Eating Animals: Knowing what you consume

A- Documentary
Directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn
From the book by Jonathan Safran Foer

Warning: This documentary contains many horribly gruesome images. And unlike the gore in horror movies, you know that it’s all real.

Considering the film’s title and the involvement of outspoken vegan (and movie star) Natalie Portman, one would assume that Eating Animals preaches heavily in favor of vegetarianism. But that’s a small part of the documentary’s message. In fact, the movie profiles individual chicken, turkey, and pig farmers in a very good light. The big villain, in the opinion of the filmmakers, is the huge factory farm industry.

That’s my opinion, too. These massive animal concentration camps torture creatures from birth to slaughter. They destroy family farms. They’re a major cause of air pollution, water pollution, and global warming. The industry has both major political parties in its pocket.

I must confess: I have a strong bias here. I’ve been a vegetarian since 1970. In a situation like this, I must ask myself if I’m reviewing the movie or the message. But film criticism is a subjective discipline, and I can’t keep my beliefs out of it. So that’s at least one reason I’m praising this film. On the other hand, I have panned badly-made documentaries I’ve agreed with.

From the start, Portman’s narration defines two ways in which animals are raised for the market. The vast majority come from these heinous factory farms. A small few continue to raise the animals the old-fashioned way – what we now call free range. The animals can move about. They can socialize. A turkey farmer explains that the “heritage” breeds he uses are lively, friendly, and relatively intelligent (for birds). By contrast, the factory turkeys are bred for fat and stupidity. A free-range pig farmer proudly tells the camera that a restaurant proprietor called his pork the best he’d ever tasted.

But when the focus turns to the factory farms, Eating Animals becomes a difficult film to look at. Cows too fat to walk being pushed by a forklift. A calf being dragged away from their mother immediately at birth. Piglets thrown about. And the sores, the rubbery bones, the diseases, and the overuse of antibiotics filtering through the factory system to your plate.

Quinn and his collaborators keep the film going at a good pace. The visuals, both beautiful and exceptionally ugly, keep the documentary visually interesting. The people interviewed all come off likeable and even worth emulating – especially the veterinarian turned activist. The filmmakers are often pulled aside by cops and private guards even though they are doing nothing illegal.

The documentary clearly wants these factory farms to go away, but it also recognizes that without this horrible system, the world could not feed seven billion meat eaters. The solution, which Eating Animals suggests almost indirectly, is that we need to eat less meat – if we eat any meat at all.

Eating Animals doesn’t pull any punches. It can be very difficult to watch. And whether you’re going to give up steak or not, you should know where your food is coming from.

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By the way, this is one of three current vegetarian documentaries. The End of Meat will screen next month at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. And Louie Psihoyos’ The Game Changers, executive produced by James Cameron, will get to the Bay Area one of these days.

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