Luc Moullet’s Double Fake-Out; or, Tracking Food Sovereignty in the '70s
“Obsessed by my film and the impact I thought it could have, I forgot immediate actions I could have taken then.”
A film conversation between Teresa K. Miller and Gregory Giles
To begin at the end: After nearly two hours exploring facets of exploitation in the globalized food system, Luc Moullet closes Genèse d’un repas/Origins of a Meal (1978) by turning the camera on himself. As we watch him comically navigate his locations—running awkwardly away from small groups in Dakar, Senegal, for instance, as if pursued by an angry mob or paparazzi—he narrates:
“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 [to] 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 [for] 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.”[i]
For me, more than any of the explanations of economic inequity, waste, or labor abuses, this statement gets to the crux of the issue: How do we as relatively wealthy inhabitants of the Global North, ostensibly the audience for the film, grapple with the system even as we inhabit the system? What are we doing and what can be done?
When I was a special education teacher in Oakland, the mother of a middle school boy with autism said to me—years ago, even before the latest round of indictments against glyphosate—“I’ve read that autism might be linked to pesticides. It makes me wonder if I should have washed my vegetables better when I was pregnant.” Think about the implications of that statement: The onus is on the mother to avoid exposure to chemicals that might cause autism—not chemical exposure through some rare occupation or reckless activity, but through eating food sold to her for consumption.
What does the mother’s food handling have to do with anything, really? Or, why are we part of a food system that coats what we eat in poisons with multigenerational consequences, a state of affairs not controlled or consented to by any mother-consumer?
More broadly, myriad blogs and books and unsolicited pieces of advice reinforce this worldview: As concerned consumers, let alone activists, we must immediately and entirely opt out of the dominant system. Otherwise a) we are hypocrites and/or b) we are responsible for the consequences (birth defects, endocrine syndromes, climate change, what have you).
In this worldview, if we cannot create an instant, self-sufficient, off-grid life, then we should just admit we heart Monsanto’s agricultural model or fossil fuel’s ubiquity as an energy source. It’s easy to spot proponents of this stance any time a new critique of the status quo pops up, for instance tweets crowing that some People vs. Shell climate activists drive to their protests on asphalt roads, or use kayaks made of petroleum-based synthetics.
But Moullet’s film points to a possible alternative model, one of imperfect and self-reflexive activism—this white, middle-class French guy who benefits from all of the exploitation, eats cheap tuna and bananas, stays in hotel rooms larger than the homes of some of his subjects, can nonetheless explain the workings of the corrupt system of which he is more marginally and regrettably a part, and create an educational tool—and hopefully by extension, not only the possibility of opting out individually but also transforming the larger social-political framework.
It is fallacious reasoning, as well, something a gruff traditionalist with conservative values could understand, those who typically wield this tu quoque dismissal of food justice arguments. Even Plato would say that a fossil-fuels activist driving an SUV does not contradict her argument that fossil fuel dependency contributes to the massive output of CO2. My father fancies himself a logician, of sorts, as well as a skeptic, and he quite frequently breaks the “law” of tu quoque. The joy of observing hypocrisy shades fallaciously into the invalidation of structurally sound arguments. I am irritated by those who abide by logical principles as if they were laws of physics, but at the same time, to endorse a methodology—and then disregard its tenets in the interest of diminishing an opponent—seems perverse to me.
But I am only singling out my father because we both have experience debating with him, and he is such an enthusiastically game conversationalist, even if he can be an infuriating devil’s advocate at times. I have inherited this tendency, as you know, for better or worse.
The narrative you quote occurs precisely at the end of the film, as if he has just painted himself into a corner and must stop. This must be significant, if we can believe his famous quote regarding the morality of tracking shots (in the March 1959 issue of Cahiers du cinema); i.e., formal techniques are the sources of meaning and quality in a film, or at least their intersection and contrapuntal involvement with content. Do you think he is a little more despairing than your appreciative observation would suggest? As if, “I have traced this thing to the end and can only, finally, implicate myself and the venture of this project…”?
