Movie Review: Our Daily Bread
A pretentious fraud I knew in college used to say, “Narration is the refuge of the unimaginative.” I’m not sure this is true, but the makers of the fascinating new film Our Daily Bread seem to think so. For two years they documented current high-tech food farming in Europe, and now they’re simply letting the footage flow. They deploy no narration or even music to tell you what to think of the images or the order in which they are presented. What we hear instead are the naturally occurring sounds of the subjects. This means we listen to a lot of the relentless hum Stanley Kubrick liked to hear from his machines, because one thing the film makes clear is that very little of today’s farming is done by humans.
Machines shake the fruit off the trees, they water the peppers, they flip the cows, and, in an impressive watch-like contraption that’s all scooping silver and spinning blades, they gut the fish. All of this is interesting, and some of the images are flat-out haunting: a cluster of greenhouses glowing amber in the middle of the night, a field of sunflowers under a bright blue sky being sprayed by a nice yellow plane. One knows the greenhouses are probably glowing to fool the plants into growing faster and that plane is likely dumping pesticide on the flowers, but the unity of the colors is too pleasant to be spoiled.
Animals are a more troublesome situation. Now, I eat meat—lustily—and this film did nothing to change that, but my muscles tensed along with everyone else’s when an animal came on screen. In fact, the sight of a pleasant woman sharpening a very long knife was enough to make me want to head back outside and check on the sunflowers. But after shifting between enough harvests and slaughters, I began to wonder why I had so little compassion for the vegetation. It wasn’t until the movie was over that I bothered to even think about the creatures killed by the pesticide, and the length of the thought was proportionate to the size of the wee victims.
My ambivalence was enhanced by the participation of humans in the farming, even though we don’t see many of them, and of those we don’t see much. Most wear variations of the protective suits sported by those who took E.T. away from Elliot, and the rest work so deliberately that it’s hard to know how they feel about what they are doing. If I felt so conflicted watching a cow become the steak I wanted to order after the credits rolled, what must the man with the hydraulic saw feel as he bisected the enormous beast?
The filmmakers attempt to show us something about these people, but unfortunately they do so in the only self-conscious scenes of the film. They plop their camera down directly in front of a camera-shy worker while he or she awkwardly eats a sandwich and drinks tea, presumably hoping for the first time that lunch ends early. We have to watch them in action to glean insight, and perhaps the most telling moment comes from the cow-cutter. After finishing a slice, he lays down his saw, reaches into his protected pocket, and takes a call on his cell phone.
This film is well worth seeing but hard to find. For more information go to: www.ourdailybread.at/jart/projects/utb/website.jart?rel=en
- Michael Uppendahl