Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 02, 2006 2:05 pm 
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Artistic documentary: does it work?

Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Our Daily Bread (Unser t├Ąglich Brot) is more like a conceptual art piece than the usual documentary film. It consists of 92 minutes of filmed images of European food industry workers, most of them doing their jobs, and some of them having their lunches. There are no verbal guidelines provided; there is no identification of the industry or the location, no statistics or other information about the work being done. This includes chickens, cows, pigs, cattle, and fish, everything from breeding to slaughtering, as well as workers spraying crops, picking fruit and vegetables, and so on. The 35 mm. hi def images are handsome, bright, and clear, with excellent color. In a neutral sort of way, you could say they are "pretty." The result is a kind of numbing, disturbing visual wallpaper. Geyrhalter has produced an artifact as cold and as inhuman as the processes he has filmed. That's why this reads like a conceptual piece that might be shown in the room of a museum as part of an exhibition, rather than in a movie theater.

All these images are from large scale production. There are no small farmers represented. When an animal is killed, the chances are hundreds of them are being killed. Baby chicks are shunted around on conveyor belts, into boxes, sorted by hand, and sent into other conveyor belts, like inanimate objects. Cattle and pigs are shunted along in mechanical conveyors to slaughter and taken apart afterwards with machinery, while workers also repeat monotonous gestures. It isn't made clear whether it is the actions or their scale that are to be noted, and presumably objected to. (Is it bad to raise animals for food? Or at least much more wrong to do that on a huge industrial scale?) There is an obvious irony in the contrast between the worker's little sandwiches consumed staring into space and the vast quantities of future edibles they contribute to the preparation of. But actually the images here are at the raw end of food preparation. There is no cooking, canning, or bottling. And Our Daily Bread doesn't show the baking of bread, either on a small level or a large one.

An Amsterdam Film Festival award jury described these scenes in its citation as "a powerful cinematic experience! A series of shocking and indelible images...unremittingly merciless and nightmarish....A vision of Hell. Not the Hell of our theologians but one constructed by our politics, our markets and our food technologies. This is a great and important film and we are delighted to honor it with the Special Jury Award."

Yes, this is a remarkable film, exhaustive and exhausting in its methods and effect and appropriate for inclusion in a film festival where work that pushes the envelope is going to be sought out. The New York Film Festival's emphasis on high artistic merit and originality justifies the inclusion of Our Daily Bread as one of its 28 official selections. However, one may wonder if a "documentary" that reads more as an art piece than as instruction can really be effective as polemic or information. And yet it would appear that polemic and information are Geyrhalter's interests here.

It's true that some documentaries "work" brilliantly without voice-over commentaries. The French To Be and to Have, which describes a year in the life of a rural schoolteacher, is deeply affecting without a word of interjected commentary. But when we are in the world of public social issues, or matters for concern and debate, it is more usual for the filmmaker to inject words into the debate. Examples of that kind of documentary are Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 or the more recent global warming film featuring Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth. Our Daily Bread doesn't contain a word of commentary. And for the English-language viewer, none of the occasional lunchtime workers' conversations is translated.

Consequently it seems that this kind of film is unlikely to reach a wide audience. But isn't reaching and influencing a wide audience just what this kind of committed filmmaking is about? In situations like this, Geyrhalter is right in saying that it may not matter whether the food factory is in Austria, Spain, or Poland, "or how many pigs are processed every year in the big slaughterhouse that's shown."

Except that it does matter. Because it is the scale that makes the world of industrial food production and high-tech farming inhuman and inhumane and disturbing. Do you want to become a vegetarian? What we see done to plants isn't very pretty either. All these events and actions take on a different cast if seen within a small scale, done for local use.

There is no objection to the images Geyrhalter has assembled. They deserve to be seen and thought about. They are important. And this relentless presentation of them, without words and without commentary or verbal information, does leave an impression. But an example of a better treatment of this kind of subject matter for the general public is Deborah Koons Garcia's 2005 The Future of Food, which focuses on genetic manipulation and cloning and the patenting of plants and has a regular voice-over narration to tell us about the subject, as well as interviews with people whose lives have been effected by Monsanto's and other corporations' intervention in farming. Geyrhalter says that he and his crew did interviews, but they found that they detracted from the overall effect. We must ask what kind of effect he was trying to create, and whether documentary filmmaking shouldn't be focused more on informing us than on simply "affecting" us. It is important to be "affected," but we also need to know what is going on, why it is going on, and what we might do about it, other than feel depressed and numbed.

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