Eating Animals’ is an important doc and a tough pill to swallow
Directed by: Christopher Dillon Quinn
Written by: Christopher Dillon Quinn, based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer
Narrated by: Natalie Portman
“Eating Animals” – “I wonder what my grandkids or generations past me will think about this period, a time when we raise our meat, dairy and eggs in many (compromising) ways.” – “Eating Animals” director Christopher Dillon Quinn, June 14, 2018 during a Phoenix Film Festival interview
Quinn is speaking about factory farming. This current practice mass produces 99 percent of the meat that Americans consume today, and his emotional, eye-opening documentary sheds a light on the highly disturbing state of affairs.
Narrated by Natalie Portman, who also co-produced the film, she walks the audience into the twisted world factory farming. The doc quickly dives, shifts and doubles back into several stories over 1 hour and 34 minutes, while offering plenty of unsettling and nightmarish images. Some visuals are expected, like warehouses stretching over the length of football fields, filled with chickens who barely have any space to move. Others are unexpected, like small pink ponds dotted all over North Carolina that are toxic blends of pig excrement and waste, sitting with odd glows under a blazing, southern sun.
In addition to describing this world, Portman and Quinn explain the repercussions of factory farming. For instance, the previously-mentioned chickens are genetically bred to grow faster and – of course - bigger, and frequently, the birds cannot even carry their own bodyweight, while their feet and legs have the consistency of rubber. Those pink ponds eventually bleed into downstream rivers, lakes and coastal areas, which wreck fishing communities.
So, the film not only depicts the “unmitigated misery” of cows, birds and pigs but also outlines the environmental impacts, including climate change. As we discover these horrors, Portman speaks with phrases like “I learned”, “I discovered” or “I was surprised to learn”, and this relatable approach helps soften the emotional burden for us. In other words, Portman has traveled here before and holds our hands as we walk into the brutal and heartless abyss.
Craig Watts, a chicken farmer who works for one of the large poultry corporations, has spent decades in this abyss, and gray hair, dark circles under his eyes and the combination of stress and exhaustion in his voice mark his thankless journey. He can no longer cope with the daily grind, the massive monetary debts and tending after his countless sick chickens. His trauma hemorrhages off the screen into our eyes and ears, as he hopes for another way to make a living.
There is another way.
The narrative also mixes in refreshing stories of small, independent farmers, and their positive routines are more recognizable to Americans. Quinn introduces us to Frank Reese. He owns a small, independent turkey farm, and his free range turkeys enjoy…free range on his property!
They even have the time and space to play!
In fact, one turkey sits in a tree and seems to teasingly speak to Quinn’s camera. Although these turkeys will meet their eventual doom (and Frank admits that he “hates” doomsday), the birds live in a welcoming environment under a man who cares for and loves them.
A couple other “Charlotte’s Web” moments unexpectedly pop up, which act as reminders that these animals have the personalities of house pets, when given the chance. Not that pigs or chickens will or should replace typical house cats or dogs, but Quinn effectively humanizes these animals for the audience.
Make no mistake, humans will find “Eating Animals” to be a troubling, unpleasant but important cinematic trip. “Food, Inc.” (2008) offered similar messages 10 years ago, and while that film opened many audiences’ eyes to factory farming for the very first time, “Eating Animals” reminds us that these problems have not gone away, but have accelerated. The movie is a needed warning signal, because future generations will most likely judge our current actions, so there’s no time like the present to make meaningful changes.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.