Canned Dreams: Film Review

Accessible, socially-aware documentary harvests tales of blood, sweat and tears from the food production-lines of Europe.

Katja Gauriloff's socially-aware documentary explores the globalized industry of food production.

Sampling the globalized industry of food-production leaves a bittersweet taste in Canned Dreams, an empathetic if somewhat surface-skimming Finnish documentary which painstakingly traces all the ingredients that go into a humble can of ravioli. Two sequences of graphically bloody slaughterhouse footage certainly aren't for the squeamish, but Katja Gauriloff's socially-conscious travelogue - co-funded by several small-screen networks - is overall a slicky-assembled, easily-digested dip into increasingly topical issues and will likely prove a popular choice for non-fiction festivals and TV channels.

Limited release in Finland at the end of January was followed by a berth in the Berlinale's 'Culinary Cinema' sidebar, alongside more tastebud-tantalizing foodie fare. Gauriloff's intention is to lift lids and stir things up a little, but her approach is quite mainstream alongside the best-known previous example of the genre, Nikolaus Geyrhalter's award-winning and austere Austrian essay-movie Our Daily Bread (2005), which picked up some international arthouse distribution.

Whereas Geyrhalter took a detached, eavesdropping approach to the subject, Canned Dreams individually interviews nine different food-industry workers about their lives and aspirations. After a prologue in Brazil, where the raw materials for the aluminum cans are mined in alarmingly hazardous conditions, the focus moves to the more tranquil and relatively 'regulated' Europe - principally Denmark (pork), Poland (beef), Ukraine (wheat) and Romania (pork again), with shorter visits to Portugal (tomatoes), France (eggs) and Italy (olive oil).

The epilogue returns to France and the factory where the ravioli is assembled and canned, before being trucked all the way up to Finland and supermarket display. The amount of 'food miles' involved in the whole complicated process evidently runs well into the thousands, as we see in a brisk film which eschews authorial commentary and editorializing but which is obviously motivated by a desire to educate consumers about matters rarely seen and usually taken for granted.

Heikki Färm and Tuomo Hutri's Super-16 cameras (footage transferred to digital in post-production) observe activities in a range of indoor and outdoor locations, while on the soundtrack the calm testimony of individual workers is heard - sometimes at length, sometimes relatively brief snatches.

Karsten Fundal's orchestral score underlines the emotional recollections ("I had most of my pregnancies here at the mine...") in conventional fashion - this is a film whose interviewees and images are more than capable of speaking for themselves. The importance of family emerges again and again as a universal concern, many of the laborers commenting that they're working long hours for low wages so that their children won't have to. "We have to dream," sighs one, "... my daughter is the meaning of my life."

But Gauriloff's recipe, presented in conjunction with editor Timo Peltola, wisely includes a disparate range of voices. There's the frankly disturbing Polish slaughterman - who blithely admits abusing his wife ("of course I was drunk when I beat her"), and plots violent "revenge" against her new lover - to the contented Ukrainian senior-citizen who shuns retirement and whose belief that "people should value bread and value work" neatly encapsulates Canned Dreams' guiding philosophy.

Bottom line: Accessible, socially-aware documentary harvests tales of blood, sweat and tears from the food production-lines of Europe.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Culinary Cinema), Feb. 13, 2012.

Production companies: Oktober, in co-production with Al Jazeera English, Arte France, NRK, RTP and YLE
Director: Katja Gauriloff
Screenwriters: Katja Gauriloff, Joonas Berghäll, Jarkko T. Laine
Producers: Joonas Berghäll, Petri Rossi

Co-producers: Rodrigo Areias, Anne Köhncke, Signe Byrge Sørensen
Directors of photography: Heikki Färm, Tuomo Hutri
Editor: Timo Peltola
Music: Karsten Fundal
Sales Agent: Deckert Distribution, Leipzig
No rating, 78 minutes.