The famous Cathedral of Amiens, in a small logo inside the "O" of coq, misleads consumers; eggs are no longer produced exclusively in Picardie.
Other misleading labels include tuna cans that use Brittany’s imagery to lure customers.
In reality, the tuna is fished and canned in Dakar, Senegal.
Banania, the number one chocolate powder for children, continues to use a racist representation of colonial Africa successfully. Otherwise, brands mask the true origin of their products.
French grocers and consumers claim the superior quality of bananas from Guadeloupe and Martinique, two French overseas departments.
Even if brand stickers want us to believe otherwise, these bananas probably come from the same plantation.
French tuna workers complain about increasingly demanding rates of productivity, which their union representative confirms before warning against the rapid relocation of canning sites in Africa.
A fade out gives Moullet a brief moment to summarize for the spectator French industries’ blackmailing strategies: “If there’s a strike, they move the factory off shore.”
In Africa, though, local employees suffer long-lasting racial inequalities and have absolutely no bargaining power.
Yet “Blacks” and “Whites” do the same job, as a young Senegalese fisherman explains.
On board, tensions are common between African and French crew members even though the work load tends to put the Senegalese at a disadvantage.
The work of dockers also varies whether you live in Ecuador or ...
... in France, which has invested in mechanized conveyor belts.
From a French point of view, Senegalese workers have no work ethic.
From a Senegalese point of view, the French have it easy while they do everything. Who is right then?
Film can solve the dispute for a brief instant as Black workers turn white, restoring a sense of dignity and hope in French workers threatened by job relocations outside of France.
Origins of a Meal opens, as I have just mentioned, with what might best be described as a prop scene. The “lunch,” which looks more like a tasting session than a typical French meal, consists of an omelette, canned tuna and, for dessert, bananas. Two slices of bread and cups of water complete the set. The scene’s artificiality is reinforced first by Luc Moullet and Antonietta Pizzorno’s silence as they help themselves and eat the food items carefully propped on display for the camera and soon after by Moullet’s voice-over which explains that
The voice-over goes on, addressing the viewers directly, saying:
Learning about the true origin of these three fairly ordinary food items is thus implicitly introduced as the goal of the film and Moullet’s tri-continental journey between France, West Africa and South America. In an interview published in the French journal Cinéma 80 (1980), Luc Moullet explains that the idea to do a feature-length documentary film on the food trade came while working on his first feature film, Un Steak Trop Cuit (Overdone Steak, 1960).[open endnotes in new window] Luc Moullet’s decision to focus on these three specific items, tuna, eggs and bananas, might seem odd and arbitrary at first. His efforts to “diversify as much as possible the food items and choose diverse origins” in order to reflect the reality of the food industry, as he explains, lead him to introduce “three products […] from France, the ‘French Third World’, and foreign ‘Third World’ countries.” Once juxtaposed, the trades of bananas, eggs and tuna reveal in fact obvious continuity and stark parallels between past colonial structures of land and human exploitation and the global extension of the free market economy.
When Luc Moullet worked on Origins of a Meal, Senegal, a former French colony, had been independent for less than twenty years: President Leopold Sédar Senghor proclaimed his country an independent Republic in 1960. Yet footage recorded on the streets of Dakar, in supermarkets and at various workplaces as well as interviews with Senegalese and French expatriates make obvious the fact that ruthless colonial practices forcefully imposed in the past enabled France to maintain a strong and visible economic presence in the country and continued to determine the political and economic relations France has developed with – or should we say in – post-colonial Africa. In Moullet’s words,
Similarly, although independent for almost a century and a half, Ecuador’s national economy was still stifled with foreign interests, particularly U.S. multinational corporate interests that had taken over the fruit trade and turned Ecuador and several other Latin American countries into “banana/dessert republics.”
Throughout the documentary, Moullet’s editing indiscriminately moves between footage filmed in Senegal, Ecuador, and France, highlighting as a result stark parallels between French and U.S. corporations’ economic practices in these two countries. From the colonies of West Africa to the “banana republics” of South America, Moullet finds that
If more time is dedicated to the banana and tuna trades in Origins of a Meal, depictions of the egg trade suggest that structurally France’s agribusiness is not that different from international food trades. The director of a private cooperative reluctantly admits in front of the camera that labels no longer guarantee traceability. If Brittany stands for superior quality on tuna cans, the region becomes the Senegal of the egg trade. Labels and boxes might harbor symbols of Picardie, a region in the north of France well known for its dairy and egg products, but most eggs come from battery hens in Brittany.
