mardi 12 janvier 2010

Films on Food: Our Daily Bread

Our Daily Bread is a 2005 documentary film by Nikolaus Geyrhalter that takes a behind-the-scenes look at the world of modern agribusiness—specifically, the slaughterhouses, fields, and industrial farms of Western Europe. Don’t think PETA publicity—the film is not interested in provoking shock or creating scandals. In fact, it isn’t interested in feeding emotions to the viewer in any way. Consisting of unconnected, unnarrated scenes of actual working times in unidentified factories, the film attempts to give an objective window into a process which we all take part in, but very seldom see.

Watching the silent procession of scenes, often grand landscapes symmetrically arranged and without exception beautifully photographed, the emotions conjured within me were not shock and indignation, but wonder and awe . . . “How bizarre!” I kept thinking, on seeing a scuttling mass of baby chicks sucked into holding crates by a vacuum, or a giant tent moving at a snail’s pace in the dark across a vast field, while the illuminated workers below harvest lettuce heads.

The film gives an impression of the surreal, but why should looking at the most mundane of foods (eggs, tomatoes, fish sticks) be surreal?

When asked in an interview what moved him to make this film, the director Nikolaus Geyrhalter responded, “I’m fascinated by zones and areas people normally don’t see . . . the production of food is also part of a closed system that people have extremely vague ideas about. The images used in ads, where butter’s churned and a little farm’s shown with a variety of animals, have nothing to do with the place our food actually comes from. There’s a kind of alienation with regard to the creation of our food and these kinds of labor, and breaking through it is necessary.”

Our Daily Bread shows you the hidden processes behind what’s in your grocery cart, but it doesn’t tell you what to think about it. This absence of direction left me with a strange uneasiness—because I’m used to being pushed to be enraged about where our food comes from, but here we don’t see obvious animal suffering, or unhealthy working conditions, or accidents, and still these images of normal factory operation are unsettling.

What’s disturbing about the film, what makes the images strange and weird, is much more subtle. It’s precisely that the factories are running so smoothly, the machines are working so efficiently, exactly tailored to their function, the spaces are so clean and well-disinfected—because this has all been arranged to perform rather horrific, insensitive processes on organic creatures, such as spraying pesticides, clipping beaks of chicks, separating cattle innards. It becomes terribly obvious how the distinction between living and non-living goods is irrelevant in this system; i.e. the only thing taken into account is the material condition of the final product.

The world of food production today is not always beautiful, but it is often bizarre. This film is both—beautifully filmed, frame by frame, and a look into how far from Grandpa’s farm modern agribusiness has come.

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