2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 54, fall 2012
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. [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.” 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.” 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.
Tuna, an omelet, bananas: products of France? Strategic misframings
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
“after the tuna, [they] will have an omelet and some bananas.”
The voice-over goes on, addressing the viewers directly, saying:
“[you] recognize these things, but [you] don’t know what they are. Tuna, an omelet, bananas.”
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). 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,
“France’s occupation by Germany was nothing compared to Senegal’s colonization by France.” (1’ 02” 40)
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
“the art of colonialism has been perfected.” (1’05’’24)
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 community’s boundaries are drawn in such a way as to wrongly exclude some people from the chance to participate at all in the authorized contests over justice.” (19)
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:
“Because Pêche et Froid is a multinational group – Pêche et Froid includes Saupiquet and Air Liquide. They only care about profits, so they produce their tuna out there. We all know about working conditions and wages in Africa. That tuna is brought into France duty free, and is in competition with tuna produced here. The company sees the immediate benefits: it’s profitable. Tomorrow, here we are, and the worry is that in the months and years to come, all the tuna which comes into France in Boulogne will be processed in Africa. That’s when you worry about jobs.” (30” 45)
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:
“Business owners promote the worldwide competition of all waged labor: a strike and they relocate the factory abroad. They also set different salaries for the same job in the same country.”
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:
“‘we have to do everything,’ the French say.”
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,
“White employees seem to wish an inversion of the amount of work that only film can offer.”
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:
“When blacks are everywhere, good men despair.” (32” 58)
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).
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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. 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.”
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).
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).
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). 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.
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.”
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.
“In addressing economic and dietary concerns long before the current wave of food documentaries, Origins of a Meal goes beyond these later films in its wide-ranging conclusions. It is a film à charge against Western capitalism, particularly in its French and American manifestations.” [return to text]
2. This quote comes from an interview Luc Moullet gave to his friend and fellow filmmaker and critic Gérard Courant for Cinéma 80. Asked about the reception of Origins of a Meal in France upon its release, Moullet admits that overall, the film was positively received except for a few voices in the Communist Party and the Extreme-Right.
“It doesn’t go without clashing with the Communist Party’s selfish and opportunistic attitude. Their slogan has not changed over time: their only goal has been increasing the wages of French workers so they can have purchase more and live more comfortably. Of course, inequalities in wages and lifestyles need to be lowered. But it can be very dangerous to let people believe that they will get dramatically higher wages and live more comfortably if employers are deprived of the money they have stolen from workers.” (English translation is mine)
Gérard Courant, “Entretien avec Luc Moullet,” Cinéma 80, 255, March 1980, available at
3. Mathilde Blottière, “Luc Moullet : ‘J’aime la manière dont mon frère, assez primitif de nature, découpe son steak’,” Télérama, January 12, 2010. Available at
4. Gérard Courant, “Entretien avec Luc Moullet,” Cinéma 80, 255, March 1980, available at
English translation is mine.
“J’ai essayé de diversifier au maximum les aliments en les choisissant d’origines très diverses. C’eût été travestir la réalité que de choisir uniquement des aliments venant de France. Ici, ils proviennent de trois origines: la France, le ‘Tiers-monde français’ et le ‘Tiers-Monde étranger’.”
5. The term altermondialisme entered common parlance in France in the early years of the past decade, and has since been widely used in France to refer to the grassroots movements that have virulently rejected what they see as neoliberal hegemony. As a result, their prime targets have been financial institutions, U.S. imperialist policies, multinational corporations, and international institutions of governance (the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO as well as intergovernmental summits like the G8 and the G20). Their motto, “another world is possible,” epitomizes their conception of a world where local concerns have a global impact, and vice versa. Unlike early rejections of globalization, altermondialisme accepts the global interconnectedness of human societies; what is fought is the economic and financial globalization of markets and trades to the expense of human, environmental and social justice.
6. This is a transcription of Luc Moullet’s comments over a long sequence of footage filmed along the many segments of the line of production that often originates abroad and ends with the daily consumption by Western consumers of such common food items as bananas, eggs and tuna.
