Last week I saw an amazing film that I should have known about earlier, because it was issued in 2005, and won an award at a film festival in Montreal, and an honorable mention at a Toronto festival.
The film is called Our Daily Bread, and is the work of a cinematographer --- that is, a complete film-maker, cameraman, director, writer, you name it --- Nikolaus Geyrhalter. It is a film which purports to be about the industrial processes of growing and processing the food we eat, but it is certainly more than that, for it involves questions about our relationship with other species, about human cruelty and indifference to the suffering of animals, about the unbearable work some humans are called upon to perform, about our mastery (and some would say, abuse) of nature through the imposition of mono-agriculture over fields as large as the eye can stretch, and many other peripheral but important aspects of life. It is, in my opinion, a work of absolute genius, this film, eschewing as it does any commentary or hard information and depending entirely for its effects, its story and its impact upon the images Geyrhalter has coaxed from his camera.
Most of these images are shown in long long holding shots that emcompass whole huge fields of growing plants, immense conveyer belts inside factories in which animals are processed into food, so that we are able to follow the process from the enclosure of the animals, through the grim process of their killing, and on to the even grimmer process of their evisceration, dismemberment, and even packaging, and then to the clean-up. One thing that amazed me is that all this requires huge quantities of water which is used in every process from the growing of plants, of course, through to the cleaning up of the immense quantities of blood and other messes that are expelled by newly eviscerated animals.
The workmen involved are usually not many, and they seem --- of course, I suppose one should add, since they are so accustomed to what they are doing --- completely unconcerned, unemotional, even indifferent to the results of their various actions.
For example, in one mind-blowing sequence, a man (or was it a woman?) standing beside a moving conveyer belt that holds the corpses of hundreds of animals moving along past him (or her?) --- anyway, this person is operating a big machine that is, essentially, a chainsaw, which he or she moves forward repeatedly into the centre of the animal corpse, opening a slit through its entire torso, from which, in every case a whole parcel of its innards flopout as the animal passes on. The next sequence shows the innards falling on to a table on which a woman straightens it up, cuts off certain inconsequential parts that she directs into a chute while sending the innards on for further processing along the way.
One of the most extraordinary sequences is a long shot in a room full of chickens which share it with a slowly but inexorably moving machine that runs into them, picks them up one by one, sends them down a hatch and out into a box where a worker straightens them up before closing the box off (hopefully without catching their heads as she closes the box, which unfortunately she did on one occasion. Never mind, it was treated as of no consequence).
One woman was shown sitting at a table with a pair of shears with which she cut off a certain part --- was it the head? --- of a passing parade of chicken corpses, monotonously, hour after hour, probably for eight hours a day, or possibly even more.
And then, for a finale, we were shown how a large animal, a steer or a cow, was corralled into a huge drum, its head with nowhere to go but into a space designed to hold it while a person with a stun gun of some kind administered a shot that killed the animal stone dead on contact. It was these animals which when eviscerated, emitted a veritable river of blood washed away to the holding ponds, or wherever the blood is directed.
Not a word of commentary, not a smidgen of information, no reference to the where, who or why, was offered from beginning to end of this hour and a half film which made it, I have to say, all the more effective. No one was being charged with cruelty or indifference; no one was accused of anything: we were simply shown one part of our vaunted industrialized culture, the culture that has enabled us to feed billions more people than ever before.
I kept wondering how they got permission to film these processes in their factories. My experience of private companies has been that they are almost paranoid about cameras even approaching their plants, and I felt sure no company in Canada, or probably in the United States, would ever have agreed to such filming.
I had to go to the internet for information about this. The film-maker, Geyrhalter, said some companies were proud of their plants and the processes they used, and willingly agreed to their being shot. But others (as I know they are in North America), were more suspicious and guarded.
The internet provides a list of 25 companies, all named, in which the filming was performed, in eight separate countries of Europe.
I remember once being surprised when I was making a film in mid-northern Quebec about a farming family half of whose members had emigrated to northern Alberta. The subject of the film had nothing to do with the huge barn in which the family kept its milking cows throughout most of the year, certainly all through the winter, apart from its being their workplace.
Their animals were kept in stalls with a chain around their necks, restricting their movement to just sitting down or standing up. They were artificially impregnanted, and when ready to deliver a calf they were taken to the end of the barn, from which, after delivery, they were returned to their stall. The process struck me as totally inhumane, although I suppose one might have argued that they were at least sheltered from the worst of the winter.
When I got to Alberta, the other branch of the family, 25 years there, was still living in a small house but had half a million dollars of farming equipment in their barn, which they used to pursue their monocultural production of wheat. They didn’t grow anything else on the farm, but bought their eggs, meat and other food from the supermarket in the nearby town.
It raised the question in my mind whether we are not setting ourseves up for a massive fall with our monocultural methods of abusing nature. And this film, Our Daily Bread, certainly poses that and many other questions as well.
Everyone should see it.
But I think the last word should go to Geyrhalter himself, who said in an interview:
“There were some people at (some) companies who see the consumer’s alienation from food production as a problem because consumers have no idea about their concerns. On the other hand lots of companies are afraid of publicity and what a film like this could show. After all, there are constant scandals, and they might think: If it’s going to create a scandal, then they should do their shooting at the
“But the point of this film isn’t to uncover scandals. I wanted to collect and make accessible images from this branch, this world, in as objective a manner as possible. What makes it fascinating are the machines and the sense of what’s doable, the human spirit of invention and organization, even at close quarters with horror and insensitivity.
“Plants and animals are treated just like any other goods, and smooth functioning is extremely important. The most important thing is how the animals can be born, raised and held as efficiently and inexpensively as possible, how to treat them so they’re as fresh and undamaged as possible when they arrive at the slaughterhouse, and that the levels of medications and stress hormones in the meat are below the legal limits. No one thinks about whether they’re happy. If you want to call that a scandal, which is more than justified, then you have to take your thinking one step further. Then it becomes the scandal of how we live, because this economic, ‘soulless’ efficiency is in a reciprocal relationship with our society’s lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘Buy organic products! Eat less meat!’ But at the same time it’s a kind of excuse, because we all enjoy the fruits of automation and industrialization and globalization every day, which affect much more than just food.
“The film’s title, OUR DAILY BREAD refers to our cultural history, and because of the religious association the effect’s even more crass considering how people treat their resources and fellow living beings. I always take the thought further, and the next line would be: And forgive us our sins. But it also refers to earning our daily bread, the normality of this life, the question of how people do their jobs, and how this has changed. Who runs the machines, who controls the processes - and who digs in the ground with their bare hands or picks the cucumbers? How is our daily bread distributed in contemporary Europe?”