Luc Moullet admires the “picturesque quality” of the chain, a perfect symbol of global capitalism’s multi-directional and multi-level backbone.

Every food ingredient goes through a multi-step process.

In Ecuador, much of the loading labor is still done by bare hands and strong backs.

The promotion of monoculture by large business groups threatens the sustainability of local economies and has become a great cause of famines.

Antonietta Pizzorno strips naked to show the extent to which Western consumers depend on far-off manufacturing, textile industries and food trades.

Clothes come from Korea, Pakistan or Vietnam.


Same assembly line, only longer

Instead of demonizing the brand, which Moullet could have easily done considering much of his footage from Ecuador made implicit references to United/Standard Fruit monopolies and the overwhelming presence of Chiquita and Bonita stickers on bananas exported out of Ecuador, he prefers to focus on the invisible “chains” that increasingly distance producers from consumers as multinational corporations pursue financial profits. Financial subsidies granted by the CNC (Centre National du Cinéma) helped bear the costs incurred while shooting in Senegal and Ecuador. It can be noted that this funding system, quite typical of France, is known as avance sur recettes and can be partially sustained through revenues generated not only by French films but also foreign films shown at French theaters. Back to the “chains” rhetorically dismantled throughout the film, it is important to observe that in that regard, Moullet initially borrows from militant cinema.

As he visits a tuna cannery in Senegal, one shot captures perfectly the complexity of global capitalism’s multi-directional and multi-level backbone: a gigantic assemblage of crisscrossing metal belts and supporting poles fill up the entire frame. Luc Moullet’s voice-over explains:

“Our effort to understand the ingenuity of the chain, and the picturesque quality of its role in the packaging assembly line of tuna cans or in the fourth line of banana production, where supermarket orders are packaged in Rungis, leads us to forget how cruel the work that eats up most of the life of hundreds of million of human beings can be.”[6] [open endnotes in new window]

Eggs are sorted out, packed and carefully conditioned. Tuna cans go through the same process, moving along conveyor belts.
In France, crates of bananas imported from Ecuador are checked in before being loaded onto trucks and trains. While men are still needed, much of the process has been increasingly mechanized.

The Fordist and later Taylorist models targeted by militant cinema, both epitomized by the fragmenting and alienating nature of the assembly line, becomes in Origins of a Meal an intricate network of local, regional, national and international mechanisms. Focusing on three distinct products allows Moullet to multiply the production lines depicted. Early in the film, Luc Moullet details in voice-over the processes involved for each of the food items (10” 40-14”):

“As for the egg, it goes through two production lines. First: laying. Second: packing. After candling which sorts out any bad eggs, they’re graded into five classifications. If an egg weighs less than the standard for any of the 5 grades, it slides to the right, into the next grade down. If it’s too heavy, it slips down to the level below. It’s a carefully designed process, the only one in this films in which workers change roles, which avoids the monotony of a life spent repeating the same movements. Tuna goes through two processes. Here we see the canning in Dakar. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the ingenuity of the production line and the toy-like beauty of the can-making machinery or the banana’s fourth stage of processing: supermarket packaging at Rungis. […] This is the third stage of the process: checking in the crates in Dieppe. A mechanism is installed on board the ship. It will carry the bananas at the sorting center, along an aerial conveyor belt. From there, they’re loaded onto a train, or a lorry. […] the second phase takes place [in Machala, Ecuador]: loading the ships for Dieppe. Nearby, the first phase: the harvest.”

Each step will be revisited at greater length and expanded from the workers’, trade unionists’ or business representatives’ perspectives during the film. We later learn, for example, that the mechanization of Dieppe’s docks is responsible for job losses or that operating the beautiful can-making machine is a man’s job in Dakar. But most importantly, the narrative expansion of these multi-step processes throughout the film reveals two other shadow chains that cannot be ignored: first, the structures of exploitation that keep costs low and profits high and, second, the collateral waste that in 1978 was only slowly coming under scrutiny.

