Review: ‘Eating Animals’ is a crucial look at agricultural industry

by Courtney McKee | 10/19/18 2:00am

“Eating Animals” is an important film. Based on the 2009 book of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, the documentary explores the subject of the American agricultural industry, a topic that’s often neglected in public discussions, and focuses on the highly troubling issue of the factory farming of poultry and livestock. It is a system whose bread and butter, so to speak, is the brutal and barbaric abuse of animals. However, it is one thing to know this as a fact, but it is an entirely different thing to see it happen.

The film starts out at a small-scale, independent poultry farm in Linsborg, Kansas, run by a passionate, god-fearing man named Frank Reese who has loved chickens all his life. He runs his farm according to the traditional methods of poultry raising laid out in a myriad of dusty, leather-bound books he keeps in his house. His hens move freely in their large pen, pecking amiably at the hand-thrown seeds, laying variegated eggs and growing proud, full plumes of feathers. This is farming as it was, and, as the film ultimately argues, as it should be.

It is not, however, how it is. In an attempt to answer the pertinent question of how we got to where we are, the film launches into an educational history of the development of factory farming, as narrated in the sedative voice of Natalie Portman who is one of the film’s producers. These elegiac interludes occur periodically throughout the film, and while they do not take away from the overall narrative, their persuasive strength fluctuates from heartrending to somewhat hackneyed. Whether these interludes are absolutely necessary to the film are for the viewers to decide.

The film revolves around human stories, from farmers to activist groups to whistleblowers, that have all been impacted by the industry in some way. These carefully selected stories from diverse perspectives provide viewers with multiple narratives that do not emphasize a single solution, such as vegetarianism, but instead forces people to examine the choices they make in their everyday lives. The film ultimately has the most impact when the viewer is given the specifics of the various characters and their struggle, rather than vague insight into unexplained family drama, as with the case of Dr. Jim Keen, a whistleblower who broke a story on inhumane experiments done on animals in U.S. government labs.

The documentary uses powerful juxtaposition to structure its discussion, moving fluidly from Reese’s healthy, clucking chickens to the deformed and ragged flock of Craig Watts, a farmer who was tricked into a contract with Perdue Farms to produce what would have been an impossibly high quantity of chickens if not for the growth hormones packed into the corporation-approved feed. These animals are made to grow so fast and gain so much fat that they would, in human terms, amount to a two-month old baby weighing 600 pounds. The chickens can hardly stand on their two, sometimes three or four, feet. They are in constant pain and have no space to move their barely functional appendages, being tightly stuffed into Watts’ four chicken houses. Such images are where the documentary does its most effective and persuasive work. The clips of diseased cows lying on their flanks on a slimy factory floor, howling to communicate a suffering they cannot verbalize, do not need narration, nor music, nor explanation. They stand on their own, a testament to the atrocities most of us are complicit in every day. While the documentary is thoroughly researched, well-organized and decidedly informative, it is almost as though it only needs to show these videos in order to prove its case.

Still, the film tackles logos just as forcefully as pathos. Rick Dove’s story is introduced for just that purpose. In 1993, he sought to uncover the source of the pollution of his local river in North Carolina. He found it in the “hog lagoons” of nearby factory farms, or dirt-lined pools filled to the brim with pig excrement that leaks up tree roots, down into the soil and finally into waterways. Factory farms are merciless, not just to the well-being of animals, but to the robustness of the environment. Likewise, the filthy and crowded conditions of the farms create the perfect breeding ground for fresh strains of bacteria and viruses, which become ever more resistant because of the antibiotics constantly injected into the animals against all scientific advice. And in turn, these animals serve as vectors for these new diseases in humans when they are consumed as meat. The film warns that a pandemic akin to 1918’s Spanish Influenza is coming our way due to the reckless practices of factory farms. Unlike the moral concerns of animal welfare, which some people might brush away with an argument about food security or the inherent soullessness of such lowly beasts, practical concerns of poisoned waterways and modern-day plagues are not so easily dismissed. This speaks to the breadth and depth of the evidence provided by the documentary in support of its argument.

The film ends, as many issue-based documentaries do, on a more positive note, about the resolve of independent farmers to preserve traditional agricultural practices as well as the promising growth of the plant-based food industry. However, this final message of optimism was not intended to make viewers believe all will be alright, as the issue is multi-faceted, complex and reaches the highest levels of government. “Eating Animals” is an important film simply because of the problem it undertakes, one so germane and omnipresent that it cannot possibly be overstated. There will never be too many documentaries made or books written or campaigns publicized until our modern agricultural system is uprooted and reformed. In the darkness perpetuated by agribusinesses that lobby the U.S. government, films like this documentary become a lighthouse. Agricultural-Gag laws affirm that anyone who documents what goes on inside a protected factory farm is liable to be sued by the corporation. As such, this issue goes to the core of the question of freedom, whose bedrock is knowledge and choice. I sincerely hope that anyone who gets the chance to watch this film takes it. And I believe that to take what it says to heart and home is on the shortlist of the best, small things you can do for this world.