Typically when we think of pro-vegetarian propaganda, we imagine the screeching militance of PETA or Morrissey. We think of red paint being poured on a fur coat, or an aging punk rocker who, right when we’re about to enjoy some ice cream, reminds us that milk could have pus in it. Yes, when it comes to animal rights proponents, the list of stereotypes is long and strong, and much like the vocal sects of just about every activist group under the sun, it’s often to the detriment of the cause – it often signals to the ethically malleable that some fights aren’t worth fighting if it means being on a team of bullies.
Enter Eating Animals, perhaps the most even-handed documentary ever made on the subject of factory farming. Based on the Jonathan Safran Foer novel of the same name, Christopher Dillon Quinn’s moving exposé is less interested in criticizing the act of consuming meat than it is in exploring better ways to go about doing so. It posits, in no uncertain terms, that the way we used to breed animals for meat – before the dawn of convenience-minded demand – is not just ethical, but feasible. Not only that, but by eschewing the necessary evils of mass production (see: factory farming), the product almost automatically becomes both safer and more delicious.
Eating Animals speaks on behalf of factory farms as well. It illustrates precisely why we now treat food-destined animals as cogs in a machine, rather than, well, animals. To misquote one of the talking heads, there’s a huge demand for meat, and there always will be “unless everyone on the planet goes vegetarian tomorrow.” There are billions of people on the planet, and every last one of them should be entitled to a good meal, so it really comes down to what level of “necessary evil” one is willing to put up with. Far be it from any one of us to demand such a swift cultural change at the expense of satiating so many human appetites.
To this end, Eating Animals leaves room for the voices of those employed by factory farms. In one segment, a man who runs a farm indicates that it’s his responsibility to make sure his employees can provide for their families, and if the price of keeping his farm afloat and his employees happy is turning a blind eye to what some would call “horrors,” well then so be it. On the other hand, we meet a farmer who laments his life working for a large chicken company. According to him, the concessions made toward cleanliness or quality of animal life are ones imposed by brands like Tyson and Perdue. Sure, they put out an image of happy chickens on pristine farms, being produced by jolly old ranchers, but the reality is much darker. Oftentimes, the chickens are so loaded with hormones and antibiotics that they’ve mutated beyond recognition, while the farmer that produced them is kept in a state of constant debt due to the rules and regulations of working for what we’ll call “Big Chicken.”
The film is content with keeping its villains at the top level of the business, while depicting those who work in the field as pawns in a larger game. I appreciated this. In the immortal words of a customer from back in my table waiting days, “don’t ever harsh on anyone’s hustle.” The fact of the matter is, we ARE higher on the food chain than the animals we eat, even if we’ve only held on to the latter portion of the “hunter/gatherer” designation.
The movie also introduces us to some atypical farmers who have held true to the old ways of doing things. They practice a methodology that doesn’t require the illusion of animal standardization, but they suffer financially for doing so. Wanna know why “artisan” products cost a ton of money? This is why. These segments are less upsetting than the bulk of the film, and are interspersed with enough regularity that it keeps things relatively light. Let’s just say that after seeing the Pepto Bismol colored excrement pits of hog farms, it’s nice to watch an odd little man wax philosophical about the intellect of turkeys.
The soothing voice of Natalie Portman, herself a proud vegan, narrates the footage, and it’s a good thing too. A lot of what is shown is difficult to stomach, even if it’s not heightened to the point of unfair propaganda. If anything, the film is less interested in saying that the animals deserve our respect so much as saying that factory farms are very very gross.
Where the movie fails is in its lax approach toward implementation of a solution. Yes, we have made it very clear that the old fashioned farming methods are superior in myriad ways, but is there a way to get back to that? Are we too far deep into food industrialization to be able to pump the brakes on it? Well, I don’t know, and neither does the film. But even without logistically sound solutions, Eating Animals is a real eye-opener. It’s no exaggeration to say that just about every environmental issue has ties to the factory farm industry, and Eating Animals makes that very clear. If it can convince just a handful of people to vote with their dollar by cutting back on meat consumption, it’ll be a success. And on that note, I will declare that it is one – I have returned to my vegetarian ways as a result of the film (it was probably going to happen anyway, but this tipped the scales).
Maybe eat before you see this one. You won’t want to afterwards.
Eating Animals opens at the Ritz Bourse today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.