Nikolaus Geyrhalter thinks we know too little about the food we eat and how it gets to our tables. So he's made Our Daily Bread, a film that shows us, among other things, how tomatoes are picked, how chicks are hatched and how salt is mined. He also shows us how animals are raised and slaughtered.
This fascinating film tells nothing, but shows everything. There is no narration, no dialogue, no talking-head interviews, just image after image culled from the world of high-tech agriculture and animal husbandry. Who knew, for example, that there's a machine made especially for shaking olives off their trees, another for picking them up off the ground? Or that vacuums are used to suction chickens off coop floors and into cages? Or that a cow can be skinned in under 10 seconds?
Geyrhalter's film doesn't use a musical soundtrack to cue our emotions. The awe, dread and occasional boredom we experience watching it is underscored not by Philip Glass compositions, but by the whirring, banging and droning of machines, the monotonous white noise of grow lights and the barely audible chatter of alienated assembly-line workers.
These are inspired directorial gambits, but they have their drawbacks. For example, given viewers' genre expectations, especially as they've been shaped recently by blockbusters like Fahrenheit 911 and Super Size Me, it's fair to ask if the film really qualifies as a documentary. If so, what story is it telling? What, if anything, is it advocating?
With its sumptuous static shots and rhythmic editing, Our Daily Bread could just as easily be seen as experimental art cinema. For that matter, a slight shift in context is all it would take for the film to be used to promote the very practices it supposedly condemns. Kraft, Monsanto or a government proud of its agricultural economy could all spin this film easily enough to their purposes. That's the problem with cleaving so closely to a policy of noncommittal documentation: To leave a slate blank is to invite all and sundry to fill it in however they like.