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Our Daily Bread

by Nikolaus Geyrhalter
First Run/Icarus Films, Brooklyn, New York, 2006
Video-DVD, 92 mins., col.
Sales, video-DVD: $440; rental, video: $150
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com

Reviewed by Martha Blassnigg
University of Plymouth


The documentary film Our Daily Bread, by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, is one of the rare examples of contemporary documentary filmmaking in which some of the most relevant discussions within film- and cinema theory appear to crystallize. In the already impressive oeuvre of this young filmmaker, Our Daily Bread reveals another outstanding example of Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s (script, directing, cinematography) and Wolfgang Widerhofer’s (script, editing) long-standing collaboration, applying a reflexive, subtle and intelligent approach, here to the subject of the industrialized production of food.

The contemporary documentary film market with its festivals, committees and broadcasting networks predominantly regards film form as subservient to content. Our Daily Bread makes a critical intervention against this tragic development and has already achieved international recognition through numerous awards, international screenings and cinema distribution agreements. Nonetheless this film deserves more acclaim beyond the classical categorization of what commonly is thought to make a good documentary film.

In contrast to the very common documentary film genres of reportage and ideological- or educational driven styles, Geyrhalter positions himself as a silent participating observer and shows, predominantly through wide-angle long shots and continuous tracking shots, what happens behind the veils inside the mechanisms of the industrialized food production throughout Europe. The film follows the living organisms, from their source (seed, cells, artificial insemination, etc.) in and outdoors, through the processes of growth, feeding, pesticide treatment, etc. to the final machinery of the harvest and slaughter, and the various stages of cleansing, portioning, packaging, etc. What we see is activity in the close presence of the camera, avoiding sensationalism and the use of extreme close-up’s as affection-images in a Deleuzian sense; instead the frequent use of wide-angle views appear to create an optimal stage of projection and reflection for the viewers.

Through Widerhofer’s evocative editing style various forms of intelligence interact and act upon each other: the machineries and robots, the organisms, plants, animals — alive and dead — and the human employees in their daily routines, all on an equal plane of observation. These scenes of the food processing production are regularly juxtaposed with mostly one, sometimes several employees, during their lunch breaks in fixed frontal medium close shots, silently consuming their ‘daily bread’. For brief moments they — and we — are cut off from the distinct noises and mechanisms of the machinery (perhaps it is just as well that Smell-O-Vision never really took off), and as viewers we can take a break from the stream of images and narrative structure of the sequences.

The dramaturgical structure of the film avoids providing any further factual information; there are no numbers, places or interviews, for example, nor does it offer any uttered opinions or text in form of subtitles or inter-titles. As a consequence, the spectators are not only stimulated but are also confronted with a whole range of open questions that provoke them to make up their own minds relative to what they see. Such questions concern for example the quality of processed food, automation of labor, ethics of mass livestock breeding, artificial insemination, slaughter, application of insecticides.

In addition, the choice of avoiding any interviews is obviously a very considered one, which supports the clear-cut style of Geyrhalter’s aesthetic approach; his cinematography and Widerhofer’s associative editing ‘show and tell’ in sequences of images held together by a sophisticated dramaturgical structure of contrasts, analogies, interconnections and contradictions — a complexity of observations which the spectators are invited to experience.

In Our Daily Bread, the technology at work and on display as well as the applied techniques in film style and form create a polyphonic dialogue of a complex ‘apparatus’ where the mechanisms of cinematography intersect and interact consciously with those of the food production industry. Consequently, in the spectator’s perception the film operates within a framework of tension between the visual aesthetics and perceptual pleasures of color patterns, the formalistically appealing architecture, machinery, ‘food in process’ on conveyor belts, and the subjective negotiation with ethical dimensions of possible interpretations. The transparency of this conscious application of the film style takes the viewer into the subject of investigation, not only with the purpose of making the usually invisible processes of mass-food production ‘audio-visible’, but to ask us to make ‘sense’ of what we see in relation to our own agency in this matter. In our daily responsibility as consumers in our shopping habits and food choices, the contract between the spectator and the cinematic event, as Jean-Louis Comolli proposed, here turns into a conspiracy with no escape.

Our Daily Bread is a film that allows space and reflexive interaction with the interior psychological apparatus of the spectator’s mind with a minimal amount of manipulation (considering that every film in its foundation constitutes forms of manipulation, most basically through the application of visual frames). This is a rare achievement in the documentary film genre, in which cinema comes to life, transparently revealing its ‘dispositif’ of complex relations and meanings. In Our Daily Bread the cinema’s implied ideological frameworks are put to the fore through the conscious and transparent workings of the apparatus, in an open yet inclusive dialogue with its audiences.

The website http://www.ourdailybread.at offers additional information such as stills from the film and behind the scenes, press extracts, awards and festival participation, a trailer and interviews.



Updated 1st February 2007

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