Tribeca 2024 Review: Shelf Life

Documentarian Ian Cheney’s Shelf Life is an anthological look at cheese, a food item so ubiquitous that many take it for granted. The participants sing the praises of this miracle milk by-product. Unfortunately, even with its brief run-time of 78 minutes, the film feels bloated due to the inclusion of superfluous scenes and an overall lack of focus beyond its main subject.

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The film opens in the Pyrenees with cheese-maker Jim Stillwaggon, a fascinating individual whose philosophical approach to appreciating the pleasures of cheese could easily be applied to all the pleasures life affords. He clearly appreciates comfort or maybe was surprised by the film crew’s arrival as he is interviewed in his bathrobe.

Jim comes across like an individual who could be the subject of a whole movie but the film moves onto Devon, England to introduce Mary Quicke, who is the 14th generation working on her family farm. We get to see large amounts of cheese stored with the right kind of mold doing its work.

Off to Chicago, Illinois where the viewer meets Alisha Norris Jones, a cheesemonger, a title that is never explained. She makes dinner for a friend and that friend’s father, offering suggestions on pairing different food she serves them. The film moves away from cheese when Alisha asks the father a personal question, in a way related to food, about when he achieved his personal ripeness. While he gives an interesting response about that time, 10 years earlier in his life, it doesn’t fit the film.

Cheese comes back to the forefront in Tblisi, Georgia, where Ana Mikadze-Chikvaidze, identified as cheese mother, a title given no clarification. Under Soviet rule traditional artisanal cheeses were lost and she wants to bring them back. She works with Galina Inasaridze, a farmer who makes Tenili cheese, and the viewer gets to see the process, beginning with her milking the cows by hand. When interviewed, she is asked, “What have you learned in life from cheese and the land?” She says she didn’t learn anything, which is a legitimate response, but begs the question, why include it? Even more puzzling is the inclusion of a sequence where five men sing at a restaurant, presumably before they are about to eat cheese at the meal. It’s a good performance but no explanation why or translations of what they are singing.

In Oakland, California, microbiologist Rachel Dutton offers a closer look than some may want as mites and microorganisms are shown under a magnifier. While explained they are necessary to the evolution of cheese, this sequence makes cheese less appealing. In Chiba, Japan, Chiyo Shibata is also a microbiologist but she’s using her skills and the unique microorganism she discovered to make cheese in Japan, after she spent a year in France learning how.

About two-thirds of the way in, the film heads to the 2022-23 World Cheese Awards in Wales. At first, I expected the previous participants would compete against each other with their products. But, no. It was just to interview Cheese Judge Susan Sturman, who offered her informed thoughts on cheese and life.

The last two interviewees are Jean-Jacques Zuffrey, a cheese librarian (??) who owns a Swiss farm, but he only gets four minutes. In Egypt, an archeologist reveals how past civilizations used cheese. With no story, it means the last interview subjects have to be special, but these two sequences are anticlimactic.

Shelf Life shows cheese is an interesting subject to be the focus of a documentary. Unfortunately, it’s not always an interesting documentary.

Gordon S. Miller

Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of this site. "I'm making this up as I go" - Indiana Jones

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