In Senegal, public transportation has yet to develop; Thérèse, who works in a cannery in Dakar, comments on footage recorded in small remote villages and explains ... ... how much time and money she spends on transportation each month. Throughout the film, she tells Luc Moullet about her life and her work.

These are not presented in a linear manner. Origins of a Meal meticulously unfolds all links that make each of these chains by editing individual interviews and geographically dispersed footage into a dialogic mosaic. On some occasions, this dialogue emphasizes parallels, as is the case with a long section of the film that addresses the social benefits, or lack of, enjoyed by Ecuadorean and Senegalese workers. (1’ 07” 35-1’ 11” 38) Other times, it highlights discrepancies, especially when it comes to the working conditions of French workers in comparison to their counterparts in Senegal and Ecuador.

Trucks take freshly cut banana bunches to the port of Machala. Many children work on Ecuadorean plantations.

Structures of exploitation can either repeat themselves in similar ways across the three processes or vary based on national cultures. In Ecuador, an obvious form of exploitation concerns child labor. Although the film does not pass any explicit moral judgment on the issue, it visibly appears in several sequences shot in the Machala’s area. Teenage boys can be seen weighing banana bunches, hand-washing green bananas, sticking labels on individual fruits ready to move on to the next step, or as explains Anselmo Loyola, a young plantation worker, they also work as dockers as young as eleven years old. (1’ 42” 58) He himself started working eight hours a day when he was eight. After finishing work around 6 p.m., he goes to school between 7 and 11 p.m.. In Senegal, exploitation derives directly from the former colonial order: salaries are lower for Senegalese fishermen than for the French expatriates recruited from Brittany. Although Senegal’s public transportation is notorious for delays and inconsistent schedules, women who travel up to two hours morning and evening from the villages to Dakar canneries can be denied clocking in if they arrive late in the morning. Overall, wage disparities tend to be reluctantly tolerated and finally accepted, as a Senegalese fisherman confirms, because unemployment remains high in Dakar. For those who do find themselves unemployed, another system of exploitation awaits them: local corruption.

More insidiously, monoculture causes great harm to local economies and populations. Vast land surfaces have been appropriated by foreign companies to mass produce one single product, banana in Ecuador, peanuts in Senegal, and so on, exacerbating local famine, poverty and public health concerns while keeping Western consumers satisfied. Moullet mentions in passing that Senegalese people do not like tuna and Ecuadorians do not really eat that many bananas in the first place. A Senegalese fisherman explains that until recently people would sell tuna for nothing rather than eating it; they simply did not know how to cook it. Yet, as tuna became more widely available, people started learning how to prepare and eat it more willingly. (1’ 00” 06)

Although the issue of monocultural land use is not further developed in the film, it has certainly become a recurrent and prominent theme in recent films: echoing French, Indian and Brazilian activists’ claims, films such as Solutions Locales pour un Désordre Global (Coline Serreau, 2010, France), The World according to Monsanto (Marie-Monique Robin, 2008, France) and King Corn (Aaron Wolf, 2007, USA) among numerous others, have documented the destructive impact of monoculture on societies, local agriculture, and the environment both worldwide.

A third thread, which remains fairly underdeveloped in the film, concerns the collateral waste generated by the food trades. Towards the end of the documentary, Luc Moullet adopts a slightly more condemning tone in his comments spoken over footage showing heaps of bananas being thrown away while many “people go hungry.” For Moullet, throwing “30% of all bananas” is an “absurdit[y] of the system.” (1’ 23” 45) Like the production and distribution process, waste is methodically decomposed in several stages. Bananas are sorted not once but twice, and those that do not match required weight and measurements are discarded just like eggs during the conditioning phase. Ironically, this makes the Ecuadorean production process more rigorous than its direct competitors, Guadeloupe and Martinique, whose bananas have been repeatedly praised by French grocers, wholesalers and consumers throughout the film. (1’ 24” 26) A worker confides in Moullet that “there have been occasions when about 600 crates were thrown away,” not necessarily because they had gone bad but simply because they did not meet Western consumers’ criteria. Images of perfectly edible bananas being fed to cattle or washing away on shores surrounded with material waste raise questions about Western affluence’s collateral damage, especially after having heard nurses, workers and local business owners complain about sanitary concerns and diseases caused by poor diet or stained water. The same thing happens to fish in Senegal, where fishermen are asked to throw back small catches into the sea.  