“Notre effort pour comprendre l’ingéniosité de la chaîne et le pittoresque de son côté joué dans la chaîne de montage des boîtes de thon ou dans la quatrième chaîne de la banane, le conditionnement à Rungis pour les supermarchés, tend à nous faire oublier la cruauté de ce travail qui engloutit la plus grande part de la vie de centaines de millions d’hommes.” (The English translation is mine)
7. Mathilde Blottière, “Entretien avec Luc Moullet,” Télérama, (13 janvier 2010), available at
“A la suite de Mai 68, les films militants fleurissaient, mais ils manquaient souvent de précision: ils parlaient d’oppression et de conflits sans retourner à la source, le travail. C’est la raison pour laquelle je suis allé en Amérique du Sud, en Afrique et en Picardie pour voir comment ça se passait réellement, sans idées préconçues. J’ai suivi la filière de fabrication d’un certain nombre de produits, j’ai vu les conditions de travail des salariés, les conditions de vie et d’élevage des animaux. C’était un travail d’enquête passionnant, d’autant que personne encore n’était jamais allé tourner en Equateur ou au Sénégal pour se pencher sur l’économie de la banane ou du thon. Le film était à la fois en avance par rapport à tous ces documentaires sur l’alimentation qu’on voit aujourd’hui sur les écrans, et en retard par rapport à toute une littérature sur la question: les écrits de René Dumont, par exemple.”
René Dumont was one of the fathers of contemporary ecology: focusing as early as the 1950s on the long-term damages of productivism on world food resources, energy policies, he was among the first people to promote “sustainable development” in opposition to the Green Revolution. This term was used to describe the modernization and mechanization of agriculture in the first half of the 20th century. In 1992, Bernard Baissat directed the film René Dumont, citoyen de la planète / René Dumont, a citizen of the Earth for French television. More recently, French Canadian filmmaker Richard D. Lavoie released, with the support of the National Film Board, a 25 mn-long video portrait of the agricultural scientist and activist René Dumont, l’homme-siècle/René Dumont: Global Ecologist (2001).
8. The recent labor struggles in Martinique and Guadeloupe in 2009-2010 illustrate perfectly how social unrest remains tied to the financial and business monopoly of families who came from metropolitan France and settled over time.
“Même notre film participe à l’exploitation. Mes techniciens réclamèrent le seul hôtel de Machata à eau chaude, enrichissant ainsi un peu plus son propriétaire, un bananier bien nanti. Notre chauffeur était résigné à nous attendre des heures. Mon budget étant limité, je payais 50 F les interviews dans le Tiers-Monde et 120 F en France. Mais moi, je peux tirer du film un bénéfice moral et peut-être même matériel. Obsédé par mon film et la portée que je lui supposais, j’oubliais l’action immédiate que je pouvais avoir. Je préférais la fuite tant on ressent à Dakar la honte d’être français. Je marchais au milieu des rues les plus désertes pour éviter les rencontres alors que j’aurais dû les rechercher. Beaucoup dorment dehors, mais je laissais vide l’autre lit de ma chambre craignant qu’on me vole ma subvention cachée sous mon oreiller. Et pour choisir mes images, je me trouvais ressembler aux surveillants des conserveries du Sénégal comme si la connaissance n’était qu’une forme subtile de l’exploitation.”
10. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 54.
11. Ibid., 54.
12. Michael Chanan, “Going South: On Documentary as a Form of Cognitive Geography,” Cinema Journal, 50, 1, (2010), 148-153.
13. Sally Shafto, “Luc Moullet, a Bootleg Filmmaker at the Centre Pompidou,” Senses of Cinema, 57, (2009) available at
Blottière, Mathilde. “Entretien avec Luc Moullet.” Télérama, (13 janvier 2010).
Chakali, Saad. “Luc Moullet: Cinéaste critique de la raison comique.” Les Cahiers du Cinéma, available at
Chanan, Michael. “Going South: On Documentary as a Form of Cognitive Geography,” Cinema Journal, 50, 1, (2010), 148-153.
Courant, Gérard. “Entretien avec Luc Moullet.” Cinéma, 80, 255, Mars 1980, available at
DiIorio, Sam. “The Woodcuter’s Gaze: Luc Moullet and Cahiers du Cinéma.” SubStance, 34, 3, (2005), 79-95.
Fraser, Nancy. Scales of Justice: Reimagining Political Space in a Globalizing World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
Guynn, William. “The Art of National Projection: Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon.” In Ed. Barry K. Grant. Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998. 83-119.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “A la recherché de Luc Moullet: 25 propositions.” July 2009, (initially published in Film Comment, November-December, 1977), now available at jonathanrosenbaum.com,
----. “Moullet retrouvé.” May 3, 2009, Available at jonathanrosenbaum.com,
Shafto, Sally. “Luc Moullet’s Food Lessons: Origins of a Meal,” Gastronomica, 10, 3, (Summer 2010), 93-96.
----.“Luc Moullet, a Bootleg Filmmaker at the Centre Pompidou.” Senses of Cinema, 57, (2009).
Smith, Alison. French Cinema in the 1970s: The Echoes of May. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
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