Thursday, January 24, 2008

Review - Our Daily Bread (Unser täglich Brot)

Our Daily Bread is documentary filmmaking in its most distilled form. There is no narration, there is no music; the film comes without any captions or interviews, and we are given no context for the pictures we're seeing. Instead, director Nikolaus Geyrhalter leaves everything open for audience interpretation, declining to offer any fixed perspective on the food processing practices his film depicts, and simply allowing us to observe the day-to-day life of those working in this industry as they pass before his dispassionate lens. We see animals being slaughtered, we see crops being picked, and we experience both the horror and the monotony of life on the production line in unsparing detail, as hi-tech machinery enables us to kill and package mass-market food in an ultra-efficient manner. It would have been very easy for Geyrhalter to turn Our Daily Bread into a Fast Food Nation-style exposé of the meat trade, turning our stomachs with grisly shots of dying livestock, but instead he has chosen to take his film down a much more ambiguous and intriguing route.

In a way, Our Daily Bread is like a minimalist slaughterhouse version of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi (sans music), with wordless sequences of everyday incident being edited together to form a dreamlike, weirdly compelling whole. The film unfolds in long, elegant takes, often with the camera (operated by the director) remaining in a fixed position for the duration, and editor Wolfgang Widerhofer shows fine judgement in the way he cuts between scenes, often taking us to a vastly different location without disrupting the film's flow. The film exerts something of a hypnotic pull on the viewer as it examines the various processes food must pass through before it ends up on our plate; but in case talk of this detached, mesmerising aesthetic proves misleading, I should point out that Geyrhalter doesn't shy away from showing us the bloody reality of meat production. One of the most unsettling sequences shows a cow being stunned by a bolt to the brain and immediately collapsing into a twitching heap, before being moved away as another agitated animal takes its place. We also witness a seemingly endless supply of dead pigs being eviscerated in seconds by a fast-moving machine, a sight that is both impressive and disturbing, and we watch as a chicken is killed, plucked and cleaned. As I watched Our Daily Bread, I did worry on a couple of occasions that my barely-digested breakfast was about to make a surprise reappearance.

What these images make plain is the way food production of this scale has become a mechanised industry, where new technology has enabled humans to turn living, breathing animals into packaged meat in the most streamlined fashion possible. Geyrhalter's camera revels in depicting the clinical, sterile surroundings in which these practices take place – some of his compositions might have come from a science-fiction film – but he also finds time to focus on the specific roles people have to play amongst all of the conveyer belts and metallic slicers, and if you've ever complained that your job was tedious and unfulfilling, then Our Daily Bread is the film for you. One woman here is employed solely to chop the trotters from pigs' bodies as they pass in front of her, another has to tag thousands of chickens, and a particularly unfortunate soul has been given the task of pulling apart one cow stomach after another. None of these people seem disgruntled with their lot, though, they simply get on with the job at hand and go about their business with the minimum of fuss. Occasionally, Geyrhalter will show us one of these employees as they take a break, sitting with a cup of tea and a sandwich, chewing distractedly on their lunch before getting back to work.

The major obstacle faced by filmmakers aiming to depict monotonous action is that their film can easily grow monotonous in itself, and despite the beautiful visuals (one crop duster shot is a dazzling visual coup) and moments of humour (the baby chicks sequence is inexplicably hilarious), Our Daily Bread doesn't entirely avoid that trap. The rhythmic, repetitive pacing – so crucial to the film's effect – ultimately leaves it dragging in places, even with a relatively tight running time. Another of the film's bravest moves, Geyrhalter's refusal to editorialise his material in any way, also proves slightly frustrating, as a little contextualisation could have helped to give us some insight into the practices we're watching. But I suppose it's a rare pleasure to experience a documentary which is happy to simply document; a film which simply says "this is how it is", and then allows us to filter the information in our own way. Our Daily Bread is an inventive and admirable piece of work which offers us a genuinely eye-opening experience as it presents life in the globalised food industry; a strange, cold and fascinating world where human beings are mere cogs in the machine.