By Nada Abass
There’s a common saying that food is often the way to one’s heart; often referring to cooking for a partner as an act of romance. However, the phrase has a deeper, familial meaning for Lina Li as she explores how food comes to play into a mother-daughter relationship in her short 2020 documentary, Have You Eaten?.
Li is in her final year of film studies at Ryerson University and has been preparing for her thesis documentary. Have You Eaten? has already been covered by The New Yorker and picked up by the National Film Board of Canada.
According to Li, the question ‘Have you eaten?’ is a form of greeting in Chinese culture and within her family is elegantly demonstrated in the documentary. In her work, her mother Yan Gao says: “When you’re not home I worry about you. Have you eaten?”
Throughout the doc, the audience is immersed in the cooking process of traditional Chinese dumplings, allowing viewers to be engaged in not just the delicate preparations of the food but also the heartwarming conversations from the family.
The film begins with Gao picking up chives that she grew in her backyard, showing the process from scratch. As Gao prepares the dumplings, we hear a recorded conversation between Li and Gao about their relationship.
“It transformed into this conversation that involves our culture and generation and even our language barrier,” said Li. In the documentary, the two talk about the hardships they’ve faced in their relationship, and when Li tells Gao they used to fight, Gao says: “At the time, you didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand you. That’s why we had conflicts.”
The raw and unfiltered way the two converse makes the documentary feel natural and real.
Being an immigrant myself, coming all the way from the Middle East to Canada, it’s easy to relate to the contents of Have You Eaten?. However, this documentary can easily touch anyone who appreciates their family.
When I asked Li about the current state of her relationship with her mom after living on her own and then having to move back home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said: “I began appreciating how much time and effort she puts into me.”
Li added that having to do her own laundry and cook her own food made her realize that her mom has always taken care of her. Food, in particular, is profoundly shown in the doc to be a symbol of love and a way of communication that becomes a language of its own.
“For me, love is really not communicated verbally a lot of the time…we’d communicate through gestures and food is a huge one,” Li said.
“It transformed into this conversation that involves our culture and generation”
What’s beautiful about this documentary is the fact that, despite the quiet subject matter, there is never a dull moment. It’s not a sit-down interview with the subject sitting on a chair in the centre of the frame or a little off to the side. It’s a simple and intimate conversation between a mother and a daughter.
Through the slow-paced nature of this documentary, we are shown a detailed process which helps amplify the idea of love being something that one has to be patient with; slow with a sweet ending.
When asked if the film has brought Li and her mother closer, she said just the simple act of them talking about the documentary has only strengthened the ties of their relationship.
Have You Eaten? shows how love takes many forms and one of the best shapes it can take is food. Especially when served and made with love from a mother.
In the words of Gao in the film, “No matter if you guys are with me or not, you will always have something that reminds you of home, and that is the taste of mom’s cooking.”