Formal techniques are the sources of meaning and quality in a film, or at least their intersection and contrapuntal involvement with content.
I suspect this also because of Moullet’s sense of humor, which jars oddly with the activism of this film. A banana spans an ocean on a map, as if it were some clever graphic rather than a bankrupt visual joke. It’s funny in its dumbness, not unlike a fart in a Judd Apatow movie that undermines sincerity. I enjoy it, but I suspect this man is not entirely indoctrinated; he is suspicious of generalizations and the documentary form itself. In fact, the richest, subtlest critique is the self-incriminating one, not the one that simply indicts the exploitation of workers in Ecuador. There is a weird insouciance throughout the film that keeps all political commitments at arms’ length.
A banana spans an ocean on a map, as if it were some clever graphic rather than a bankrupt visual joke.
This is much more interesting to me, I fear. But does it do any service to the movements against these global injustices? I mean, these aren’t the smug jokes made at the expense of corporations (and occasionally unwitting individuals), à la Michael Moore. Moullet treats everyone seriously, respectfully, except for himself. He mocks himself and his film all along, from the moment we watch him eat canned tuna and a banana in a ridiculously clinical, low-budget frontal shot that opens the movie. This is remarkable to me and astonishingly generous. He doesn’t play games otherwise with the words of managers and executives, let alone impoverished laborers; he simply notes the inconsistencies in his monotone nasal birr and moves on.
He is casually scrupulous, too. He offhandedly notes that the Senegalese women are dressed nicely because they are being filmed, not because they normally wear clothing like this. They view the opportunity of being filmed as an exceptional occasion, something Moullet must openly observe if his film can continue to have any value for him. I think this troubles him: the exceptionalism of the filmmaking event. He counteracts this by stripping down the formal techniques—no modulation in the narrative voice, no clever cuts or angles, no jokes that are not broad and borderline silly, no artistry or lugubrious attitudes or self-righteousness.
They view the opportunity of being filmed as an exceptional occasion, something Moullet must openly observe if his film can continue to have any value for him.
I’m not sure he’s despairing, though maybe he does wander into that territory with some regularity—everything I’ve seen or read of him walks a dark humorous line that feels familiar: nihilistic, hopeful, cynical, cavalier. And almost every activist I’ve spoken to admits to despair, though that can’t be an uninterrupted emotional state or we’d all cease to get up in the morning. But to your point, I don’t think he’d ever use my phrase “educational tool” to describe the work, even if you did catch him in a nakedly sincere moment, which doesn’t seem to be his general approach to discussing his work.
That’s what I love about the film’s first-person narrative closing, though: I do read it as nakedly sincere, despite the double-fake-out artifice of the physically comic images that accompany his admissions. He probably did avoid people more than might behoove a documentarian, and I have no doubt he kept his hotel room to himself; the self-conscious film segments, then, are caricatures of his real actions. But I don’t read those as succumbing to a sense of futility. Self-deprecation, absolutely, and also a way to preempt critics of the inherent political message, which prevails in spite of the plays on traditional documentary techniques you point out.
I have no doubt he kept his hotel room to himself; the self-conscious film segments, then, are caricatures of his real actions.
I have been wondering how and if his famous quote—“Morality is a question of tracking shots”—applies to this film. To hear him explain this line, and differentiate it from Godard’s inversion—“Tracking shots are a question of morality”—he means the way a film is made matters more than the preaching of the filmmaker’s own intentions. But it’s a subtle point because either way there is still a message, and as you mention, the strands of form and content necessarily interact. Moullet has said both that filmmakers are impostors by taking the place of God (who, he adds, probably doesn’t exist) and that some filmmakers are impostors in that their films don’t express anything. So he nonetheless aims to express, and the adultery of traditional documentation, precluding—say, intentionally avoiding—a straightforward, fully sincere thesis and appeal does still, in itself, set in motion other, oblique theses and appeals.
Albeit in a sometimes refracted way, Genèse d’un repas absolutely presents overt political agendas. So while Moullet relishes defying labels and dodging questions, and thus I doubt would cast himself as a food or labor activist, the film in all of its quirky tongue-in-cheek self-doubt and self-awareness nonetheless represents a piece of activism.
