Maxwell Courtright tours this Brazilian documentary that praises the lives of those who are now seen as essential workers.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, no one could have predicted the role supermarkets would play in public life, as their employees unwittingly became classified as heroic workers on par with nurses and teachers. Other fields of work have selflessness baked into their roles; a certain valor was thrust onto retail and food service workers after decades of a socially agreed-upon low status. From the films of Frederick Wiseman to universal sitcoms like The Office, it’s a popular trope to understand social institutions through the people who work there, and Covid has made only a small wrinkle in the broad cinematic history of humanizing otherwise faceless laborers.
Tali Yankelevich’s ode to one grocery store in São Paulo, My Darling Supermarket (2019)—an official 2021 Wisconsin Film Festival selection—is fascinated by its network of employees. The branch of the Veran supermarket chain seems average enough; the cross-section of people interviewed represent different ages, genders, and roles. Cinematographer Gustavo Almeida patiently moves through the tidy shelves and pyramids of produce while the employees talk about themselves in relation to their work and coworkers. Some have no strong feelings about the job, but others find meaning through their daily tasks. All frame their experiences with humanity and humor.
Curiously, the socioeconomic conditions of the staff are barely addressed. And, of those interviewed, most describe their work as though it’s a vocational calling. This identification occasionally makes the film feel like promotional material for the store, such as when the cashier states that his work scanning and checking people out daily is not repetitive, since he gets to scan different things for different people each day. (The spotless and vibrant color of the store adds to this ad-worthy feeling.) But My Darling Supermarket stops short of praising the place outright; its goal is rather to celebrate workers overall, and to understand work and workplaces as social constructs that people move through to otherwise find meaning.
The film suggests that work fuels cognition; all labor is dignified and, more importantly, can be the site of deep personal transformation. Menial tasks of each employee are all re-framed by Yankelevich as structuring actions for their lives. The manager is a fiend for organization, and he spends free time playing city-building games on his phone; the security guard dreams of omniscient security cameras that could follow her children and involve her in their lives throughout the day.
Although the workers’ musings can sometimes lean into the absurd and pseudo-profound (one man argues with a coworker at length about why Goku from Dragon Ball Z should be worshiped on the same level as Jesus, for instance), the film offers a re-normalizing of workers who had the banality of their work stolen from them in 2020. Where the original goal was to convince viewers of the profundity of everyday people, the film in context brings supermarket employees back to recognizable types: doting mothers, armchair philosophers, and anime fans. The film’s most sublime moments are a refreshing reminder of how average the profound can really be.