia, from Mexico to South Africa, Japan and Armenia, looking at how each culture approaches the practice of applying heat to meat in the great outdoors. By necessity, the definition of “barbecue” goes beyond what your average Australian viewer might be familiar with.
“We worked within each culture,” Salleh explains. “Barbecue is a very western term, and that’s why the title of the film reflects that there’s so much more complexity to it than the simple idea that we might have. We were looking for equivalencies, rather than some strict definition. As you start looking around the world, pretty much every country, when the weather’s good and you’ve got friends coming over and a reason to celebrate, people get out in the yard and do their version of barbecue.”
Countries were chosen through a mix of online research, asking around – “You’d be in a taxi or an Uber and people would be pitching you, like, ‘Oh, you’ve gotta come to my country, you’ve gotta hear about this’” – and good old fashioned networking. “You know, we wanted to film in Sweden so someone we knew had a brother who studied there and knows a guy, so we’d ring them up and it’d be ‘Yeah, come over, we’ll take you out, we’ll show you how we do it.'”
Salleh and Tucker worked as a two-person team, with Salleh directing and operating the camera, while Tucker handled sound and field production. Together, they shot for 200 days, occasionally encountering chaos on the way, such as when they arrived in the Philippines to discover their airline had lost their luggage. “We ended up finding it in a shed at the airport filled with chickens and fruit.”
Ultimately, though, Salleh rates it as an incredibly positive experience. “The subjects we were with were always brilliant, always fantastic, and whenever you got to be in people’s lives and have them share their important cultural traditions with you, that was always brilliant.
“I had an idea of what I thought the global community meant and what its potential was,” he continues. “We had a hypothesis and then we had to go test that by making the movie. I wanted to believe that people have more similarities than differences; that there’s something that binds us together by the way we do things – and that is what I found. Which is a good thing!”
Barbecue is screening at Sydney Film Festival.