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A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Luc Moullet and Antonietta Pizzorno eat tuna from Senegal, bananas from Ecuador and an omelette made with eggs probably laid by battery hens in Brittany.

Senegalese workers have some fun while filling up cans with tuna meat.

Luc Moullet listens to an Ecuadorean worker who describes his working conditions.

Two French dockers share their insight on the mechanization of the port of Dieppe.

A Senegalese fisherman describes the racial hierarchies on board between local employees and French expatriates.

An importer based in Rungis, Paris’s largest wholesale market, compares the quality of bananas from Ecuador and the French Caribbean.

A major Ecuadorean exporter comments on U.S. imperialistic presence in South America and how it affects the country’s food trade.

Reminders of French colonization continue to shape Dakar’s cityscape.

Similarly, supermarkets are filled with products directly imported from France and other countries.

Ecuador, like other South American countries , have become “banana republics” controlled economically by U.S. corporations and politically by military dictatorships.

Ecuador is the world’s top exporter of bananas.

In France, eggs are increasingly laid by battery hens: a cruel system of mass production.

 

Framing the world economics in a tuna can: Luc Moullet tracks the Origins of a Meal/
Genèse d’un repas (1978)

by Audrey Evrard

Origins of a Meal (Luc Moullet, 1978) tracks three basic food items, bananas, eggs and tuna, in order to know where they really come from and what their commerce implies for all involved. This leads Luc Moullet to a great number of locations in France, Senegal and Ecuador. His inquiry takes him to factories, fishing boats, loading and unloading docks, grocery stores, open-air markets, rural plantations, poor villages, supermarkets, cities and official buildings in Dakar, Paris and Machala. There, he meets and records the points of view of a wide variety of people, including store managers, grocers, trade union representations, small and large banana plantation owners, dockers, cannery workers, business executives, fishermen. For the most part, these men, women, and children tell us about the long-lasting structural social, ethnic, and economic divisions that foster inequalities and exploitation at all levels of the global food trade—local, national and international.

Luc Moullet’s voice-over acts as an interweaving thread throughout the film more than as a warrant of authority. If viewers can somewhat rely on these comments to tease out the filmmaker’s political inclinations, this voice plays on many occasions with irony and counterpoint. In Origins of a Meal, French filmmaker and critic Luc Moullet extends the borders of his typically local or Francocentric cinema and adopts a top-down approach to the international food trade. The documentary, which was released in France in 1978, delivers a serious, complex and intellectually compelling analysis of global exploitation that raises question not only on the responsibility of industrial interests but also and most significantly on that of French consumers.

In a recent article, Sally Shafto describes Origins of a Meal as a prototype for recent documentaries that have deconstructed the cogs of globalization and denounced the damages wrought by industrialization on our food supply.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Admittedly, a direct line can easily be traced between Luc Moullet’s Origins of a Meal (1978), Amos Gitaï’s Ananas Connection (1984), and more recent films like Black Gold (Nick and Mark Francis, 2006) and Bananas (Fredrik Gertten, 2009). Like Moullet, Gitaï and Gertten address the hazardous social and humanitarian effects of the food industry’s practices in the “banana republics” of the world—in these two instances, the Philippines. They do so with a much more accusatory tone towards California-based Dole Food Company.

However, Origins of a Meal does more than set a new trend for documentary filmmakers. Shafto suggests that this documentary film did in fact go much further in its critique than many contemporary productions, which tend to forgo national history and policies and blame globalization for skyrocketing rates of unemployment, deregulation of labor and exploitation of migrant workers. However, she stops short of explaining exactly how the film proceeds with this agenda. This article claims therefore that the intellectual significance and continued relevance of Origins of a Meal to today’s debates lies in Luc Moullet’s persistent reliance on colonialism as an ideological grid relevant to the understanding of globalization—a concept still ill-defined in the late 1970s. His approach ensures historical bivalency for the documentary’s inquiry. On the one hand, Origins of a Meal anticipates future political and ethical engagements with global injustice, but on the other it also prolongs and reflects upon past documentary portrayals of colonialism. Comparisons can thus be drawn with an early colonial film like Song of Ceylon, for instance: in this 1933 documentary commissioned by the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board, Basil Wright delivers an ambivalent portrayal of the colonial food trade.

Like Song of Ceylon, Origins of a Meal deals as much with the exploitative nature of the colonial/global food trade as it does with the position of Western documentary filmmakers within the systems of colonial and imperialist exploitation. These economic and political structures profoundly damaged the economic sustainability of British and French colonies, first, and later independent countries in the Third World and the Global South. Song of Ceylon’s “ideological dissonance,” as William Guynn puts it, remains latent, overpowered by the poetic treatment of Sri Lankan “native” customs (84). Luc Moullet, on the contrary, fully endorses dissonance as a principle of documentary inquiry. Origins of a Meal operates on multiple layers, both in its form and in its content. Luc Moullet’s voice-over, which runs through the film, clearly defines the filmmaker’s leftist political inclinations as he provides his viewers with contextual information and critical statements. However, editing accentuates the film’s inclusionary and polyvocal documentary narrative. As editing continuously interweaves three food trades—bananas, eggs and tuna—the film builds historical continuity throughout the film, tying together issues of colonialism, imperialism and globalization.

