Dir: Katja Gauriloff.  Finland. 2012. 81mins


A can of lasagna is traced back to its component parts, and the people who produce them, in this ravishingly shot food documentary. From the Bauxite mines of Brazil to a Polish slaughterhouse and the olive groves of southern Italy, the film charts the lives of those whose hard graft lies behind a single supermarket product, allowing them to voice their dreams, or simply ramble on about the things that matter to them, as we watch them at work.

Where Canned Dreams is magnificent is in the way it opens up a series of invisible lives in the nine locations we visit across the globe.

The high-concept premise gives the film a sharper focus than Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death, though it shares that ‘world’s worst jobs’ documentary’s trick of ennobling its dispossessed subjects with lush visuals and a stirring cinematic soundtrack. But although the film’s pursuit of provenance will fascinate anyone who has asked the same questions while shopping in our increasingly globalised world, its resolutely auteurish approach and some stomach-churningly graphic slaughterhouse scenes are not calculated to reach out to a wider audience. Cultural TV channels and a modicum of prestige arthouse theatrical action look to be Canned Dreams’ destiny after what should be a respectable festival tour.

Spanning nine countries, and four years in the making, the documentary sets out in its first shots, of a canning factory production line, one of its main themes: that machines are the ultimate workers in the food industry, and people are valued only insofar as they approach machine-like efficiency. 

But Canned Dreams is so concerned to aestheticise that it forgets to properly establish what any jobbing TV documentarist would have hammered home from the get-go: here’s the can of lasagna, this is the list of ingredients, now let’s see where the aluminium and what’s inside comes from. Keeping the film’s unique selling point allusive until the end feels like an unnecessarily arthouse move.

Where Canned Dreams is magnificent, on the other hand, is in the way it opens up a series of invisible lives in the nine locations we visit across the globe, which are succinctly captioned with just the name of the country and the ingredient in question. We open in a Brazilian open-face bauxite mine, where workers scrabble around for rocks in dangerous proximity to the claw of a rock-breaking bulldozer.

One is a mother of 12, who has given nine of her kids away because she couldn’t afford to look after them; we hear talk dispassionately about her life in voiceover, while the Malick-esque widescreen visuals show the ravaged landscape of the mine workings, the army of workers who scurry around the bulldozer scoop as if engaged in a ritual sacrifice to some digger god, and our narrator, who (like each of the subjects) is shown both working and standing mutely looking at the camera.

Then it’s onto a Danish pig farm, a Polish beef processing factory, a French battery hen unit, a huge Ukrainian wheat mill whose control room looks like something NASA might have set up at Cape Canaveral. Some of the workers’ stories are unsettling – a Polish slaughterhouse butcher wipes the blood of his knife as we hear him tell, in a matter of fact way, how he plans to take revenge on his wife’s lover. Others are poignant, funny or noble. The human spirit, the film seems to be telling us, has ways of resisting even the most degradingly mechanical ways devised to feed the human body.

At the same time the camera keeps a slightly ironic distance – certain scenes (like a farm corridor that slowly fills up with screeching pigs) are filmed with the droll, melancholy surrealism of a Roy Anderssen. The score, a sombre, sometimes mystic orchestral number performed by the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra, helps to keep Canned Dreams in existential territory. To misquote Casablanca, life (and the human condition) does add up to a whole can of lasagna in this crazy world.

Production companies: Oktober Oy, Final Cut for Real, Bando a Parte, YLE, ARTE France, Al Jazeera

International sales: Deckert Distribution GmbH, www.deckert-distribution.com

Producer: Joonas Berghall

Screenplay: Katja Gauriloff, Joonas Berghall, Jarkko T. Laine

Cinematography: Heikki Farm, Tuomo Hutri

Editor: Timo Peltola

Music: Karsten Fundal