Shot in Europe on high definition video over the course of several years, Our Daily Bread (AKA Unser täglich Brot) is a visually poetic documentary about the production of food.
I say “documentary,” but the film has no narrator, no specific story to tell, and no political axe to grind. There is only the ambient sound and the stunning photography of the story behind our groceries.
There are those who might mistake Our Daily Bread as an excuse to gross out the squeamish with footage from slaughterhouses and factory farms. Indeed, the film was sold at our local film series, in part, with a quote about saving the killing floor for last. But such a view of this movie is very shallow. There is so much more going on than simply a morbid curiosity about meat.
Start with the cinematography, which is carefully framed and richly detailed. There are unforgettable shots in Our Daily Bread that have nothing to do with death. Take the tractor, statically positioned in the lower center of the frame, dwarfed by the horizon. The shot runs for thirty or forty seconds as, slowly, the tractor unfolds its segmented arms, eventually filling the entire screen that had only recently seemed too big for the tiny machine. Or consider the shot deep in the salt mine where the gigantic earth moving equipment is pressed down from above with an oppressive darkness. Or watch in wonder the surreal cartoon humor in seeing fuzzy yellow chicks being moved along a precision conveyor belt.
Add a superb sense of pacing from editor Wolfgang Widerhofer. (I’m sure writer/producer/director/photographer Nikolaus Geyrhalter had much to do with it as well.) Within each scene, we slowly come to understand what somebody’s job is, or what the process being photographed entails. A tractor’s eye view of a long armed frontal attachment just seems silly and inefficient, until, minutes later, you finally understand how that attachment gets nuts from a tree. Another scene starts with guys suiting up in hazmat gear. We wonder what organic process could be that dangerous then we see the guys spraying pesticides on our fruit and understand just how strong the poison is… and wonder whether we really ought to be eating such things.
Editor Widerhofer does an almost perfect job shaping the arc of the movie, too. The film opens with a long, static shot of a light, airy, empty building. As the film progresses, Widerhofer moves from scene to scene, offsetting the disturbing animal scenes with scenes involving plants or minerals. (The filmmakers are careful not to flinch from death, but also not to deliberately shock, linger, or revel in blood and guts.) Throughout the film, Widerhofer returns to the building from the opening shot as peppers are planted, grown, and eventually harvested.
There is one mistake in the editing that I wish I had the chance to correct. It will take a digression to explain it, so bear with me. In a class taught by Stan Brakhage, we watched Ralph Steiner’s film H2O, also a poetic, narratorless film about in this case, water. The film print was incomplete, which the class didn’t know. One of the more observant students pointed out that the film seemed emotionally cruel. Steiner had used images of water to lead the audience into an emotionally troubled state, and then apparently just left us there. That’s when Brakhage told us that the film print was wrong. In the complete film, Steiner had actually fulfilled his responsibility as an artist and brought the emotion of the film back to a stable, level place.
That day in class taught me a lot about art films. If you’re an artist speaking to the emotions and not necessarily to the intellect, you have a responsibility not to abuse that trust. The mistake in Our Daily Bread is the same one that our local film program used to goad audiences to come see the movie: the filmmakers saved the killing floor for last. The final scene includes footage of two cows, facing the camera, being killed by workers in a slaughterhouse. For many, it is the most difficult scene to watch. Emotionally, it is the climax of the movie. But a storyteller needs to end the story a little after the climax, to let the audience come back down from the high point and adjust to life outside the theater. Editor Widerhofer had given us exactly that release by returning to the long shot of the empty greenhouse after the harvest of the peppers. It was the perfect time to release the audience from the theater emotionally, and it even made structural sense, having returned to the place where we began. To put the hardest scene after this emotional release was... I won’t say “artistically irresponsible,” but it was the wrong editorial choice. The last two sequences should have been reversed.
Nevertheless, Our Daily Bread has haunted my thoughts for a week, and not in a gratuitously shocking way. It is the best movie I have seen in many months. Friends and family on my gift list may find a little Daily Bread in their stockings this year.