It breaks meaningful film ground, no question, with its counterpoint of comedy and substantive documentation. Its tracking shots, then, say much about Moullet’s aversion to a true believer school of politics (sparking for me a possible relevant side note/possible digression that he admits his father supported Hitler[ii]), what you call his suspicion of generalizations. But beyond its technical/methodological morality, it also explicitly elucidates most of the logical framework for food justice today, almost forty years later.
The film illustrates the paradox of hunger amidst surplus, depicting perfectly edible bananas rotting in the tide or being fed to cattle. Though it predates coalescence of scientific and political conversation around the threat of climate change per se, his discussion of the absurdity and inefficiency of shipping food on long, circuitous routes for tax and investor reasons lays the groundwork for the concept of food-miles, key to current analyses of the carbon footprints of different food-production models. In his repeated attention to the lack of rights of the harvesters to keep and eat some of the bounty for themselves, as well as to access foods both nutritious and culturally appropriate, he touches upon the central principles of food sovereignty.[iii]
The film illustrates the paradox of hunger amidst surplus, depicting perfectly edible bananas rotting in the tide.
I don’t mean to canonize him; there are plenty of problematic elements of his work beyond those he consciously admits. For instance, the male gaze troubles me, most notably in the moment when his partner strips naked to illustrate how everything she wears was made somewhere else. Or implicit judgment without opportunity for rebuttal, as in the moment when Thérèse criticizes the packing plant supervisors—they can’t even read, she says, but they can be foremen—and he splices this narrative over an image of a woman pacing the lines, supervising. Are we to conclude she cannot read and does not deserve her salary, which still must be pennies compared to the company’s profits? Without hearing her story, we’re left pitting worker against worker, a distraction from the larger issues at stake, and a textbook union-busting strategy.
And yet, his early adoption of the heart of a radical food system analysis persists, despite all his messiness. People are imperfect, our governing systems are imperfect, our protest movements are imperfect, so I do not find fault with the imperfection of the film. It represents one possible entry point to engaging with injustice from a place of relative privilege.
Genèse d’un repas, then, proposes another morality superseding that of its shot assemblage. One could argue his self-mockery is full capitulation to cynicism or at least doubt about his assuming an activist mantle, but I’m more inclined to return to his notion of the impostor. Moullet finds much amusement in having passed off Une aventure de Billy le Kid/A Girl Is a Gun (1971) as a Western, in reality an avant-garde art core wrapped in genre trappings. Similarly, it appears he cloaked the serious political documentary in the disguise of another off-beat experiment. But that disguise appears quite thin and often falls away entirely.
One could argue his self-mockery is full capitulation to cynicism or at least doubt about his assuming an activist mantle, but I’m more inclined to return to his notion of the impostor.
In your first sentence, you slyly invoke a word that activates twitching limbs and glossolalia tics: “cavalier.” Now that my involuntary spasms have subsided, I can turn this subtle assault of yours into a productive response. As you know, my professor raised the moldy specter of this word at a meeting regarding the toxic interaction I had with another professor, during which the former wondered if I did not treat the academic point of view seriously enough, consequently provoking contempt in my teachers, as well as their adult rage fed by formative years of childhood teasing incited by the anti-intellectualism typically wielded by garden-variety bullies.
I do not take the academic point of view seriously “enough,” of course. But I think this cavalier deflation of rigor and unintended obscurantism is a critical component of intellectual progress—a means by which the privileged can remain linked to the masses who do not have the temporal or material capital to educate themselves in the rarefied jargon and elusive Latinate signifiers and dumbly punned neologisms of the Eurocentric humanities. And I view Moullet as a proponent of this counter-attitude; and I attribute his prescience regarding contemporary food justice issues—that you smartly observe—to this cavalier posture. It is an antidote to dogmatism and the abstract warrens of thought that consume academic lives in their futile hope of some eventual deliverance from the cloistered empyrean discourse that can then be directed toward social justice, when, in fact, the closest they come to materiality is in the private economic enchantment of tenure.
