Much of our lives are mundane. We wake, we eat, we work, we eat, we sleep, we wake. In a way, life is a recursive action, predictable and endless. Where many would see a paralyzing dread, director Tali Yankelevich sees an opportunity for philosophical examination of faith, for a wondering mind, for conscious self-evaluation. In her first feature-length documentary Meu Querido Supermercado (My Darling Supermarket), Yankelevich follows a small group of grocery store employees as they go about their jobs, revealing a beautiful freedom behind the scenes of a perceived monotony.
There is a strange magic and wonder that runs throughout Yankelevich’s documentary that feels more akin to a nature documentary than it does one focused on a presumed mediocre subject matter. I say “presumed” because the idea of studying grocery store employees doesn’t sound remotely engaging or thought-provoking without some kind of narrative at play, yet what Yankelevich presents is undeniably fascinating. Part of this is due to her structure and direction, using a slow pan or lingering focus to enable the audience to not just look at the grocery store, but to see, to notice, to explore. She wants the audience to take in the empty shelves of a store not yet open to the public and observing wires being run through the ceiling, as though we’re watching the birth of something far more significant than where someone might buy bread, cookies, treats, and cleaning supplies, that what we’re seeing is full of promise, not just the inevitable home for baked goods, soda, and veggies. She wants us to see the majesty of a newly borne grocery store as something living, made even more vibrant by the individuals who work within it.
In a Q&A hosted by Indie Memphis Screening Committee member Caden Gardner, Yankelevich mentions that she drew influence for the visual style of Supermarket from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey. Without viewing Supermarket, this may seem like a strange perspective from which to begin observing subjects. 2001 offers an exploration of artificial intelligence and technology, as well as spatial isolation. It does, however posit questions about life beyond Earth and humankind’s place in the universe, all under the watchful eye of an ever-present, ever-watching force in the form of HAL 9000. However, having seen Supermarket, considering the documentary within the same narrative themes, directorial style, and cinematography, the connection seems natural and organic. Like HAL, Yankelevich lacks a physical form, going entirely unseen and unheard throughout the film, with only the answers to her questions from the individuals she follows marking her presence. She offers no judgement as they pontificate on life beyond death, whether there is anything of value to learn from the heroes of manga-based stories, if we are alone in the universe, and come to open themselves to the truths of their loneliness. These are the ideas that shatter the perception of a “lowly grocery clerk” and remind us that those we engage with in seemingly innocuous ways are very much living, breathing people. Interestingly, during the Q&A Yankelevich refers to them as “characters,” which they are in definition, though not cinematically. Each of her subjects possesses within them something unique, something interesting to observe or take in. It’s their contributions which make the stories memorable, while the direction and cinematography offer a sense of something grand as it focuses on both the macro and micro nature of the store. Within the context of the 2001 influence, the ending of Supermarket becomes less anchored in the material and explores the endless philosophical nature of a fractal existence. It’s wonderfully dreamy.
Under her direction, Yankelevich posits that a grocery store is more than it seems. If the saying “a house doesn’t make a home” is to be understood as what occupies within a space gives it meaning, then it appears that Yankelevich believes the same about this store (or four stores composited together for the documentary). Yankelevich appears to present that what gives the grocery store its shape, its energy, its vibrancy, is the ecosystem within it. It’s the security team manning unblinking cameras, observing shoppers and staff in an effort to maintain safety, to the bakers working daily to replicate the perfect loaf of bread multiple times on the same baking sheet. It’s the warehouse workers in the back making sure that items are in stock and ready for shelving to the cashiers in the front serving as the last point of contact in the store. To be clear, Yankelevich isn’t raising up any of the individuals she interviews, implying a heroism of their actions, but she is offering a reminder that people don’t stop being people the moment that they go to work. Instead, as each employee goes to work, engaging in a job that’s frequently monotonous, Yankelevich explores the very humanness of internal exploration as the body engages with trained repetition.
Not every film requires mentioning of COVID-19 and My Darling Supermarket is certainly one that does not, except that Yankelevich’s direction and obvious introspection surrounding her subjects, her “characters,” remind us of a life before life was fringed with the terror of infection. There’s a lightness, a hopefulness, that pervades the documentary, even when the conversation from the subjects turns to weighty topics of love, loss, and loneliness. It’s a hopefulness we need right now and a reminder that there is joy to be found in the most unlikely places. It’s also a stark reminder that the ones deemed “essential” in this time are as human as the rest of us, worthy of the same consideration and protection. Will Yankelevich’s My Darling Supermarket make people nicer to grocery clerks, customer service reps, and other point-of-contact individuals? Maybe not. But we can certainly hope.
Screening during the 2020 Indie Memphis Film Festival.
For more information, head to the My Darling Supermarket festival website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.