Several years ago, suburban Boston was taken by storm by the opening of a new Krispy Kreme donut shop. For the first few weeks, buying a donut was a half-day experience, as crowds wound around the block, inching their way slowly toward diabetes, heart disease, and flabby spare tires (two more Krispy Kremes would later open, and all three subsequently went out of business within three years — Bostonians love the novelty of hastened death, but not, as it turns out, if the coffee sucks). At any rate, after the crowds dwindled to a manageable hour-or-two wait, I decided to see what the fuss was about myself. And if you’ve ever been to a Krispy Kreme, you’ll no doubt find that the best part of the entire experience (besides fried dough that slides down your gullet and straight into your thighs) is watching, through a large glass window, the donuts being made — circles of dough dipped into grease, drizzled with glaze, and sped along a conveyer belt. It’s a transfixing experience, strangely mesmerizing — the sort of thing it’s easy to waste a few hours watching.
Likewise, Our Daily Bread (which takes its title from King Vidor’s 1934 socialist-utopian melodrama) is a documentary that offers another large see-through window into the mass production of the food we eat every day. But instead of donuts and a conveyer belt, we are witness to the 21st-century food chain — haggard, listless humans mechanically moving chicks, chickens, pigs, and cows along the conveyor belt, or lethargically sticking 100 tiny chicks a minute into a processor to stamp their heads, before they are put back into a contraption and spit, en masse, back into the production cycle. Or a window into a world where a cow is tasered every 45 seconds by a guy in coveralls, lifted — still twitching — by its hind legs, and carried to a different station, where two more men in overalls chat idly while indifferently cutting the cow’s jugular, after which gallons of blood gush out of its opening and through its nose before — once again — moving along to a different machine that strips its skin Silence of the Lambs-style, and then to another man in bloody coveralls who cuts it in half with a giant chainsaw.
That’s the gist of Our Daily Bread, a documentary unusual in that there is no score, no narration, no interview, no re-creations, or statistics. It’s just a widescreen window that allows us to see how our food is produced in all its glorious detail. But in a way, Our Daily Bread is surprisingly more effective than the works of Spurlock, Schlosser, or even Ozecki, who drop statistics that allow us to intellectualize issues of the ethical treatment of animals or, even, in this case, the ethical treatment of humans, who waste away on these assembly lines eight hours a day, cutting the hooves off pigs over and over and over and over again, before taking a 15-minute break to eat a sandwich and stare off into space. Our Daily Bread is powerful for the way the stark, spare and often beautiful images of, say, a machine that rips the intestines out of a pig emotionalizes the issue by, ironically, presenting an incredibly dispassionate look at the matter-of-fact gruesome slaughter of animals.
Austrian documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter filmed Our Daily Bread on hi-def digital video while visiting slaughterhouses and industrial farms across Europe, and each shot is a tiny horror film in its own right, depicting the robotic nature of the food-processing industry. Indeed, each scene in Our Daily Bread moves along monotonously, itself a meta-cinematic version of an assembly line that wreaks both revulsion and boredom on the viewer, with scenes that are both tedious and strangely compelling. You may want to look away, you may even want to turn it off at times, but it’s almost impossible not to be sucked in by this nightmarish look at the killing fields that provide our daily sustenance. Even for vegetarians, it’s a guilty experience to watch, as we see — for instance — men in suits and gas masks befitting radiation fallout kicking pesticide machines into motion followed by another scene in which a shirtless man cuts through the same greenhouse aisle, meticulously picking vegetables, seemingly oblivious to the poisons only recently sprayed.
It’s a haunting film that does what so few documentaries do these days: It allows us to draw our own conclusions, though — even for the most closed-minded viewer — it’s difficult to draw any but this one: That ignorance is bliss, especially for those of us who enjoy cheap beef we can pick up at our local supermarket chain. In a way, though, I suppose it does make one feel less guilty about eating Krispy Kreme donuts.
For the curious, here’s a scene from the film, the entirety of which you can see playing in select areas over the next few months. (I caution those with delicate sensibilities — some may find it disturbing.)
And might I also offer the obligatory liberal shout-out to Community Supported Agriculture, which provides food from family farms in your area.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Our Daily Bread / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | February 28, 2007 | Comments ()