SXSW ’17: Grilling “Barbecue” director Matthew Salleh

It might seem presumptuous to premiere a documentary in Austin, Texas that details the ins and outs of barbecue culture, but Matthew Salleh says he couldn’t ask for a better ...
March 10, 2017

It might seem presumptuous to premiere a documentary in Austin, Texas that details the ins and outs of barbecue culture, but Matthew Salleh says he couldn’t ask for a better audience.

Salleh, with partner Rose Tucker, traveled to 12 countries around the world to create his debut feature-length documentary Barbecue, which chronicles different cultures’ affinity for cooking meat over an open flame. The finished product will premiere on March 10 at the South by Southwest Conference and Festival.

Salleh’s globetrotting mission started with a road trip through Texas. He was shooting a short doc in the state, and through his travels was able to see how barbecuing had immersed itself in Texan culture. The Australian director could relate.

“Every person, every country thinks that they have the best barbecue in the world…that they’re the only ones who know how to do it right,” says Salleh. “People are passionate about food, and barbecue evokes a really patriotic passion. And it’s the subjects people are passionate about that make for the best documentaries.”

Salleh began reaching out to people in his own city of Adelaide, in Australia to find subjects for the doc. “It’s quite a multicultural community,” he explains.

Those individuals were able to connect him with other friends who connected him with other friends, which snowballed until Salleh had contacts internationally. But while there was a loose framework for who would be profiled in each country, a lot of work was done on the fly.

“We very much relied on the kindness of strangers through the film,” says Salleh. “When people in each community realized they’d have an opportunity to be part of a global story, they’d come to us and want to talk about the way they do things and how they live.”

Salleh and Tucker shot just over 200 days out in the field, spending about two to three weeks in each of the dozen countries they visited.

Due to the limitations of working with a two-person crew, Salleh chose to take a simple approach to his filmmaking, which was shot in 4K and entirely in natural light.

“It helped reflect the environments of the people we spoke with,” he explains, adding that in Mongolia, they worked with families who had lights powered by car generators. Locations included Shisanyama in South Africa, Engangsgrill in Sweden, the Syrian border and an outback Australian town.

But a smaller crew also meant less equipment, which in turn meant Salleh and Tucker could be nimble, slipping into remote communities without drawing too much attention.

But the project certainly wasn’t without its obstacles. Where there’s barbecue, there’s smoke, which isn’t exactly camera friendly. “We had to clean our cameras a lot,” laughs Salleh.

Navigating through one dozen countries with one dozen languages also posed a challenge. The pair would rely on tour guides, who then often connected them with people in the community. Having this community connection was key, says Salleh, so they could dive deeper into the cultural significance of their barbecue methods.

The result is a documentary that’s less about food, and more about ritual and community.

“The way these countries do barbecue is very different, but the reason the do it is similar,” says Salleh. “It’s a way to bring culture, community and family together.”

  • Barbecue screens during SXSW on March 10 at 5:30 p.m. at the Stateside Theater in Austin Texas, and again on March 12 and 18. Visit the festival’s website for complete screening info.
About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.