Genèse d’un repas, 1978

Incisively anticipating such sobering and indelible agricultural documentaries as Hubert Sauper’s Darwin’s Nightmare, Nick and Mark Francis’ Black Gold, and Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread (as well as the dysfunctionality of big business economics as presented in Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbot’s The Corporation), and infused with Luc Moullet’s irrepressibly droll, tongue-in-cheek humor that has been further crystallized within the filmmaker’s socially critical, if not revolutionary, gaze, Genèse d’un repas (The Origins of a Meal) is a thoughtful, acerbic, contemporary, and profoundly relevant exposition on the indirect, wide-ranging repercussions of globalism on industrial food production, international commerce, and the local economy. Tracing the seemingly innocuous ingredients of a meal, the film soon becomes a broader roadmap illustrating the cycle of exploitation, xenophobia, and disenfranchisement engendered by a legacy of colonialism and entrenched social class: eggs originating from a partially automated, industrial poultry farm packing plant in Picardy (sold under the marketed brands of Coq’ami and Cokidat, perhaps, to create the illusion of competitive pricing) is contrasted against the primitive conditions at a Senegalese cannery where the tuna is still manually processed and hand packed into tins; a can of Pêcheurs de France tuna which bears the striking figure of a ruggedly handsome, pipe smoking, seemingly Breton fisherman despite the product’s actual African origins in a Dakar seaport (a piece of information that has been surreptitiously indicated using obfuscated, tiny printing at the base of the label) underscores the implicit acknowledgment of racism that is mitigated by deceptive packaging; and a banana from an Ecuadorian plantation (interchangeably sold under the more familiar brands of Bajella, Chiquita, and Bonita) illustrates the inhumanity of working conditions, where children earning half wages as shipyard stevedores and poor migrant workers from the rural provinces increasingly constitute the industry’s preferred labor pool in order to minimize operating expenses and reduce (or more appropriately, circumventing) worker-related expenses such as health care and pension funds.

Moullet’s organic and sprawling, yet lucid and articulate essay film further broaches on such (still) contemporary issues as the disparity of wages between Senegalese workers and their Gallic counterparts (even those who work and reside in Africa), the culture of excess endemic in industrialized societies that have led to widespread obesity, the socio-political fragility intrinsic in a single-crop economy that enables the mechanism for catastrophic famine, the reality of a supplanted cultural imperialism in the wake of a delusive, post-colonial “liberation” (a shot of a supermarket aisle in France and Senegal become interchangeable as the French then export goods, such as re-branded canned tuna, back to the former colonies) that continues to foster economic dependency through infrastructural corporate alliances that perpetuate insoluble debt (a prevailing theme in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako), the industrial practice of under-weighing produce to reduce payment to suppliers under the justification of product desiccation in transit, the ecological (and moral) waste of enforcing “excessive quality control” that relegates edible, but undersized food products (including fish) to be discarded rather than given away to the underpaid workers for their own consumption (note a shot of discarded bananas along the shipyard that is evoked in the fragrance of discarded oranges along the harbor in Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Sicilia!), the endemic corruption caused by the forging of incestuous relationships between corporations and (often despotic) governments in order to ensure the continuity of their foreign operations despite political instability, and the impotence of organized unions in competitive and desperate labor markets. Tracing the often humorous, yet heartbreaking trajectory of the agricultural trade from the moment of harvest, to processing, to transportation (often through circuitous routes at intermediary, international ports in order to navigate through murky, protectionist tariff laws), and eventually, to local distribution centers (an equally muddled network of middlemen businesses that set an arbitrary overhead percentage for the domestic resale of goods), Genèse d’un repas serves as an ingeniously prescient social interrogation, not only of the thinly veiled exploitation of emerging nations as a result of the global economy, but also of the broader question of how the societies of developed nations define the very notion of civilization itself, where the insatiable, public-fueled consumption for cheaper (and more) goods, coupled by corporate profiteering, global competition, and exploitive outsourcing have engendered a dystopian economic reality of social polarization, cultural subjugation, and systematic poverty.

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