For What We Are about to Receive

By Graeme Hobbs

our-daily-bread-nikolaus-geyrhalter.jpgOur Daily Bread, 2005

Our Daily Bread revisions the contents of the stomach

‘Too gruesome for words’, ‘a movie that belongs in every school’, ‘the 2001: A Space Odyssey of modern food production’, ‘eccentrically lovely and frequently horrifying’, ‘Geyrhalter, as director and cameraman, can also be compared with suspense master Hitchcock… a pure cineaste and motion scientist’.

The comments may leave you intrigued but not much the wiser about the substance of Our Daily Bread. So, it’s a film about industrial food processing in Europe, taking in greenhouses, fisheries, salt mines, abattoirs, chicken sheds, olive groves, salad bowls and sunflower fields among other places. There is no voiceover, there are no interviews, and there is no obvious angle that the filmmakers are taking. In its stance it appears to be studiously neutral. It was made between 2003-2005 in Europe ‘with the friendly support’ of the companies involved. This seems right; even if they do reveal locations and routines jolting in their unfamiliarity to most viewers, in many cases scenes look like promotional films advertising the companies’ cleanliness and smooth operations. Director Nicolas Geyrhalter describes his film as ‘a widescreen tableau of a feast which isn’t always easy to digest – and in which we all take part’.

Replacing narration, its soundtrack is filled with the hum and whirr, clank and spray, thump, rattle, wash and tick of machinery and processing units; from hatcheries that look like the spotless corridors of isolation wards, to zooming conveyor belts of chirping yellow chicks fired off into plastic trays, to production lines readying countless birds for human consumption. Now and again there are hints of where we are – a labelled box here, snatches of conversation there, but this is inessential information. Nor is the film concerned particularly with the people who make up the gangs of workers. The processes are the thing. The processes that pick and pack, sort and select, kill, wash, skin, gut, clean and cut up in the most efficient manner possible. As consumers, we are the end users of the natural products that travel through these processes, so it is valuable to make a few connections; between the crunch of lettuce in a sandwich for example and the figures kneeling behind a machine inching through the night across a field, between the anonymous sliver of beef and the half-ton of beast, stunned, turn and hung in an abattoir, and between the salt for its savour and the 90 seconds of rapid descent in a mine shaft to caterpillar trucks that wait in the earth.

Before seeing the film, you might imagine its subject matter to be repugnant, and for some people, some of the scenes undoubtedly will be, yet I suspect such a feeling comes from the scale of operations as much as anything else. (I think of Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts, in which the sense of revulsion increases according to the size of the animal, from prawns to a zebra, as they are pictured in their sped-up, maggoty dance of decomposition.) Indeed, the sight of mechanical olive harvesting, or vast expanses of plastic covering a landscape, is as striking as anything here. There are also scenes that are bewildering or occasionally oddly comic; the red potato harvester moving horizontally across a field while wind turbines turn in the background, the only sound the busy rumble and clatter of the machine, looks like it could be part of the aesthetic of a Kaurismäki tragicomedy in another life, as does the tractor sprayer extending itself in a field of maize.

our-daily-bread-nikolaus-geyrhalter-2.jpgOur Daily Bread, 2005

Geyrhalter says, ‘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 labour, and breaking through it is necessary.’

As Wolfgang Wederhofer – credited with editing and dramatic structure – says, he edited to create an open space onto which our thoughts could be projected. ‘It would be wrong to say that Our Daily Bread is just about the horror and spectacle of industrial food production. I think it’s also a positive film about human existence: We like to invent and build machines that we can look at in wonder.’

One of the most unforgettable scenes involves a shed full of chickens. Anyone who has caught, killed, scalded, plucked and drawn just one chicken will know that to replicate it on any large scale, in a calm and efficient manner, requires another method entirely. When you have a barn full of countless thousands, how on earth do you deal with them? I doubt many people will predict the large vacuum cleaner that provides the disconcertingly logical answer to this particular problem. It stands as an apt symbol for the film’s approach. As Geyrhalter says, ‘viewers should just plunge into this world and form their own opinions’.

Graeme Hobbs lives and works in the borderlands. He writes, makes chapbooks and gardens.