Origins of a Meal relies as much on the testimonies of employees and trade unionists as those of business representatives. Throughout the film, Senegalese, Ecuadorean and French representatives at all levels of the food trade share their experiences and analyses of the business. They describe the power struggles that inevitably divide people along racial, national and socio-economic lines. Thus, viewers learn from the workers themselves that, while French female workers are forbidden to talk and forced to stand for maximum productivity during their shifts, in Senegal women working in canneries are allowed to sit and laugh with one another. They are also denied basic safety measures like gloves and often spend four hours a day on a bus to get to work. Similarly, although French dockers complain about backpain, machines now handle most of their work. In contrast, in Ecuador, boys as young as eleven and men of all ages carry heavy cases of bananas up and down narrow planks over eight hours a day to the sound of Latin American music. Moreover, business representatives provide some rare insight, often ignored by leftist cinema. One French expatriate, a Vice President of canning facilities in Senegal, explains somewhat candidly that little has changed in France’s economic relations with Senegal now that the country is independent. In other words, although they now officially control only 35 % of Senegal’s business interests according to him, French companies still dominate. In Ecuador, a large exporter admits that giving in to U.S. corporate interests makes their work much easier even though it undermines his country’s economic autonomy and growth.

Moullet’s willingness to hear the business side and, most importantly, to refrain from belittling their documentary value is quite rare in left-wing filmmaking. As such, Origins of a Meal exceeds what Alison Smith describes as post-May 68 French cinema’s

“genuine discovery, or rediscovery, of a collective identity, where individuals could add their voice to the general shout that all is not well and, to a limited extent, inflect the methods and the priorities, if not of the social establishment at least of the ‘recognized spokesmen of the people’ – the Unions or the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) – which many felt to be stagnating or not to be sufficiently sensitive to changes in perception.” (1)

Luc Moullet shared this growing dissatisfaction with the traditional Left, especially the Communist Party, which he described in an interview dating from 1980 as “selfish and opportunistic.” He even qualified their myopic focus on French employers as “dangerous.”[2] Origins of a Meal exposes instead how French wholesalers and retailers took advantage of the colonial past to compete internationally and how consumers’ short-sighted trust in brands and marketing campaigns, and often-misled pride in regional labels of quality, makes them complicit of a global system of exploitation. Luc Moullet’s compelling documentary Origins of a Meal well exceeds the militant agenda that motivated France’s political documentary cinema throughout the 1960s and early 70s. His much broader outlook on exploitation as a political, economic, social, environmental and humanitarian scheme ends up questioning the very principles governing the French Left’s self-serving focus on European working classes, their social mobility and materialistic aspirations.

As a critic and a filmmaker, Luc Moullet has rarely abided by conventions whether political or artistic. A regular contributor to Les Cahiers du Cinéma since 1956, he has reviewed the films of Eric Rohmer, King Vidor, Sam Fuller, Raoul Ruiz, Anthony Mann, Michelangelo Antonioni, and many others. He is also the author of several books, including a short analysis of Fritz Lang’s cinema and a provocative essay entitled La Politique des acteurs. Published in 1993, this essay directly refers to François Truffaut’s call in 1953 for a “politique des auteurs” in the New Wave manifesto, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema.” Contrary to Truffaut’s assertion of the auteur-filmmaker’s creative leadership in the studio system, Moullet returns to the same period of Classical Hollywood cinema only to claim a similar authorship for the four most iconic male actors, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, John Wayne and James Stewart. Luc Moullet continues to film and write at a steady pace, which compelled the Centre Pompidou in Paris to celebrate his career as a filmmaker in 2009. Among Moullet’s latest publications, it is worth mentioning a monograph study of King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (La rebelle de King Vidor: Les arêtes vives (2009)) and two edited volumes: Piges choisies (2009), a collection gathering some of his film critical essays, and Notre alpin quotidien (2009), a series of interviews with French film critics Jean Narboni and Emmanuel Burdeau.

Although Luc Moullet has made over thirty feature films since the early 1960s, his quirky, free-spirited cinematic work remains fairly unknown to mainstream audiences in France and abroad. Moullet’s relative anonymity in post-war French cinema turned out to be an extremely productive and liberating environment which allowed him to experiment with his unique conception of cinema. Playing across genres, Moullet’s films often provide a sociological portrait of contemporary France, including Parisian student life (Brigitte et Brigitte, 1966), heterosexual relationships (Anatomie d’un rapport, 1974), unemployment (La comédie du travail, 1987) and, more recently, death (Le prestige de la mort, 2006). Blending fiction and documentary aesthetics, no format escapes Moullet’s vision. Yet, low-budget, comedic narratives seem to have been the preferred mode of expression for a filmmaker whose friend experimental filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub describes as “the true heir of Luis Buñuel and Jacques Tati.”[3] Several critics, including Claudine Le Pallec Marand and Saad Chakali, have described his approach to filmmaking as bricolage, nourished by a broad cinephilic knowledge and a fascination for Hollywood B-movies. Staging Moullet the actor in burlesque peregrinations, Moullet the filmmaker typically pursues scathing yet unstilted social commentaries on modern society. Moullet strongly defends unbounded expression, unburdened by social propriety, and he often achieves this at the expense of stylistic and formal sophistication, which he associates with bourgeois decorum.

Origins of a Meal only slightly hints at Moullet’s taste for the unusual and quasi-absurd situations. The opening table scene introduces Luc Moullet and Antonietta Pizzorno, his partner in life and on the screen, side by side, sitting across what could be a dining table facing the camera and the spectators. In front of them, one can see the tuna can, an omelette, and the bananas that compose this unusual meal and serve as the narrative motif of the film. The scene’s artificiality sets it apart from the rest of the film, which digs deep into the economic, social and human reality of the food trade. Towards the end, Moullet reappears in character, endorsing one of his favorite roles, that of an out-of-place yet clairvoyant globetrotter.

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