Although a top player in the international food trade, Ecuador remains extremely poor. Many communities do not have access to clean water.
Yet, while children starve, tons of bananas are thrown away on a regular basis. Bananas can also be used to feed cattle.
In spite of French workers’ stagnant wages, they have access to the comfort of a modern life: television, nice homes, and other amenities. Many French people own a car and cars often travel half empty.

Where militant cinema focused essentially on local conditions and empowering workers in their immediate environment through strikes and political organization, Origins of a Meal emphasizes how by extending the “chain of production,” global capitalism successfully undermines labor’s political unity and de-humanizes not only production but consumption as well. In a more recent interview recorded on the occasion of a programming series celebrating his career, Luc Moullet justified his deviations from the militant cinema of the late 1960s:

“After May 68, militant films were booming, but they often lacked precision: they talked about oppression and struggles but failed to go to the source, labor. This is why I went to South America, Africa and Picardie to observe what was really taking place, leaving out any preconceived ideas I may have. I filmed the chain of production of several products, the working conditions of employees, and the living conditions of livestock. It was a fascinating work of investigation, especially since nobody had ever shot in Ecuador or Senegal before to study the economy of banana and tuna production. This film was both ahead of its time and the more recent explosion of documentary films about food business, but also behind if we consider critical accounts that had already been published, René Dumont’s writings for instance.”[7]

This retrospective statement tactfully points to the obsessive and quite narrow-minded focus of militant cinema, which turned the political affirmation of workers into a cinematic event. In other words, in Moullet’s view, theoretical abstraction misguided his fellow filmmakers away from the actual scope of the problem. He simultaneously concedes his own failures at integrating the emerging ecological concerns of the time into his work.

Since the 1990s, U.S. imperialism and corporate culture have been blamed for social and environmental damages, a position which has enabled filmmakers to avoid addressing French neo-colonial practices in Africa as well as the persistence of economic inequalities in overseas territories.[8]  If in 1978, derivatives and virtual commodities had not taken over economic transactions as they now have, one could nonetheless see in Moullet’s focus on the chain, such a basic mechanism of industrial capitalism, an attempt to demystify the unfathomable dimension of global capitalism—which has been stressed by its proponents to facilitate the assumed ineluctability of neoliberalism. At a time when industrial production was slowing down in European and North American countries, Origins of a Meal offers some keys to understand the global redistribution of economic roles. Production has gradually been displaced to what was then referred to as Third World countries, known today as the Global South, while Western populations are increasingly defined as the global economy’s consumers of goods manufactured in countries where labor rights have yet to be asserted and defended.

Consumers’ maps:
a documentary filmmaker’s politics

I will now conclude this analysis of Origins of a Meal with a consideration of the second central shift in Moullet’s engagement with the globalizing economy: the increased role of consumers’ responsibility and the filmmaker’s subjective repositioning in documentary politics. Including the spectators in the chain of production and their central role as consumers in determining value departs from traditional militant cinema. To a large extent, the sinuous structure of the narrative through economic, political and geographical entanglements leaves the spectator/consumer aware of the profound injustices holding the system together while erasing the line previously drawn between exploited and exploiters. As a consumer, the spectator is inevitably part of the system criticized by the film. About halfway through the film, Luc Moullet addresses directly the French spectator at the end of a short statement that describes the latest form of exploitation through consumption patterns:

“French people benefit from the wage extortion taking place in the tuna industry: by buying at a very low cost products coming from Third world countries, they take away their purchasing power and waste it. Everybody takes advantage: those who exploit and those who are exploited, rich and poor. You, spectator, you take advantage; and I do too! But to what extent do we in fact benefit from this high purchasing power?”

