Our Daily Bread | We feed the world

Nicolaus Geyrhalter. | Erwin Wagenhofer

Austria 2005, 90 min. | Austria 2005, 96 min.

Curiously, two feature docs have been released in Austria at the same time dealing with the same theme: modern industrialized fishery and agriculture – and both films were supported by the Austrian Film Institute and the Vienna Film Fund. The two films urge us to stop up and take a closer look at the way the world is developing, asking the question: is this what we want? But here the similarities stop: the two films take two quite different approaches.

Our Daily Bread is an expressionistic vision, like Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). It is completely without dialogue, voice-over, music, any information in the form of texts or anything, consisting only of pictures and natural sounds. It shows all the aspects of modern agriculture: conveyor belts, breeding tanks, greenhouses and slaughterhouses. In most cases the products being manufactured are alive-chickens, pigs, cows-yet treated by the workers exactly like objects that have to be sorted, turned the right way, fit into the machines, cut into pieces and packaged. Deprived of any dignity, the cows wait to be slaughtered while watching their fellow cows hanging dead from the roof. The chickens are packed into boxes, transported on conveyor belts, put in enormous halls so close together they are almost in two layers, ending in the slaughterhouse, where hanging from a conveyor belt they are cut into smaller and smaller pieces and readied for packaging.  In the greenhouse, the plants grow in bags of nutritious soil, not even in touch with real dirt, so when harvested and withered, they are easy to cut and collect.

The images are carefully framed in symmetrical compositions, full, grandiose, shots giving the production facilities monumental status, underlining the enormous, impersonal conditions under which the food is produced. Quantity is the keyword for modern agriculture which is as far from nature as is imaginable. Towards the end of the film, Geyrhalter cuts between scenes of greenhouses, slaughterhouses and livestock buildings -all being washed and disinfected. The clinical, unnatural, estranged relation to natural products is complete.

To watch this incredibly beautiful flow of images with such nauseating content has a strong effect. Of course it is not just an observation; the whole stylistic choice of Geyrhalter provokes our emotions. It is staring at us, saying: ‘Look! This is how your food is being made.’ Then it is up to us to decide whether this what we want.

We Feed the World takes a very different approach, far more journalistic and explicit in its statements and structured in chapters. Each chapter is presented with an epic text lining up a paradox like “Why are our chickens eating up the rainforest while a quarter of the Brazilian population is starving,” or a fact like “Tomatoes get transported across Europe because the transport costs only amount to 1% of the shelf price.” These issues are elaborated on by visiting a place in the world and following some kind of food production, like a chicken farm in Austria, a company producing genetically-engineered seeds in Romania, a huge greenhouse area in Spain, a French fisherman, etc. In each location, the director gets someone involved in the production process to explain the procedure and as they explain they reveal that they are not happy with the industrialized production, but feel they have no choice: because their customers want lower prices they are forced to mass-produce. As someone remarks, “The trade is only interested in price, flavour is not a criterion.” It’s quite disturbing to watch a fishing expert show the difference between the freshness of the fish caught by French fishermen in small fishing vessels and landed each day compared to the catch of the big trawlers that spend maybe a month at sea, bringing back not so fresh fish with not so much taste.

To paint a larger picture and present some hard facts, Wagenhofer has included Jean Ziegler, the UN’s special rapporteur on the Rights to Food. He is particularly concerned about the imbalance in access to food around the world. Whereas the Western world disposes of enormous amounts of food, 100,000 people starve to death each day. In principle we are capable of feeding 12 billion people, so why are people starving? Ziegler tells of another absurd paradox we have created: because the US government and the EU subsidise their farming industries, it actually means that at a market in Senegal European vegetables are sold for a lower price than local vegetables. As a result, Senegalese farmers cannot make a living from farming and immigrate to Europe to live a miserable life as a fruit picker…

The film is thorough and convincing and one of the rare films that successfully deals with global interrelations, getting around the complexity and seriousness of the issue-in the same genre as films like “The Corporation” (2003). It is engaging and feeds your brain while also showing the nauseating consequences of our, the consumers, demand for low prices and a wide assortment on our shelves.


Modern Times Review