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

After Winter, Spring


On the farm, the work doesn't stop just because it's winter.

On the farm, the work doesn’t stop just because it’s winter.

(2012) Documentary (Terra Productions) Alain, Guy, Nanou, Alfred, Olivier, the Bresquand women. Directed by Judith Lit

Florida Film Festival 2014

The Périgord region of Southwestern France has been a rural farming community going back centuries. When one thinks of the delicious cuisine of Paris, much of what makes it wonderful are the farm fresh vegetables, fruits, meats and cheeses that come from Périgord. There is a timeless quality to the community where farming traditions have carried on with little change for uncounted generations.

Time marches on even in France however and like the United States, a shift has been made to large-scale corporate farms over small family-owned holdings. It has become more and more difficult for small farms to survive between government regulations – one farmer complains he spends more time filling out paperwork than he does tending to his crops – and set prices which seem to go lower and lower while the costs for producing the same amount of crop or product get higher and higher.

In this documentary filmed by an American expatriate who moved to the area but herself grew up in Pennsylvania farm country, we examine the French family farm, once a very large part of the French economic engine but now on the endangered species list in a sense. We meet Alain, a tobacco farmer who has eschewed modern methods and returned back to the traditional methods. Middle aged, he realizes his sons aren’t keen on the labor-intensive life he has chosen and likely will not carry on the family tradition and the bittersweet understanding that he may well be the last of his family to work the land is etched on his craggy face but more importantly in his expressive eyes.

Olivier is a dairy farmer who has gone in the opposite direction as Alain; he has modernized in order to maximize production and make it more efficient. He makes as much with more than 100 cows than his grandfather did 60 years ago with three or four cows. He haunts trade shows where modern farming equipment – tractors, threshers and the like – are on display, many of which are too large scale for his operation and which he couldn’t possibly afford anyway. He carries a wistful expression.

Nanou is a rarity in the region – a daughter who inherited the farm from her father. She is largely retired now and her own daughter runs much of the day to day operation. She sees herself as a peasant – and is proud of the appellation. She feels her lineage stretching into the past, all stewards of the Earth, all feeders of France.

Bresquand Farm has for generations turned out some of the best foie gras in France. Unlike factory farms where the geese are stuck in windowless boxes and force fed non-stop, they allow the geese to wander freely on their beautiful rustic property. Yes, they do force feed the geese but it is something they do with reverence and love for the animals, which seems a bit contradictory when you are stuffing unwanted food down their gullet. Still, they try to be as humane as possible.

Albert is an old man who has lived on his farm his entire life. A neighbor of Lit’s, he has a vineyard which he tends as best he can. His entire family come to help him harvest, or at least a good portion of them. At one time, there were many on the farm helping out and harvest time was a big party. Now, as his life is coming to an end (he passed away shortly after filming ended), there is a bittersweet quality to the event.

The family farm is under siege all over the world. In France, many of those who own small farms feel the pinch from rising costs and shrinking markets. There is less acreage available to feed more people, and farmers are finding it more profitable to sell their land to developers who then build a housing development on it. While they aren’t quite the cookie cutter developments you see here in the States, they are going in that direction.

Lit certainly has a feel for her subjects as well as great empathy for them, given her own history. She prefers not to do a lot of editorializing, allowing her pictures to speak for her and they are some fine pictures. However, the facts speak for themselves that as corporations get more involved with the growing and raising of food, the quality of our food has suffered. While the French farmers talk about the hand-raising of food and how much better the quality of their crops are, the dots are there to be connected.

While the movie kind of drones on a bit in the middle third, it does pick up near the end as we get a few rays of sunshine – the growing movement towards organic food is bringing back the small farm, certainly in the United States and hopefully Europe soon following suit. What I got out of this pleasant documentary is that when we are looking to eat food that is better for us, we have to be aware of where that food comes from. While nobody is entitled to a lifestyle – as I said earlier, time marches on – that doesn’t mean that the idyllic life of the French family farmer can’t continue, particularly as there is an advantage to society at large for retaining them.

The movie is continuing to play the Festival circuit as well as single screenings upcoming in Canada. However, the movie is also available on DVD for those who can’t find it in their local art houses or film festivals. You can order it on their website, which you can get to by clicking on the picture at the top of the review.

REASONS TO GO: Bucolic setting; idyllic cinematography. Makes you think about where our food comes from and nicely illustrates the challenges faced by family farms.

REASONS TO STAY: Seems to lose focus in the middle third.

FAMILY VALUES:  Scenes of animals being killed for food and the force-feeding of geese may upset the sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed over a three year period.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cousin Jules

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Before You Know It