Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread is a wordless, although certainly not soundless, exploration into the industrial farming system. It takes us onto the farms, into the slaughterhouses, throughout the food system that feeds billions but which many of us criticize for its damage to animals, humans, and the land. As consumers, we largely have no idea how food gets to our plates and mostly we don’t care. Over the past fifteen years, food politics have become a powerful part of the American scene, even if they have had little impact on in legislation. For young, environmentally-inclined people I know, food is a driving force of their activism while for many middle-aged people, a return to the farmers’ market, the backyard garden, and the local has become an important series of consumer choices reflecting a discomfort with the impact of Big Food.
The most powerful part of the film by far is the animal filming. From watching baby chickens be sent on conveyor belts for separation to the gutting of pigs and fish, the viewer is riveted and more than slightly disgusted. For that, the film deserves a lot credit. We never see the insides of a system that delivers meat to our plates in often quite inhumane ways. The workers here don’t abuse the animals but there’s a clear lack of sentimentality. They are born, labeled, sifted out. Some reproduce, most are slaughtered. Some die on the way. No reason to cry over that for these workers. Cost of doing business I guess.
The rest of the film works slightly less well, largely because watching people pick zucchini or plow a field isn’t very interesting. Geyrhalter doesn’t allow workers to speak for themselves, because no one is speaking, but he does honor their largely pretty boring labor simply by pointing the camera at them without judgment. One woman spends her day cutting off pigs feet as they go by on hooks, another sorts out the intestinal matter. But who is doing this labor? Why? What does this say about inequality? It’s unknown because of the downside of the voiceless approach.
It’s also worth noting that in very important ways, the German food system differs from the American food system. For one, while Geyrhalter received permission to film inside German slaughterhouses, there’s no way that would happen in the U.S., what with the ag lobby pushing to make filming their operations illegal. In Germany, most, although not all, of the work is done by whites. In the United States, agricultural work is heavily racialized, with Latinos now dominating many areas and African-Americans heavily represented in some areas. Because of that, the treatment of workers seems worse in the United States, but again, we can’t know because Geyrhalter either doesn’t care or has other priorities.
And that’s fine. Overall, this is a pretty fascinating film with a few riveting moments. I don’t know if I’d call it profound, but that may well be because I already know a lot about how this all works. Others may be blown away. Everyone who eats meat should have to watch something like this. I’d be interested in using it in a class and seeing what happens.