As he makes this declaration, images of standardized apartment buildings and French people buying produce at a market or checking out in a supermarket bracket a quick shot of Ecuadorean farmers running through the banana plantations with loads on their backs. This short interjection directed at the spectator in the middle of the film both condenses the general structure of the film —cheap labor abroad enables Western consumers, and workers, to gain access to low-cost food items and to maintain a comfortable lifestyle—and draws attention to the paradoxically damaging effect of this new affluence on health. Shortly after, an expert, French researcher Philippe d’Iribarne, interviewed by Moullet, will explain that Western dietary habits cause new diseases, for instance, in the same way that poverty is responsible for deficiencies and physical ailments. Moreover, as Moullet’s partner uninhibitedly demonstrates in front of the camera, if it were not for all the commodities imported from abroad, Western consumers would find themselves stripped naked. It is this double bind affecting all consumers and producers—populations in France and in the countries where production is being relocated as well as the militant filmmaker himself—which Origins of a Meal reveals.

Yet, rather than adopting a condescending and moralizing attitude towards the spectators, Luc Moullet concludes the film by acknowledging his own hypocrisy, questioning thereby the nature (if not the possibility) of militancy in this holistic, or rather inescapable, system as the filmmaker describes in the last few minutes of the film. This also anticipates, to a large extent, more recent representations of globalization and neo-liberal capitalism as an all-encompassing, and therefore totalizing, machine. By embodying the ambivalent position of Western individual subjects, Moullet modifies the didactic mission of 1968 militant cinema. Origins of a Meal is more about using documentary to reflect on the changing referentiality of the world now that it is globalizing than exposing the ideological undercurrents of traditional cinematic representations—which militant cinema did to varying degrees. Luc Moullet’s voice-over concluding remarks at the end of Origins of a Meal question both his problematic position as a French filmmaker and the more general ethical dilemma he is faced with as his investigative process reproduces the structures of social and economic inequalities it seeks to denounce:

“Even our film contributes to exploitation. My technicians requested to stay in the only hotel in Machata that had hot water, which would make the owner, a well-off banana plantation owner, slightly richer than he is already. Our driver had no choice but wait for us for hours. My budget being limited, I paid 50 Francs for interviews in the Third World but 120 Francs in France. But I can get moral, and maybe even, material advantages from my film. Obsessed by my film and the impact I thought it could have, I forgot immediate actions I could have taken then. I was so ashamed of being French in Dakar that I preferred running away. I would walk through empty streets to avoid encounters while I should have sought them. So many people sleep in the streets, but I preferred to keep the bed next to mine in my hotel room empty by fear that the subsidy hidden under my pillow would get stolen. And to choose my shots, I found myself in the same position as supervisors in the canning factory as if knowledge itself was just a subtle form of exploitation.”[9]

With this list of inconsistencies, Luc Moullet calls into question the ethical impasse that may be the essence and the strength of his documentary filmmaking. However, unlike past theoretical and aesthetic subversions of film’s ideological nature, Moullet does not target here the seductive nature of cinema as deployed through technological and narrative features.

Although I see in Origins of a Meal the crystallization of ideas and representations that are now central to the alterity pursued by altermondialist movements, Luc Moullet’s self-scrutiny by the end of his film conflates the filmmaker with the many personas he has endorsed throughout the film: advocate, consumer, producer, colonizer, supervisor, exploited, exploiter, and so on. By mediating the exploitative nature of the inescapable economic rationalization of human interactions, Luc Moullet embodies here Fredric Jameson’s “aesthetic of cognitive mapping.” The documentary becomes, therefore, the means by which as “individual subject” the filmmaker negotiates

“some new heightened sense of [his] place in the global system […] this enormously complex representational dialectic” (54).[10]

Jameson’s aspirations for “the new political art” finds in Origins of a Meal one possible materialization. Here Moullet explores the political and ethical potential of the latest capacity of the documentary

