Why Did Mc Donald’s Shut Down in Bolivia? Film Explores the Country’s Fierce Local Food Culture (Interview)

Fast Food Off the Shelf Still Image© Fernando Martinez

Fast food giant Mc Donald’s has 192 restaurants in Argentina, 480 in Brazil, 55 in Chile, 97 in Colombia, 19 in Ecuador, 7 in Paraguay, 20 in Peru, 19 in Uruguay and 180 in Venezuela. But in Bolivia, the eight restaurants opened at La Paz, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz had to be closed in 2002 after five years of operation in the country.

The reason? According to the recently released documentary Fast Food Off the Shelf, the company’s failure had to do with the country’s fierce local food culture.

In an era in which we’ve realized that the globalization of food production has affected our health and environment, and when we’re re-thinking how we eat, Bolivia’s relationship with food may be an interesting case study (and not the only one: the country has already showed leadership in giving the earth rights, ensuring food security, and hearing native’s protests cutting development in the Amazon).

TreeHugger spoke with the documentary’s filmmaker, Fernando Martinez.

Fast Food Off the Shelf Making Of Photo© Fernando Martinez

TreeHugger (TH): What moved you to make this film?
Fernando Martinez (FM): Thanks to my work in the audiovisual field, I’ve been lucky to travel extensively and become quite familiar with the geography of my country, and every time you travel with a film crew, the first thing you do when you get to a small town or city is to find those places where you can have a good meal. With my friend and the film’s cinematographer, Gustavo Soto, we always talked about making a documentary about the best places to eat in Bolivia; on the other hand, when working at the Santa Cruz Ibero American Film Festival, every time I greeted someone I proudly told them: “Mc Donald’s had to shut down in Bolivia.” The merge of these two ideas was what gave birth to the project three years ago.

TH: How was it done?
FM: We had a research period in which we traveled around the country, and we decided the best way to talk about food was through chefs (from the gourmet to the popular ones). This made us look at food in a new light, it was not so much about recipes, but about the strong relationship with cultural practices: food is the largest cultural industry of any country. We shot everywhere in Bolivia, but in the final cut we left footage from La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz (cities where Mc Donald's operated) and a small interview in Sucre. We also shot in other Latin American cities like Buenos Aires, Salta, Bogota, Lima, Cuzco, Santiago and Sao Paulo.

Fast Food Off the Shelf Making Of Photo© Fernando Martinez

TH: How much do you think food tradition had to do with the closing of McDonald's? Was it the cause, or was it also the period's economic situation (*) what drove this company out?
FM: It's easy to say that the closure of this chain was for economics reasons, but who drives the economy? Behind economy there’s sociology and cultural practices. In a small country in the world, culture beat a transnational, without any political pressure or other arguments. That a company like this did not generate profits is explained in that the public could go there one, maybe two times, but ultimately preferred the local flavor.

TH: What did you learn about Bolivia’s food culture while making this film? And what is your favorite local food?
FM: In Spanish, the word taste (‘sabor’) etymologically derives from the word knowledge (‘saber’): to taste is to know. Bolivia is a poor country with little access to material goods, but its close relationship to the land creates a strong relationship with food. Bolivia celebrates life with food and dancing. The intense and traditional flavors are the representation of our people, they mark the pace of life. Food is almost a ritual in both cities and rural areas. As for local foods, I love a dish native from Potosi called kalapurka.

The film, a co-production between Bolivia, Argentina and Venezuela, began the festival circuit in the city of Gothenburg, Sweden, in February and the director says the screenings have been taking place with a full house. The premiere in Latin America was two weeks ago in Bolivia and the film will be released in Argentina and Venezuela soon, although the dates are not confirmed. International distribution is done by J.M.T. Films.

Take a look at the trailer above.

(*) Argentina's economic crash at the end of the '90s created a regional economic crisis which had repercussions in many neighboring countries. Mc Donald's shut down in Bolivia in 2002, hence the question.

More on Bolivia
Bolivia to Have a Mother Nature Ministry, Held Accountable For Enforcing Cochabamba Declaration
Mother Earth To Be Given Rights Equal to Humans In New Bolivian Law
Bolivia Celebrates First Annual "Day of the Pedestrian"

More on Mc Donald's
The Truth About McDonald's "Hot Coffee Lawsuit" & Why It Matters (Video)
McDonald's Happy Meals Evidently Invincible
McDonald's Happy Meals Banned in Santa Clara County, California

Why Did Mc Donald’s Shut Down in Bolivia? Film Explores the Country’s Fierce Local Food Culture (Interview)
Fast Food off the Shelf is a documentary that explores why Bolivia was the only country in Latin America why Mc Donald's couldn't make it and had to shut down.

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