Supermarket clerks and the human imagination

Danilo, in My Darling Supermarket. | Photo courtesy of DOXA

In our lives, we do some activities so automatically that we do not realize how art, or even existential questions might be present in them. Grocery shopping is one example. As customers, we tend to do it quickly, and not think about the relationships between the supermarket workers, and the richness of the universe.

That was not the case with Brazilian documentary filmmaker Tali Yankelevich. One day, she was staring at the store shelf, deciding what she would have for dinner, when she heard two young employees talking about their first loves. She had an insight, which she describes as a “cinematographic moment.” “The supermarket was almost empty, and they were having a deep and beautiful conversation in that lengthy hall, while performing repetitive tasks, filling the shelf with inanimate products, and then, suddenly, they came up with this discussion about their first loves,” she said. This idea resulted in the documentary My Darling Supermarket, her first feature film.

Contradiction between mechanical tasks and deep thoughts

When Yankelevich previously produced a short film called The Perfect Fit, shot in a pointe shoe factory, she noticed how rich, deep and questioning the discussions were between the employees. So, she decided to make a documentary about the imaginations of people whose work includes repetitive tasks. She focused on what these workers think, and how their imaginations work as they perform mechanical tasks. The contrast between their physical work and their unlimited imaginations is what motivated Yankelevich. As she attests, “The proposition is to talk about human imagination within a supermarket. I enjoyed putting myself in this contradictory challenge.”

The documentary features the supermarket’s clerks, and shows their daily routines, but the most important content focuses on their views about life, spirituality and the universe. The dialogue is all based on the clerks’ ideas. “It was made with previous research and talks with the employees, but there was no script written; the characters shown are 100 percent real,” says Yankelevich. Security guards, bakers, butchers and cashiers share their feelings, thoughts and beliefs with the audience on many aspects of life. As a result of this dialogue, she believes there is a humanization of the workers, as they express themselves in the documentary.

Every scene takes place within the grocery store, to emphasize the focus on what the characters do, and think, while performing their jobs. Though the shots were filmed during business hours, Yankelevich says it did not impact the store’s activities. She said, “Clients were so focused on their shopping lists, and on the products, that they didn’t even realize there was a film crew there.”

Rodrigo Kelly and a co-worker share a laugh among baked goods. | Photo courtesy of DOXA

Documentaries and supermarkets during the pandemic

Released in November 2019, My Darling Supermarket was shown at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and at Doc Fortnight 2020, at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, receiving positive responses from the audiences. It was also to be shown at the Guadalajara International Film Festival (FICG), which was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the moment, the film is only available via online documentary festivals, such as the DOXA Documentary Film Festival, until June 26. As Yankelevich says, film producers and consumers need to adapt to the new situation imposed by COVID-19. “We lose the experience of watching movies in a theatre, but on the other hand, festivals such as DOXA, can reach a larger audience when it is available online.”

Even with the cancelled screenings, the new reality of the pandemic connects to the theme of the documentary. The pandemic has given society a different perspective on grocery store clerks. As Yankelevich says, “Clerks are facing changes not only in the way they work, but in the way they are seen, as well. Supermarket workers, who once passed unnoticed by many people, are now being valued and praised due to their continued work during this time.”

DOXA Documentary Film Festival