Film Review: Eating Animals

Farming Documentary Hopes To Influence Food Choices

Devin D. O'Leary
6 min read
Eating Animals
A man and his chicken.
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What is the purpose of a documentary? The aim of a comedy is to make people laugh. The intent of a horror film is to scare audiences. But why make a documentary? The short answer is to educate viewers. But to what end? The slightly longer answer is to influence the behavior and/or thinking of those watching by providing facts of which they may not have been aware. But—to keep the Socratic dialogue going—how effective is that strategy? Surely Al Gore made An Inconvenient Truth to educate people on the growing danger of global climate change and to get them to alter their behavior, lobby for regulation and work to make the world a cleaner place for future generations to live in. How effective was that strategy? Did the film really change hearts and minds, or did it preach solely to the converted? Certainly, the film fired up environmental activists. But conservatives just dismissed it as “liberal propaganda.”

The sad fact is that—particularly in today’s bitterly divided times—people are far more likely to ignore facts if they conflict with previously held convictions and blindly accept information that jibes with their current beliefs. So what is the point of watching
Eating Animals, the passionate new documentary about conscientious food choices based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s controversial nonfiction book of the same name? Will it make vegetarians out of meat-eaters? Agrarians out of industrialists? Let’s find out.

For reference, I am not—nor have I ever been—a vegetarian. I fully comprehend the health and environmental benefits that come from eating a plant-based diet. Nonetheless, I accept that millennia of biology and evolution have made me an omnivore—a link in the food chain that I eagerly accept. I’m fine eating salads and often crave vegetables, but wouldn’t be happy for long without a steady source of pork belly in my diet. I guess this makes me a good test subject for
Eating Animals.

Narrated in the soft, seductive tones of Queen Amidala herself, Natalie Portman,
Eating Animals makes its argument early and often. The facts are simple and straightforward: Our rush toward fast, cheap and convenient food in the ’70s led to the rise in industrial farming. Now, the products of factory farms make up 99 percent of our diet. These massive corporate farms create a great many problems: a drain on resources (particularly water), a dangerous increase in chemicals (such as pesticides and antibiotics) and a callous disregard for the well-being of animals under their care. All of this is driven, of course, by our country’s ever-increasing needs and by the greed of a handful of corporations.

Despite the doom-and-gloom writing on the wall, Foer’s tome and director Christopher Dillon Quinn’s film aren’t pushing for an immediate and enduring shift toward vegetarian diets. Sure, Natalie Portman is a vegan and would love it if you’d switch. But the film doesn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Clearly, with our planet’s swelling population, factory farms aren’t going away anytime soon. Instead,
Eating Animals spends its time talking about alternative solutions. Small, family-owned farms is one solution. Returning to heartier original animal breeds is another. Eschewing pesticides, antibiotics and hormones is still another. The watchword here is “sustainability.”

In the end this is less a screed against corporate America and more a sad portrait of America’s declining agricultural heritage. That isn’t to say that the filmmakers go easy on those corporate farms. There’s no lack of unappealing, unappetizing images of factories cranking out unending chicken carcasses. We also get a glimpse of the sick and unhealthy animals crammed into America’s overcrowded feed lots. It doesn’t exactly make you crave fast food. Factory farming doesn’t just treat animals cruelly, either; it bankrupts local farmers, pollutes waterways and depletes topsoil. But
Eating Animals takes its time to calmly explain why these things happen. Our country’s tastes, needs and infrastructure are what they are. The film attacks these problems from a number of different directions.

The remedy (at least the one presented here) is hands-on, boots-in-the-dirt farming. This isn’t something that’s going to sit will with hardcore vegetarians in the audience. Free-range meat is still meat. But by attacking the methods rather than the foundation,
Eating Animals makes for a surprisingly optimistic film. There are solutions to the problems we’re having. And they’re easy solutions, really. In fact, they’re the solutions that have always been there: the old-fashioned, sustainable farming methods of our grandparents and their grandparents. And these methods make the food we eat taste far better. Safer, more sustainable, better tasting food? Where’s the counter argument?

Of course, habits are hard to change. That’s why they’re called habits. How far a film can go toward changing individual habits, national preferences and global trends is endlessly debatable. But
Eating Animals at least has the benefit of following thoughtful inquiry with reasonable suggestion. It’s unlikely to turn any unsuspecting viewer into an overnight vegan. Nonetheless, it’s the sort of thinkpiece that sticks with you. Hardcore, meat-and-potatoes-loving capitalists aren’t likely to be swayed by its thesis. (Then again, they aren’t likely to volunteer to watch it in the first place.) On the other hand, militant animal lovers aren’t going to cotton to its “middle ground” argument, either. (There’s no way these folks are going to accept the concept of “humanely” raised meat.) But it’s entirely possible the vast majority of us located somewhere between those two poles will absorb the film’s quietly but firmly delivered message.

As for me, I’m still having a steak for dinner. But I might be more likely to pony up for the organic, free-range, locally sourced T-bone. And maybe that’s a start.
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