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Omnivore - Food covered in film

Twin motivations drive today's culinary-minded nonfiction cinema: To decry the industrialization and mass marketing of what we eat, and to celebrate the Slow Food movement and other healthier, more sustainable approaches.

In his famed 2004 film Super Size Me, documentarian Morgan Spurlock went on a monthlong all-McDonald’s diet that wreaked havoc on his health. One of his doctors told him the steady intake of Big Macs was essentially turning his liver into paté — a rare case of junk food producing a gourmet dish, assuming a market existed for Spurlock Paté.

Super Size Me took a gimmicky but effective approach to the serious theme of American eating habits and whet the appetites of documentarians for more films on the subject. Twin motivations drive today’s culinary-minded nonfiction cinema: To decry the industrialization and mass marketing of what we eat, and to celebrate the Slow Food movement and other healthier, more sustainable approaches. Specific documentaries offer diverse perspectives, in contrast to our monolithic food production practices.

January 13 marked the DVD release of Our Daily Bread, an award-winning, head-spinning, at times stomach-churning glimpse at the mechanics of industrial food processing. Director Nikolaus Geyrhalter doesn’t editorialize, but lets the images speak for themselves. For 90 minutes, Our Daily Bread simply shows of vast machines and bored human operators raising produce and harvesting livestock. You’d think Our Daily Bread would be as exciting as watching vegetables ripen, but it’s a weirdly engrossing experience. There’s always something happening in Geyrhalter’s artfully arranged shots.

Our Daily Bread almost resembles a science fiction film the way it shows familiar foodstuffs such as apples dwarfed by sterile, utterly alien environments, or baby chicks on assembly line conveyor belts, or the huge, freaky machines that suck fish from the ocean or scoop up live chickens and launch them into crates. Geyrhalter frequently cuts to workers chewing their meals on break. They seem so bored and disengaged, it’s like they’re part of the automatic routine, too. When the film unexpectedly shows two workers making a huge pot of rice, it’s a shock to see such “normal” cooking.

Our Daily Bread isn’t just an intellectual exercise. It also preys on viewer sensibilities by including slaughter scenes (although they’re probably less than a fifth of the film’s content).