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REVIEW | Agriculture Clash: Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s “Our Daily Bread”

REVIEW | Agriculture Clash: Nikolaus Geyrhalter's "Our Daily Bread"

In one of those coincidences that will inevitably have critics spotting a newly forming cultural zeitgeist, the food industry doc “Our Daily Bread” now follows fast on the heels of Richard Linklater‘s Saylesian fictional adaptation of Eric Schlosser‘s Fast Food Nation expose. Whatever the reasons for their nearly simultaneous appearances (the ever-growing concern over globalization and mass manufactured food, most likely), watching both films provides an illuminating study on the possible approaches to political filmmaking: whereas Linklater skillfully works in the mold of the “multiple intersecting storylines” liberal drama (see: “Traffic,” “Syriana,” “Babel“), Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter shoots “Our Daily Bread” from the unmistakable single-minded Kubrickian distance of the art house. Linklater aims to convert its general audience to well-informed vegetarians at your local Loews; Geyrhalter will be relegated to turning stomachs at Anthology Film Archives or, as he did earlier this year, the New York Film Festival. Same politics, far different intentions.

How viewers might actually respond to these dichotomous approaches remains to be seen. “Fast Food Nation” is a solid piece of filmmaking, but its well-honed didacticism could represent for some a significant stumbling block in accepting its platform; on the opposite end of the spectrum, “Our Daily Bread” leaves preaching by the wayside and allows its rigorously composed, clinical images of slaughterhouses and agricultural machinery to speak for themselves. It could, however, and not unfairly, be charged with aloof aestheticization–it’s an unsettlingly gorgeous film.

Surveying the posthuman environments of space-age industrial greenhouses and metallic killing floors, Geyrhalter uses patient static shots and slow-moving tracking shots (or else mounts a camera to various tractors and cars) to record the usually hidden or else gladly ignored processes responsible for the title’s proverbial sustenance. It’s an alienation effect rather than a shock tactic–to watch the droning mindlessness behind the dusting of crops, the picking of cucumbers, or the disemboweling of pigs is to conceivably watch an unfeeling race of androids from a totalitarian planet going about their nightmarish daily routine. Human and animal agency is reduced to a bare minimum, with machines and vehicles dwarfing workers or else placing them at the mercy of monotonous rhythms. Inevitably, the most troubling footage is the systematic destruction of cows.

But such scenes are de rigueur for a film like “Our Daily Bread”–the ones truly impossible to stop thinking about involve baby chickens getting funneled, machine gunned, and carelessly tossed into compartmentalized groups, as well as the similar method used to gather their parents. “Our Daily Bread” usually stuns by displaying the sheer enormity and scope of modern agricultural enterprise, but this and a score of other moments collapse aesthetic remove, depicting with unsparing closeness the desensitization necessary to live with such cruelty and consume its resulting products.

[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He also writes for L magazine, Stop Smiling, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon.]

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