Wednesday, 25 November 2015

This is Who We Are: Our Daily Bread (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 2005) and Manufactured Landscapes (Edward Burtynsky, 2006)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2008; a version of the review of Our Daily Bread also appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Vertigo magazine - Volume 4, Number 2)

Here I look at two documentaries that consider the mechanisms and processes that make the habits of western life possible: Our Daily Bread (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 2005), and Manufactured Landscapes (Edward Burtynsky, 2006).

Our Daily Bread is a film about industrial food processing in Europe, taking in greenhouses, fisheries, salt mines, abbatoirs, cattle sheds, olive groves, salad bowls and sunflower fields, among other locations. There is no voiceover, there are no interviews, and there is no obvious angle that the filmmakers are taking. It has been described variously as ‘too gruesome for words’, ‘eccentrically lovely and frequently horrifying’, ‘the 2001: A Space Odyssey of modern food production’, and, in Der Standard, “Geyrhalter, as director and cameraman, can also be compared with suspense master Hitchcock in this respect; a pure cineaste and motion scientist’ – comments which may leave you intrigued but not much the wiser about the film. In a way, they highlight one of the film’s crucial aspects; it appears to be studiously neutral in stance about its subject. It describes itself as ‘a widescreen tableau of a feast which isn’t always easy to digest – and in which we all take part,’ which is about right.

As Wolfgang Wederhofer – credited with editing and dramatic structure – says, he edited deliberately so it would create an open space onto which many thoughts can be projected. ‘It would be wrong to say that Our Daily Bread is just about the horror and spectacle of industrial food production. I think it’s also a positive film about human existence: We like to invent and build machines that we can look at in wonder.’

I suppose it is a platitude to say that one’s reaction to any film depends on the background and predilections of the viewer, but this is especially true here. As it doesn’t push you in any particular direction about its subject, viewers’ reactions are likely to be wholly reliant entirely on their own tastes, experiences, diet and thoughts about food supply in the 21st century.

Before seeing the film, you could think that the subject matter might be repugnant, and for some people, some of the scenes will be, yet I think such repugnance probably comes from the scale of operations as much as anything else, whether these be in an abbatoir or for salad production. Indeed, the sight of mechanical olive harvesting, or vast expanses of plastic covering the land, as if the artists Christo & Jeanne-Claude had been given permission to cover large tracts of the Netherlands, is as striking as anything here. There is also much here that is bewildering, fascinating and occasionally surreal or comic. For example, the scene of a red potato harvester moving horizontally across the screen in a field with the blades of wind turbines turning in the background, the only sound the busy rumble and clatter of the machine looks like it could be part of the aesthetic of a Kaurismäki comedy in another life, as does the tractor sprayer extending itself in a field of maize. At other times, we are so thoroughly dislocated we don’t know what to think, as with the two men chatting away during their 90 seconds of rapid descent in a lift shaft. To do what?

It was made between October 2003 and October 2005 in Europe ‘with the friendly support’ of the companies involved. This seems right. In many cases scenes look like promotional films advertising the cleanliness and smooth operations of the various food processing companies involved, even if they do reveal strangely unfamiliar worlds to most of us watching. As director Nicolas Geyrhalter says, ‘I’m fascinated by zones and areas people normally don’t see … the production of food is also part of a closed system that people have extremely vague ideas about. The images used in ads, where butter’s churned and a little farm’s shown with a variety of animals, have nothing to do with the place our food actually comes from. There’s a kind of alienation with regard to the creation of our food and these kinds of labour, and breaking through it is necessary.’

I’ve already mentioned that there is no narration in the film. Instead the soundtrack is filled with the hum and whirr, clank and spray, thump and rattle, wash and tick of machinery and processing units, from hatcheries that look like the spotless corridors of precious archives or isolation wards to conveyor belts of chirping yellow chicks to production lines readying countless chickens for human consumption. Now and again there are hints of where we are – a labelled box here, snatches of conversation there, but this is not important. Nor is it concerned particularly with the people who make up the gangs of workers or where they come from. in this regard it is studiously apolitical. The processes are the thing. The processes that pick and pack, or kill, wash, gut, clean and cut up in the most efficient manner possible.

