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Our Daily Bread

by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Director
First Run / Icarus Films, Brooklyn NY, 2006
VHS/DVD. 92 mins., col.
Sales: $440; rental/VHS: $150
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com.

The Gleaners and I

by Agnes Varda, Director
Zeitgeist Films, NY, NY, 2000
DVD. 82 mins., color. French and English
Distributor’s website: http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art, University of Northern Iowa
Website: www.bobolinkbooks.com


The release dates for these films are almost six years apart, but, by fortunate coincidence, I saw both of them for the first time only recently. As films, they are undoubtedly different works, but viewed together, it is apparent that both are concerned with the same social phenomena: Each is a powerful statement about the consequences of the Industrial Revolution (reports about the death of which have been greatly exaggerated), and, more specifically, about the increasing prevalent use of mechanical, high yield methods of growing, controlling and harvesting food, both plants and animals.

Our Daily Bread, which is in certain ways the more comprehensive of the two, provides us with an overview of a broad range of factory methods applied to food cultivation, harvesting and packaging products for market, including the mechanized "processing" of chickens, pigs and cattle. The style of filming is appropriately factory-like–the camera is an anonymous eye, a quiet, robotic observer–nor is there any narration. One reviewer said of this effect that it is "Koyaanisqatsi-like," and while I too concluded that, I was even more strongly reminded of the classic book (shocking when I first saw it) Mechanization Takes Command by Siegfried Gideon (circa 1948), and, in recent decades, the sometimes shocking exposés of Frederick Wiseman (Titticut Follies in particular). Certain scenes in this film will surely be disturbing, because we are forced to be witnesses to the seemingly uncaring methods that reliably provide us with fresh and affordable food.

In contrast to Our Daily Bread, the hand-held camera of French filmmaker Agnes Varda takes on an impassioned, visible role in The Gleaners and I, a film in which she herself is portrayed as a cinematic gleaner. Like Our Daily Bread, Varda’s film is largely about the results of using factory methods in food production. Yet, in an interesting twist, it works by shifting attention away from the efficiency of such methods, and turning instead to the fragments that are left over from mechanized harvests. These remnants are also harvested (within French state regulations), not by machines, but by human scavengers or "gleaners"–people who stand on the sidelines then scour the fields when the harvest is done, gathering the perfectly edible parts that the machines have missed or rejected. For many people, whether rural or urban, gleaning (as a metaphor) is a critical means of survival. But Varda’s thesis is broader than that–we are all gleaners, in the sense that much of what we do comes from rescuing, recycling and newly defining the fragments leftover from of other events.

(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review, Volume 21 Number 1, Autumn 2007.)



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