In the early minutes of the documentary, a store manager working for a large French supermarket distributor, U prix, explains to Luc Moullet that a new brand, “Pêcheurs de France,” (Fishermen of France) had been selling much better than its competitors sold on the next shelves. He adds that the label, which might explain the quicker turnaround, is quite misleading since cans sold as “Pêcheurs de France” products are in fact imported from Senegal. Interestingly, customers have not shown much interest in another brand, visibly imported from the Ivory Coast this time, even though its cost is roughly the same. Both Moullet and the manager thus discuss what might justify customers’ preference for the former. They conclude it is because of the greater appeal of Brittany, a coastal region of France known for its fresh seafood, over items grown, processed and traded in far-off lands. Conversations with Parisian grocers concerning the quality of bananas imported from the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe over that of bananas produced in Ecuador confirm the same chauvinistic tendency among retailers and consumers. Brands thus capitalize on consumers’ racism, whether racist imagery sells—as on Banania, a famous chocolate powder that French children have traditionally had for breakfast— or whether they frenchify labels and hide the true origin of products by fear of “putting off” French consumers. Quite ironically, though, racial tensions that have characterized French metropolitan and Caribbean societies become erased when France re-incorporates Martinique and Guadeloupe in the name of trade protectionism. A second layer of irony lies in Moullet’s recording of such positions from the mouths of grocers, whose names and accents betray immigrant origins.
These sequences reveal a perfect example of what Nancy Fraser describes as “misframing” in her book Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World (2009). Fraser defines “misframing” essentially as a conscious misrepresentation of the community, often to avoid facing questions of social and political injustice. Origins of a Meal draws attention to the misframing of the now irrevocably global economic community:
The documentary points to the exclusion of labor in Ecuador, Senegal, but increasingly in any site of production that would expose the exploitative, cruel and hazardous nature of the food trade and agribusiness. By focusing on the origin of food products and not on labor conditions in sites of production, Origins of a Meal creates a misframed representation of globalization in order to expose French consumers, workers and trade unions’ hypocritical misframing of the international food trade.
In Luc Moullet’s film essay, Origins of a Meal, misframing has a double value. It is first presented as a means by which global capitalist interests can be pushed through insofar as global labor is being fragmented along national boundaries. A second level of interpretation emerges when Moullet intentionally “misframes” globalization as a replay of France’s past colonial hegemony in order to reframe global labor exploitation as a development inextricably linked to that of Western consumerism. Sequences already mentioned about misleading labels on tuna cans and egg cartons and unfounded assertions that “French” Caribbean bananas are superior in quality to those imported from South America give evidence of what one might call “marketing misframings.” These marketing strategies symbolically extend the national space for profit returns. Like national governments, business interests strategically play national political and social safeguards against supranational economic structures and networks. However, as was the case during the colonial era, the real success of this strategic misframing becomes obvious once workers, trade unionists and consumers start believing and promoting the misrepresentations.
The globalization dilemma: affluence or work?
In Origins of a Meal, Moullet mediates several discourses, but the two most obvious and consistent lines that both conflict and intersect at the very core of a phenomenon, soon-to-be-widely-named globalization, are traditional trade unionist struggles for workers’ rights and neo-colonialism. Although exceptions can be spotted, generally speaking, the first half of the film tends to focus on working conditions, wages, productivity standards, while the second half affirms the socioeconomic differences between the everyday life of a worker in Senegal or Ecuador and that of a French worker.
During a sequence filmed at a fishery in France, a French trade unionist discusses the increasing threat that overseas labor represents for employment in France:
This intervention occurs during a longer sequence that gives a perfect example of how Moullet uses editing to convey discursive shifts. We first listen to three French workers, two women working on the production line of eggs and a male union representative, who stands by their side in the camera frame. The workers first explain what their daily conditions at work are and what they would prefer conditions to be. This first part ends with the trade unionist describing the changing dynamic of employment in France and in the world, now that increased competition with labor abroad not only threatens jobs in France but also undermines the possibility for workers to ask for better conditions. A fade-out and prolonged black frame allows Moullet to basically rephrase for us the major stakes of the methods that multinational companies use to divide and conquer before introducing ways in which French employees do take advantage of the new international competition:
After this imageless transition, a third sequence is inserted, introducing this time two fishermen working on the same boat in Dakar, one from Senegal and the other one from Brittany. As in the first sequence, Moullet asks them to talk about their working conditions but the Breton fisherman will be the only one to answer.
In this three-part sequence, Luc Moullet starts with representations that militant cinema would typically address—the precarious situation of women in the industrial sector, male-dominated trade unionism emphasizing wages, requesting more humane conditions and denouncing common practices that companies use to undermine the politics of trade unions by threatening employment. As he juxtaposes the three different working conditions described above, the apparent national “misframing” of economic exploitation, however, gradually reveals Moullet’s intention to reframe the scope of exploitation to cover ethnic discrimination and in this case colonial hegemony since the two men, on the boat, work in Dakar, Senegal. Importantly, the visual composition of each image does not simply replicate what Moullet states. It also provides additional interpretations that sharpen and add to the basic argument made by the voice-over and the sequence.