One of the most unforgettable scenes involves a shed full of chickens. Anyone who has caught, killed, scalded and plucked just one chicken will know that to replicate it on any large scale, in a calm and efficient manner, requires another method entirely. When you have a barn full of countless thousands to be loaded into trays to be loaded onto lorries, how do you deal with them? I won’t spoil the surprising solution to this question. logical it may be, but it’s completely unexpected.

There’s something compelling about this film, which I would urge people to watch. As the director says, ‘viewers should just plunge into this world and form their own opinions’.

If Our Daily Bread is about the food systems and processes that support predominantly western eating habits, Manufactured Landscapes is about manufacturing, industry, transportation, and the consumer goods that make the habits of western life possible.

In fact, the film has dual subjects. It is nominally a portrait of the photographer Edward Burtynsky (and shares its title with his book of the same name), but it is also a film about the subjects of his photographs – ‘the new landscapes of our time’ – places where industrial activities scar and poison the earth, places where the raw materials from these sites are assembled into consumer goods of every description, and the places where the concomitant human detritus is dumped and sometimes sorted for re-use.

Burtynsky visits places that have been disrupted and disfigured in pursuit of progress, and pictures the industrial and post-industrial landscape as a way of investigating who we are today. As he says, he deliberately goes out to find ‘the largest industrial incursions’ he can find, places that ‘show the evidence of accumulated taking’.

He photographs the warehouses and distribution centres, the docks and shipping container yards. We see ships being built, looking like flayed whales, or chameleon-eyed metal monsters, and ships being broken in Bangladesh, which is just one of the dumping grounds that feature in the film. Much of Baichwal’s film is made in China – the place that receives many of the raw goods and products extracted from the places Burtynsky photographs. Here they combine and are then shipped out in manufactured form, only to return some time later as waste and scrap. We see whole towns dedicated to recycling e-waste by hand, from breaking chipboards by hand with a small hammer to smashing computer screens, regardless of the poisonous metals released that seep deep into the earth and poison the water table.

Burtynsky’s photographs of mounds of such waste are not without a certain desperate irony of beauty – shots of chipboards from above look like an overhead map of an urban sprawl or even a bucolic scene of autumn leaves, computer wires and cabling resembles a tangle of fishing nets. Other indefinable parts have taken on the colour and allure of fool’s gold.

Burtynsky is of course aware of the irony of what he does. Says he, ‘I arrive in a car made out of iron, filled with gas, I put up a metal tripod and grab film that’s loaded with silver and start taking pictures, so everything I’m doing is connected to the thing I’m photographing.’

We see a little of the mind-numbing work of manufacture a little way into the film – a woman checking nozzles for sprays for example. Later, in a brief interview, we listen to a young woman named Tan Yanfang talking about her work in a circuit breaker factory. It’s put into the film for the tension between her own thoughts and the factory notes of marketing platitudes in her pocket that she relies on after she dries up. However, there is a more interesting story here that is left unexplored. She has worked in the factory for six years, and can construct 400 circuit breakers a day. This means she has made nearly a quarter of a million circuit breakers. Her work has has gone all over the globe and undoubtedly saved lives. It’s a small human-sized moment in a film on the scale of vast manufacturing. A moment that makes a connection between one woman in China and an electrical safety appliance that may very well be in your house. It gives a face to things we take for granted. More could have been made of this but it would probably take a whole other film to do this theme full justice.

From its opening 7-minute tracking shot along near-identical workbenches in ‘The Factory of the World’ somewhere in China, this is a film that overwhelms with its scale. It doesn’t preach though. Instead, it shows the world of manufacture, transportation and waste, says ‘this is who we are’, and leaves us to think – hard – about the state of current human life. As Burtynsky says, ‘many people today sit in that uncomfortable spot where we don’t necessarily want to give up what we have, but we realise what we’re doing is creating problems that run deep. It’s not a simple right or wrong – it requires a whole new way of thinking.’

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