Of Silence, Globalisation, Greed for Profit and Insanity in Slaughter-Houses By Kirsten Liese

in 8th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Kirsten Liese

Documentaries are increasingly becoming cinematic events, abandoning their classic design as TV reports with one or several speakers from the off. For many documentarians, spoken language is no longer the tool of choice. Instead, they apply the narrative structures of feature films, allowing images and people to speak for themselves. In addition, various hybrids between such expressive documentaries and more traditional journalist-style reports are being released. Four examples should illuminate the diversity of genres, styles and make-ups as they were presented at the 8th Thessaloniki Documentary.

Philipp Gröning’s well-received portrait of a monastery Into Great Silence (Die große Stille, 2005) appears to be the most unusual documentary of all. It is quite unimaginable to watch it on television, video or DVD because the viewer requires almost as much seclusion and discipline as the monks in order to experience the silence and atmosphere of monasticism.

Consequently, a film about the Carthusians needs to be dramatically different to mainstream cinema and modern life in general: slow, taciturn, frugal. This particular one is about conscious watching and listening, about concentration on a life which – to a large extent – goes without spoken language as means of communication. Yet, communication does take place in a non-spoken way, during meditation, reading, feeding of animals or when handwritten notes are exchanged. In an age of almost incessant acoustic irradiation – be it in supermarkets, restaurants or even public transport – getting immersed in such silence and tranquillity is an affecting experience. However, in spite of its calmness this is not a silent movie but it stimulates awareness for sounds we have unlearned to even notice: raindrops, creaking floorboards, the peal of bells or a cat’s meow. Into Great Silence aims at translating the experience of monasticism into cinematic emotion and succeeds in doing so by observing the monks and their daily rituals in very long sequences without any cuts and by dispensing with artificial light. Midnight Mass for instance is taking place in complete darkness with only the red sanctuary lamp flickering above the altar.

Another remarkable film going without spoken language is Our Daily Bread (Unser täglich Brot, 2005) by Nikolaus Geyrhalter which is targeted on raising awareness of our perverse eating habits and the mass production of foods. In this case, drastic pictures supersede any comment, interview or explanation. They give the impression of being taken from a futuristic horror film while leaving no doubt about their realness – a most shocking effect! All productive forces are radically reduced to their technical aspects and the transformation from animal to consumer good is taking place within seconds by mechanic operating sequences and frictionless killing procedures. Thousands of eggs are incubated in computer-controlled furnaces, fearfully puling chicks are cooped up in tiny cages, chickens are approaching an agonising death on conveyor belts and pigs are passed through monstrous killer machines. The insistent sound track is part of this horrifying experience and prevents escaping it by just closing the eyes. The labourer, however, is neither hero nor dissident. For a couple of moments, the camera is watching one of them during his lunch break, unconcernedly eating a sandwich. There is no need for an interview with someone who has kept his appetite under these circumstances. His face tells it all: the indifference and emptiness probably seizing anyone who depends on doing such a dreadful job day in day out. Our Daily Bread does not comment verbally but its indirect criticism is very clear indeed: we ought to change our absurd eating habits and enforce organic farming for the sake of animal welfare!

A second film from Austria, We Feed the World (2005), deals with production cycles in a more conventional way as director Erwin Wagenhofer approaches his subject in traditional journalist style. For his project, he did not shy at long distances: France, Spain, Romania, Brazil and of course Austria are his sites of investigation in the international food industry. We Feed the World is meant to be informative but it also comes up with visually strong and haunting scenes which require no explanation. Still, Wagenhofer insists on using spoken language and for plausible reasons too: scandalous revelations, backgrounds and absurd opinions cannot be expressed by visual means only. And absurdities are in abundance: the amount of bread destroyed in Vienna daily equals the amount of bread eaten in Graz every day. The gritting material Austrian farmers use for their country lanes in winter costs more than the wheat they produce. Parts of Southern Spain are running short of water because half of Europe is supplied with Spanish hothouse tomatoes. Manufacturers consider taste to be a secondary criterion for quality and refer to animals as ‘living merchandise’.

After all, Wagenhofer does not comment himself. Instead, people mired in the food industry’s worldwide network are having their say: Brazilian farmers, Spanish truckers, French fishermen, Swiss corporate directors or someone like Karl Otrok, production manager with Pioneer Romania – the world’s biggest manufacturer of seeds – who is distancing himself from his own job.

In contrast to this, China Blue by Micha Peled (USA 2005) is placing less emphasis on experts and interviews, rather developing more like a feature film the sufferings of three women and their almost inhumane labour conditions at a jeans factory. The camera portrays them at their workstations, thus avoiding the distance between interview partners or experts and their subjects as is characteristic of classic reports. Viewers are enabled to actually sympathise with the workers as victims of a brutal system because it is easy to see that they neither lie nor exaggerate. Plodding almost around-the-clock for starvation wages, sometimes not being paid at all, excessively draconic forewomen firing anyone who dares to display signs of disobedience, hardly any private life in dingy eight bedrooms with poor sanitary facilities – we are presented with fates that could hardly be more deplorable.