Thus, in the first image, the two women let the union representative speak for them, while random numbers written all over the blackboard rationalize the exploitation of labor in France and the legitimacy of union politics. The second image also conveys an implicit power dynamic between the two men. Only the fisherman from Brittany on the right answers Moullet’s questions while the Senegalese worker on the left sits back quietly. Their postures signal a clear recognition of who has authority on the boat. To a large extent, this short sequence captures one of the major shifts that the film establishes all along, both in relation to the militant cinema of the previous decade and to the geopolitical implications of globalization. In 1968, cinema focused on the plight of French and immigrant workers in French factories. Since the 1970s, filmmakers have often taken their camera abroad in an effort to compare labor conditions but also illustrate how capitalism operates across national boundaries and is thus able to use national disparities in terms of workers’ rights to its advantage.
In the sequence that follows, Moullet details the inequalities experienced by “black” and “white” fishermen, based in Dakar—home for the Senegalese employees and the country where French expatriates can enjoy the luxury lifestyle that their higher wages allow. Here, voice-over and images work against the “French” narrative. Origins of a Meal has no consistent point of view sustained throughout. Like the production lines filmed in the early minutes of the film, the camera adopts multidirectional points of view that allow Moullet to throw the spectator into a variety of positions. This particular sequence makes clear the racialization of the global workplace and the superimposition of a colonial grid onto emerging global markets and partnerships. The first shot adopts Breton fishermen’s high-angled points of view to show the Senegalese employees working on the lower deck—another spatial metaphor of social hierarchy.
Similar sequences occur earlier in the film, using this time parallel editing to contrast the low impact, and somewhat undemanding, tasks performed by French dockers with the fast-paced, physically taxing comings and goings of Ecuadorean carriers of banana cases up and down the loading docks. If a clear contrast is established visually, irony plays a major role, as in the sequence on the boat in Dakar, to destabilize the framing preferred by the French employees. All along we hear voice-over comments from French workers complaining about the physical injuries that the work causes. While the truth of such claims is not questioned, Moullet’s juxtaposition and superimposition of audio and visual tracks relativizes the conditions experienced by French employees and suggests what the filmmaker will say later, e.g. that everybody at all levels takes advantage of this system, either to improve their conditions, to have a job that will allow them to feed their families or to keep costs low. They are all part of a well-oiled chain that needs to perpetuate social and economic inequalities, not to promote development and prosperity for all but to produce maximum profits for itself.
I shall now return to the boat sequence to see how in this case the colonial past is clearly present as a subtext. The discrepancy that is made evident between the two tracks creates irony insofar as the slackers turn out to be the French workers, protected by better work regulations and social status. Although inequalities get wider between both groups, Moullet explains that French workers complain that “Black” employees “work little and badly.” Yet, the camera shows the latter at work carrying heavy pieces while the French stand relaxing on the upper deck. At this point, the voice-over repeats words which at that particular moment lose credibility:
Somehow, the filmmaker finds the perfect solution to appease and at the same time to supplement the racial tensions sensed throughout the sequence by adding an additional meaning. By using the negative image of his celluloid material, Moullet reverses skin colors, symbolically putting the “white” men back to work. Indeed, the two workers whose silhouettes are hardly recognizable appear to be light-skinned but they are in fact from Senegal.
We hear Moullet say,
His words echo other allusions to the relocation of work outside of France to countries where labor is cheap, a common business practice that causes unemployment to rise in France. Here, Moullet’s visual effect recalls Frantz Fanon’s famous analysis in Black Skin, White Mask (1952) of the postcolonial complex that Black subjects living in a white world experience. The colonial experience, however, is here suddenly reframed as globalization. At a time when companies seek maximum profits through lower labor costs, jobs become scarcer in France and reappear in the decolonized world. The social benefits acquired by French workers over the years now are in some ways a handicap as the producers of yesterday are now reduced to consumers. By playing with the film medium’s surface, Moullet suggests that globalization may in fact superimpose a second complex onto what Fanon described in the early 1950s. This time Western workers also experience some kind of psychological complex as globalization forces them to lower their expectations in order to protect their social status and jobs. In other words, they envy the employability of their Black fellow workers, all the while refusing the social depreciation that is now required by companies. Off-records, a white fisherman shares with Moullet a common slogan among his “white” co-workers:
By presenting the globalization of French economy as the economic extension of colonialism, Luc Moullet is in fact both in line with the Third worldist discourse of the 1970s and later altermondialist rejections of the debt imposed on the countries of the Global South by the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank. Indeed, what ATTAC and other activists have denounced is the systematic financial chokehold on poorer countries, as a result of policies determined by these international organizations. However, if Origins of a Meal foreshadows later emphases on immaterial labor, brands and consumerism, in the film big multinational companies are alluded to but never targeted directly. Only a few years later, though, the new evil hand of global capitalism, the corporation, will appear in documentaries and embody the dangers of globalization as in Amos Gitaï’s personal take on agribusiness in Ananas Connection (1984), for instance, or more explicitly in The Corporation (Mark Ashbar and Jennifer Abbott, 2003).