I am glad that we have begun this conversation with Moullet’s film, because it is such a refreshing formal departure from the contemporary environmentalist pop docs flooding Netflix, with their smooth animated graphics emulating hand drawings, and their nature-porn photography, and their Sufjanian soundtracks, and their my-shit-don’t-stink, dopey Manichaeism. Some of which I enjoy—don’t get me wrong—but the template is awfully crusty by now. Who the hell decided that this was the only way to make a “professional” documentary with an activist angle? Too often, it is executed in the spirit of sugar-coating a pill, and I remember thinking that an Archer Daniels Midland commercial (“Supermarket to the World”) on PBS had a similarly cloying formal sensibility (upbeat acoustic music with vocal choirs, Terrence-Malick-style cinematography) to many of the documentaries that would combat the megacorporation’s corn syrup hucksterism. Do we watch documentaries to be tricked into something? Is that the only way that we can be influenced politically? By ironing out complexities, narrativizing struggle like a facile Aesop fable, and resisting the possibility that we, as American consumers, are as complicit as a corporate head? What is it about the word “systemic” that concerned citizens can’t fathom or endorse? Why is it so painful to implicate the self as Moullet does?
Moving on, I would agree with you regarding the “male gaze” if that moment weren’t so patently non-erotic; actually, “erotic” is the kind of sexual word with reciprocal intimations that Gloria Steinem approves of, so perhaps a better word would be “non-sexualized,” but I would have to backpedal with that emendation and actually agree with you in order to say that, yes, she is presented as an enabling body upon which commodities are hung, except then I would have to qualify that by saying her deadpan presentation of “naked female body” is so devoid of attendant titillating suggestions or erotic accessories that I can’t believe the male gaze is not implicitly confronted in the critique as well as the scene as filmed; in other words, her naked body is not gratuitous. This film was made four years or so beyond Laura Mulvey’s coinage, so it is very possible that these two—Luc Moullet and Antonia Pizzoretta—are aware of the conceptualized risk. Also, her appearance in the film begs a comparison with the earlier film Anatomie d’un rapport (which we should watch some time), in which “Luc Moullet” (played by Luc Moullet) has a problematic relationship with “Antonia Pizzoretta” (played by Christine Hébert), leading to all sorts of self-incriminating, boorish, comical behaviors on the part of Moullet—fully owned—although possibly also leading to a version of male panic towards the burgeoning second-wave feminist movement, admittedly. (Still, the film was co-directed and principally photographed by Pizzoretta.) It seems complicated, difficult to suss out, but there is no doubt that Moullet and Pizzoretta are at least confronting these issues directly, even if their own attitudes are unclear and elusive, perhaps even to themselves.
Either way, she spits out inferior tuna (during a dumb, quick spoof of the commercial “taste test”) with as much seductive panache as she undresses. Both scenes are intended comically, and she is as much of an object of gentle ridicule as Moullet, suggesting to me that she is as much behind the spirit of this project as her partner and collaborator Moullet.
She spits out inferior tuna (during a dumb, quick spoof of the commercial “taste test”) with as much seductive panache as she undresses.
Which brings me back to the contrast between their self-presentation and the more respectful appearances and interviews of the various players in the system—the executives, the managers, the European working class, and the borderline serfs in only nominally decolonized states. Moullet and Pizzoretta eat a proletarian meal—nothing lavish—and yet the political stakes remain incredibly high as they ramify eventually toward a 12-year-old banana polisher’s life. No one in Europe can escape the critique by pleading poverty, and yet because of that, no one should feel individually ashamed of his or her participation. It should only galvanize us toward our own emancipation from being unwitting instruments of devastation.
The political stakes remain incredibly high as they ramify eventually toward a 12-year-old banana polisher’s life.
