Eating Animals


Dinner is served.

(2017) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Natalie Portman (narrator), Frank Reese, Larry Baldwin, Rick Dove, Craig Watts, Amelia Watts, Bruce Friedrich, Paul Willis, Bill Niman, Chris Leonard, Jim Keen, Connie Keen, Leah Garces, Lindsay Wolf, Temple Grandin, Gene Baur, Neal Barnard, Bob Martin, Pete Fisher, Tian Yi, Ethan Brown, Josh Tetrick, Eva Song. Directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn

 

When dinner is on the table, we rarely pause to consider how it got there. Most of the food we Americans consume – something to the tune of 98-99% of it – came from a factory farm. That is to say, from a large corporate-owned farming facility that mass produces vegetables, fruit and yes animals for consumption.

Those companies who are often the same ones who pack their packaged food with salt, sugar and/or fat use hormones to stimulate growth and genetically engineer their animals so that the preferred parts of their body grow ridiculously large, like turkeys and chickens with breasts so large that they can barely walk,

The animals in these factory farms live miserable, brief lives. They are literally born to die, although in this case they are born to be eaten. Our chicken, our beef, our pork – they rarely come from those bucolic farms that we see in our Hollywood visions of the heartland. They usually come from hellholes where animal waste is collected in ponds and seep into the groundwater that we eventually drink, but not before it kills all the fish in the local streams.

We get plenty of views of those bucolic farms – as it turns out, there are a few holding on in the face of nearly impossible odds – and we talk to some of the farmers who are holding on to time-honored traditions that may be less efficient but produce happier animals and let’s face it, better meat. That flies in the face of the factory farms who are about mass-producing product at a much lower cost than the small farmers can.

There are also plenty of views of horrific conditions in factory farms; pigs in cages barely able to stand, cows unable to walk due to growth hormones being moved by forklifts and turkey carcasses on an assembly line for your Thanksgiving meal. These are unsettling images that are enough to convert a carnivore into an instant vegetarian.

Which is to say exactly what the filmmakers are after. They are subtle about it early on, chatting up the small farmers raising heritage turkeys and free range chickens. Oh, this is about alternative sources of meat thinks I early on. However as the movie spirals to a conclusion, the true intentions of the filmmakers make themselves known as the virtues of eschewing animal products are extolled. Maybe I’m a little funny that way but I don’t like to be preached to and I get a sense of that near the end. True vegetarians and vegans likewise will find the factory farm footage disturbing.

So in the end the movie seems aimed at those who are on the fence and need just the right motivation to be tipped over the edge. I’ve read a couple of film critics who are vegetarians excoriate the filmmakers for being too subtle with their message and being less militant than they should be. This is why liberals can’t win elections; there is almost a self-righteous superiority. The fact of the matter is that we are not better than the other side. There is nothing wrong with eating meat no matter what militant vegans tell you; it is part of our natural instinct to eat meat. We are omnivores and if we weren’t meant to eat animal flesh, we wouldn’t.

For those who are fans of the documentary Temple Grandin, the lady herself makes an appearance raging at “ag-gag laws,” laws that prevent a real discussion of factory farm methods and

Still, the message is a worthwhile one if you’re willing to listen and have a thick enough skin that you can take the condescension at face value. At least the intentions are good – keeping in mind that if as a culture we ate less meat we would be doing the planet a solid. While they do a good job making a case against factory farming and also against the USDA, a government agency that was founded to protect consumers but it seems as if they are more interested in protecting big corporate interests these days, this might not be the movie for you if you’re looking for a good reason for switching to the green team. For one thing, I think the filmmakers assume you already have one.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is just gorgeous. The filmmakers make their case against factory farming very effectively.
REASONS TO STAY: Towards the end the filmmakers finally start preaching for vegetarianism which I surmised was the point all along.
FAMILY VALUES: The film has some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film got a standing ovation at the Telluride Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Winter, Spring
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Our House

Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry


America the beautiful as we imagine it is.

(2016) Documentary (Two Birds) Wendell Berry (voice), Earl Butz, Steve Smith, Tanya Berry, Curtis Combs, Andy Zaring, John Berry Jr., Michael Douglas, Dale Roberts, Juan Javier Reyes, John Logan Brent, Mary Berry, Mark Roberts, Phoebe Wagoner, Arwen Donahue. Directed by Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell

 

Farming is a necessary profession; after all, we all need to eat. The work of farming isn’t easy; it requires a lot of elbow grease and a lot of dedication. The economics of farming are almost as daunting as the physical labor involved.

Wendell Berry is a poet and essayist who comes from a long line of farmers in Henry County, Virginia. He left home to pursue a career as a writer in New York. After finding some success, he turned back around and went home to his family farm both to grow tobacco but also to continue his writing career on his farm, where he built himself an office with a 40-pane glass window with a view of the Kentucky River and whatever else he chose to look out at.

He is also an activist, working tirelessly to support family farmers in an era where they are slowly being pushed out into extinction. Most family farmers are caught up in a Catch-22 situation in which in order to compete they have to increasingly mechanize their farms but in order to afford to do that they have to buy more land and cultivate it. They get caught in this endless cycle in which they need to expand but the more they expand the deeper in debt they go.

If you’re expecting a bio doc on Wendell Berry as I was, you will be sorely disappointed. This really doesn’t give a lot of background information other than stuff you can essentially find on Wikipedia. We hear Berry reading from his essays, Berry in vintage interviews from the 60s and 70s, from a debate he had from agribusiness advocate and former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz who in many ways is the architect for the factory farming that brings most of the food to our table in 2017.

The beginning is very much like Koyaanisquatsi with the visuals and also the Philip Glass-like music. Over this we hear Berry reading prose in his stentorian voice that reminds me a bit of Johnny Cash from Berry’s magnum opus The Unsettling of America.

Afterwards, we are treated to interviews of fellow farmers in Henry County, telling about their economic difficulties and how Berry was an inspiration to them. One, Steve Smith, talks about how he went from tobacco farming to organic vegetables and how it seems to be saving his farm.

In some ways this feels like a WPA film from the 30s even though much of the archival footage is 30-40 years after that era. Berry is very much against factory farming but he doesn’t seem to address some of the other reasons that family farming is failing; for one thing, the younger generation don’t WANT to be farmers. There are plenty of farmers whose kids, seeing the hard work for diminishing economic returns want no part of the family business. That’s not to say that all younger generation farmers would rather do something else with their lives – there are still plenty who feel that almost mystical bond with the land – but there are fewer of them now than there have ever been.

And while Berry seems to advocate a more Luddite version of farming that is more labor intensive, it doesn’t address the issue of feeding an increasing population worldwide. America hasn’t always just fed its own; we export enormous amounts of grain and other agricultural products. Many family farmers rely on that demand. As the population increases, more efficient methods are required.

Yes, there is a bucolic and rustic feel to the film that I liked but the conclusions don’t seem to address all of the real-world issues that farmers worldwide face. It’s nice to want to preserve a way of life but sometimes that way of life has to submit to progress.

The images here are beautiful and the filmmakers do a good job of presenting their case but the movie seemed to be more of a screed than a portrait of Berry as advertised. It seems to be more of a hagiography as the filmmakers fail to address issues that are essentially ignored in Berry’s writings. He’s a great writing but lyrical poems and prose do not an argument make.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography of rural Kentucky is occasionally breathtaking.
REASONS TO STAY: This is not so much a biography so much as a snapshot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the sequence in which a three-legged stool is being carved by hand, the carpenter is actually producer Nick Offerman although his face isn’t used on-camera.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Make a Farm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Bad Genius