“mode [to] represent [the world space of multinational capital], in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion” (54).[11]

By going South, Luc Moullet does not only go to labor, what is in his view the source of exploitation; he also undertakes a geographical, social and political repositioning of the filmmaker as engaged global citizen, a role which filmmakers have widely embraced in the last ten years. In that regard, Luc Moullet’s documentary explores questions similar to Michael Chanan’s recent discussion of documentary filmmaking’s “cognitive geography” (149).[12]  There is in Origins of a Meal a similar intention to what Chanan demands: “producing a critical history” and “a cognitive geography that respond[s] to different coordinates (different, not opposite)”

“means, first and foremost, being critical of the dominant historiography, which reads from North to South, as if it were top down.” (152)

Moullet’s documentary deconstructs this top down approach. According to Chanan’s classification, Moullet’s film would probably still be a case of asymmetrical gaze, expressing a Western view. Although the intellectual reflection that drives Origins of a Meal is really the result of a dialogic encounter between Moullet, the many people he interviews and films, and spectators, he holds the camera and controls the editing. However, this film reveals a blind spot in Chanan’s call for new cognitive geographies in globalizing documentary practices. Chanan remains focused on the “return of the [exoticized] gaze” as a “coordinate” that has been systematically marginalized in the history of documentary. Origins of a Meal adds one coordinate that has equally been overlooked, one where those who have held the camera turned it on their own hypocrisy to face it.

As a French man in Dakar, Luc Moullet faces his own role in this system. He can afford to sleep in a double bedroom alone even though people live on the streets of Dakar.
As a filmmaker, he finds himself prying on Senegalese and Ecuadorean workers. In that regard, his position puts him in the shoes of the French supervisors managing factories in Senegal.
As a social filmmaker, Moullet is in an ethical impasse: banking on the long-term moral return of his film, he turns his back on the poverty that surrounds him. Ashamed of his French identity, he runs away.

With Origins of a Meal, an insightful documentary about the globalization of the economy and the metamorphic nature of colonial and imperialist pursuits, Luc Moullet grasps the inadequacy of old models and forms of militant cinema to accommodate the non-binary nature of the current global system and the necessarily subjective and personal implication of the filmmaker. From his debut film on, Moullet always saw the budget constraints of his cinema as being an integral part of his aesthetic pursuits; in fact, he rejected the systematic division established between artistic vision and financial expertise: 

“When I wanted to produce my first feature-length film, I didn’t have any money. So I was forced to rethink the economic system of production. In the end, it’s something fascinating. It’s generally thought that the economic side of filmmaking is a bloody nuisance for a filmmaker, and that it doesn’t correspond to his “vocation.” I think that finance is something too important to entrust to financiers.”[13]

The financial modesty of Origins of a Meal is tangible from the handwritten credits that open and close the film to the homemade quality of everyday life scenes filmed with his lover Antoinetta Pizzorno at lunch. By the end of the film, the economic and aesthetic elements of documentary cinema merge with a third “nuisance,” namely the ethical responsibility of the filmmaker himself, which also becomes integral to the “vocation” of the documentary filmmaker in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Foreshadowing recent altermondialist/anti-globalization accounts, Luc Moullet’s film effectively casts light on the triangular relation that neo-liberal capitalism puts forth between labor, consumption and citizenship. In spite of its date, Origins of a Meal unleashes a much stronger critical analysis than the recent wave of documentaries towards the neo-liberal practices of France. Recent social movements gathered in Seattle, Porto Alegre or Mumbai have embraced the idea of a vast borderless society. But they tend to shift the blame to the profit-driven expansion of neoliberalism globally, condemning corporate disregard for human well being and social justice while downplaying local and national strategic complacency with such direction. In the last forty years, Origins of a Meal has continued to fuel debates in cine-clubs and festivals. Its resonance with contemporary activism in and off the screens has played a central role in the longevity of this film’s small, but continuous, success.

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