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Tribeca Review: “Shelf Life”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 10th, 2024

Shelf Life (Ian Cheney, 2024) 3½ out of 5 stars

Cheese has been with us, in all its delightful shapes, smells, and flavors, for millennia, and although its exact origins remain unknown, what is not a mystery is how almost every region of the world has developed specific specialties. This is especially remarkable if we consider the essential simplicity of the most basic kind of cheese, comprised of milk, salt, culture, and rennet. In his latest documentary, Shelf Life, director Ian Cheney (The Arc of Oblivion) takes a look at the many different ways that humans appreciate this dairy product, simultaneously meditating on the metaphysics of aging and life itself. That’s a lot to take on, but he mostly pulls it off.

What you won’t find here is an origin story. Although Palestinian archaeologist Salima Ikram briefly discusses how Egyptians may have made the first cheeses, this is otherwise a deep dive into the art of it all, in terms of design, process, and consumption. Cheney takes us on a globetrotting journey through a diverse array of voices, each contributing delectable thoughts on the savory qualities of the topic at hand.

Jim Stillwaggon in SHELF LIFE ©Wicked Delicate Films

There is much to like in a film where one of the talking heads—Mary Quicke of the English cheesemaking firm Quicke’s—uses the term “mouth orgasm” to describe the best that a good cheese can do. Before we get to that intriguing concept, we first meet an American abroad (“somewhere in the Pyrenees,” as the title card informs us), Jim Stillwaggon, both a cheesemaker and a philosopher. He introduces us to the role that time plays in the evolution of flavor, while also waxing rapturous about the sensual joys of taste.

From those passionate souls, we travel to Chicago, where we encounter a cheesemonger, Alisha Norris Jones, then to Tbilisi, Georgia, where another cheesemaker, Ana Mikadze-Chikvaidze, further expounds on Stillwaggon’s expansive notions of the immortality that cheese represents. Immortality? Well, it’s a preservation of the original milk, and if stored properly, merely changes over the years, rather than going bad. Decomposition is to be celebrated. Also, perhaps, in humans.

Chiyo Shibata in SHELF LIFE ©Wicked Delicate Films

Other places we go are Greenboro, Vermont, where Zoe Brickley explains how a young version of a cheese she develops can taste like a banana milkshake, to Oakland, California, where microbiologist Rachel Dutton, gives us the disturbing tidbit that the “dust” you scrape off a rind is actually made up mites. If you leave it in a pile, it will eventually move. Think about then when next you take a bite.

In Chiba, Japan, Chiyo Shibata educates her compatriots on the pleasures of cheese (not a foundational food on the islands), and makes the first truly made-in-Japan variety. In Wales, Susan Shurman judges blue cheeses at the World Cheese Awards, and in Grimentz, Switzerland, cheese librarian Jean-Jacques Zufferey not only walks us through the past lives of his family’s cheeses, but also introduces us to his favorite cow. It is a cornucopia of charming eccentricity.

Jean-Jacques Zufferey in SHELF LIFE ©Wicked Delicate Films

Still, sometimes Cheney indulges in a little too much contemplative reverie for the movie’s own good, leaving the central conversation slightly too diffuse. We return to the brooding Stillwaggon at the end, bringing the narrative full circle, though in a manner that reminds us how little narrative there has been. No matter, slice off a piece of cheese and let your mouth explode as Quicke would have it do. Yum.


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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