Volume 76, Number 27 | November 22 - 28, 2006
Our Daily Bread
A documentary directed by Nikolaus Geyrhalter
Showing Friday through December 3
Anthology Film Archives
32 2nd Avenue
Nikolaus Geyrhalter captures the artificiality of industrial farming in “Our Daily Bread,” showing through December 3 at Anthology Film Archives
A lot to process in ‘Our Daily Bread’
By Steven Snyder
It’s not surprising that Anthology Film Archives programmed screenings of “Our Daily Bread” to coincide with the mainstream release of Richard Linklater’s “Fast Food Nation.” Unlike that bloated, clawless adaptation of a groundbreaking book, “Bread” packs the real sucker punch concerning food production in America and abroad. Those who are craving some level of societal outrage should only view “Fast Food” as a primer for this main course, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s silent, patient indictment of the world of industrial farming.
And it works for precisely the same reasons that “Fast Food Nation” doesn’t. With that mainstream title, a searing, non-fiction account has been merged with a ho-hum fictional story. Perhaps not surprisingly, “Nation’s” facts have been lost amid the conventions of the narrative. But with “Our Daily Bread,” those distractions, such as plot, drama and even language, have been eliminated. There’s no one at work here, pulling the strings behind the curtains, telling you what to think or how to react; only the silent, patient observations of an unblinking eye.
In shots that rage from only a few seconds to what seems like nearly minutes, Geyrhalter trains his camera at the landscape of the industrial farm and allows these moments to unfold. From the giant greenhouses where they grow apples and pears to the cavernous buildings that house thousands if not tens of thousands of chickens, to even the methodical assembly lines that take a cow’s corpse and strip it down to individual cutlets of meat, the camera remains fixed, recording this system of food creation, destruction and distribution.
These are the systems the world now requires to sustain itself, the infrastructure that makes cheap meat, and bountiful year-round fruit, possible.
With an eye for the paradox, Geyrhalter constructs images that stretch across the screen to startling effect. Spreading out in front us, we see row after row of tall apple trees and then see a man wearing a white radiation suit, guiding a pesticide sprayer through the vegetation. We see a field of beautiful yellow flowers, and then watch as a yellow plane circles and descends, unloading its toxic spray.
Through the day and into the twilight, we watch a machine slowly roll across the horizon, harvesting the crop and digging up the landscape for hour after hour. One of the film’s most shocking images is an assembly line sequence involving baby chicks, put on the conveyer belt as if they were parts for an automobile, manhandled, tossed about and killed by assembly workers.
Geyrhalter then pointedly turns his cameras on these workers themselves, sometimes as they eat lunch on a break and other times as they line the factory, handling food.
The effect of this approach, as conceived for a movie theater, is similar to that of the work of documentary director Thomas Riedelsheimer (“Rivers and Tides,” “Touch the Sound”). He captures but doesn’t define, allowing the images to exist on the screen long enough for audiences to not only see it, but to process and contemplate the moment. For Geyrhalter is less interested in constructing a story than in asking us to engage with this world. In an age when most of us particularly us New Yorkers have little sense of where our food comes from or what’s required to sustain such an unsustainable place as Manhattan, here’s a film that follows the food chain up to the very beginning, and lets us in on the secret.
The answer at first seems matter-of-fact, but the deeper we dive into Geyrhalter’s vision, the more nightmarish it becomes. Ignoring any discussion of animal rights or capitalism run amok, what is most apparent from “Our Daily Bread” is how inhuman this whole thing seems. Armies of human beings have been mobilized into silent, disengaged zombies. Animals have been piled high as if used piles of junk. Vegetation is being sustained artificially in places that plants have no business growing.
There is absolutely no connection here between human and Earth, between food and eater. It seems like a vision from the world of science-fiction, an almost unholy desecration of the planet we’ve been handed and entrusted with. Food, for many of us, is one of our last connections to the natural world. Unplugged and offline, we cook dinner and share dinner; one of our last communal activities.
But there’s no mistaking here how poised on the brink of destruction we are, relying on food created by robots, enriched by chemicals and harvested by exploited laborers. It’s enough to make you wonder if Earth, despite all her defenses, can survive us.