“Male gaze” is a term more loaded for the general population than “cavalier,” and maybe I was cavalier in its use. I agree that Pizzoretta shares the spirit of the project, but my non-central yet persistent discomfort remains: In a film that dresses and undresses the far reaches of Moullet’s political self, she is almost entirely silent and the only one to strip physically. I have no doubt of her consent and complicated attitude toward the act, and you’re right it’s not an overtly sexualized scene—still, in some ways it relegates her to the role (however intentionally ironically) of cage dancer while Moullet plays the real show.
In a film that dresses and undresses the far reaches of Moullet’s political self, she is almost entirely silent and the only one to strip physically.
But this was just one example of a critique precluding his beatification. (And I’m pretty sure we did watch all or part of Anatomie d’un rapport a couple of years ago.) Ingrained trauma aside, you’re on to something with the power of the flippantly nonacademic stance. As much as an impostor in this instance, he is a subverter, a refuser. He rejects the mainstream documentary template, demonstrating not that it is never useful but that its devout use precludes explorations that might fully elude corporate propaganda. Climate change deniers counter the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC, the one-letter difference in acronyms laying a trap of false equivalence for the casual reader), but what is the easy PR counterargument to a personal, nonlinear, elliptically narrative, and alternately/concurrently artistic/investigative reluctant documentary? Experimental art/film/poetry/theater receives many of the same criticisms you level at academia for its elitism and lack of meaningful connection to struggle, yet I’d argue that Genèse demonstrates one of many exceptions to that disconnect (just as, you might allow, there are fruitful intersections between academic theory and application that defy the ivory tower stereotype).
I’m still chewing on your question about why even the only relatively privileged can’t fathom or endorse the term “systemic,” and about galvanizing ourselves “toward our own emancipation from being unwitting instruments of devastation.” Beyond saving him from would-be opponents’ critiques or absorption into a formulaic film movement (significant, no doubt), Moullet’s self-mockery and extra-academic analysis save him from himself. No matter how passionate he feels about his subjects and their structural context, his shifting, comic perspective prevents calcification into the expert-tyrant. Self-mockery and depiction of his own shortcomings do not erase or absolve him of his complicity in oppression, but they prevent him from becoming an activist-dictator who must mete out judgment to postpone being judged.
Civil rights movements are not immune to sexism; feminist movements are not immune to homophobia; and food sovereignty movements are not free of misogyny, racism, or exploitation even within the ranks of their smallest units and tightest-knit communities. To be cavalier, then, in the way he is cavalier—empathetic but also not, as you say, serious “enough”—keeps his grip loose so as to leave room for people in other positions to step up and tell their own stories, as seriously as they choose. It leaves the door open for self-reflection of the kind that could actually, one day, emancipate us from our egotistic charity and thus from our roles as devastators. All in a way that measured expertise of the privileged could never and will not.
* All screenshots taken from Genèse d’un repas (1978) copyright Luc Moullet and included here under principles of fair use for purposes of commentary.
[i] English subtitles as transcribed in Audrey Evrard, “Framing the world economics in a tuna can: Luc Moullet tracks the Origins of a Meal/Genèse d’un repas (1978),” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, accessed July 30, 2015, http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc54.2012/evrardMoullet/.
[ii] Sally Shafto, “Luc Moullet, a Bootleg Filmmaker at the Centre George Pompidou,” Senses of Cinema, July 2009, accessed August 3, 2015, http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/feature-articles/luc-moullet-pompidou/.
[iii] The international peasant movement La Vía Campesina coined the term “food sovereignty” at the 1996 World Food Summit, eighteen years after the film’s release.
About the Authors:
Teresa K. Miller is the author of sped (Sidebrow) and Forever No Lo (Tarpaulin Sky Press). She co-edited a forthcoming anthology titled Food First: Selected Writings from 40 Years of Movement Building with Tanya Kerssen. Her essays have appeared in Common Dreams, AlterNet, FoodFirst.org, and elsewhere. @TeresaKMiller
Gregory Giles is the founder and singer/songwriter emeritus of the San Francisco band 20 Minute Loop. He lives near Portland, Oregon, with his occasional collaborator Teresa K. Miller. Crows are complaining outside, while—inside—condensation builds on a plastic cup. Stay tuned.