A friend of mine who’s a devoted carnivore told me that he had no interest in seeing the food documentary “Eating Animals,” because “when I hear that title, it makes my mouth water.” He is, in other words, not the target viewer for a lesson in vegetarian fortitude. Actually, though, he’s got the movie all wrong. If the phrase “eating animals” makes your mouth water, then you are, in fact, the ideal audience for this documentary investigation into where our meat comes from. The movie, loosely adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2009 memoir and narrated by Natalie Portman (who is one of its producers), isn’t a sanctimonious veggie harangue. Directed by Christopher Quinn, it is, at certain moments, almost a love letter to the time-honored splendor of the carnivorous impulse.
Enlightened eaters know that there’s a school of thought — a powerful and convincing one — that says the best thing you can do for your body is to stick to a plant-based diet. Yet there’s another school of progressive culinary thinking, led by nutritional crusaders like Michael Pollan and Sally Fallon (or, on the foodie side, such figures as Alice Waters and the late great Anthony Bourdain), that says that meat is good for you, that it brings you proteins and — yes — fats that will only enhance the temple of your body chemistry.
“Eating Animals” isn’t fundamentally about that debate. Yet it leans, implicitly, toward the pro-meat argument, since the most compelling figures in the film are a handful of heritage farmers who have sidestepped the industrial-farming system to raise their own meticulously cared-for chickens, turkeys, and hogs.
One of them, Frank Reese of Kansas, raises hallowed breeds of poultry that he regards as reverently as an old Italian winemaker does his grapevines. The animals are nurtured and respected, treated as part of the life cycle. Frank’s birds roam free, of course, and eat feed that’s good for them, and Frank talks about the aesthetics of farming, how there’s a “holy” aspect to it. He also says something stark: “There’s no way you can love an animal that’s been genetically engineered to die in six weeks.” That same stern devotion emanates from an avuncular farmer named Paul and his noble pigs, who glisten and grunt with glee as they scurry around the mud yard. When Paul tells the story of a restauranteur in San Francisco who told him that his pork was the best he’d ever tasted, it’s hard to resist the thought that happy pigs taste better.
“Eating Animals” understands the boutique economics of what it’s showing us. It knows that heritage farms like these represent just one percent of the farmers in America, an elite group who have subverted the system and are keeping an old idea of farming alive. The other 99 percent have been sucked into the exhausting competitive juggernaut of factory farming, in which farms raise animals on a scale of mass production, which requires conditions that are called, euphemistically, “confinement agriculture” but might more accurately be described as an animal holocaust.
This isn’t the first documentary to showcase guerrilla footage of what goes on inside the covered buildings where chickens, often overweight and diseased, are stuffed by the thousands into a space where they can barely move (a chicken that dies of a heart attack is called a “flip-over”). But it’s the first to be made in an era when corporations, with the help of government, are seriously cracking down on the rights of journalists to film such things. Ag-Gag legislation (first named by Mark Bittman in a 2011 New York Times column), created by pressure from meat corporations, has now become the law in 17 states, making it a crime to film what goes on behind these chicken-barracks doors. Yet the corporations all claim that they’re being “transparent.” That’s called doublethink.
Portman, in her narration, voices a profound insight into the animals we eat. She says that animals have little sense of the past, and almost none of the future; they live, by and large, in the moment. So if their present-tense experience is one of torment, then torment is the only reality they will know. Anyone who has ever felt close to a dog will understand just what this means. Treating animals in a humane fashion is no sentimental “activist” idea. It’s intrinsic to who we are.
Yet the factory-farming system violates this creed — horrifically — every day. It’s the system that most of us feed off and live in denial of, and the value of “Eating Animals” is that it’s an eye-opening reality check. The industrial-food ethos that now rules our lives came to fruition in the ’70s, when the issue of keeping food as cheap as possible became our overwhelming priority. It was the fast-food industry that paved the way toward mass-produced meat (the Chicken McNugget was a revolutionary building block), and starting then we have never been more disconnected from the question of where our meat comes from or what, in fact, it is. (As that old Wendy’s commercial from the ’80s, designed to tweak McNuggets, said: “Parts is parts.”)
But what can be done? “Eating Animals” is the first food documentary I’ve seen, in a cycle that goes back to such landmark films as “Food, Inc.” (and, of course, to the book that highly influenced that movie, “Fast Food Nation”), to acknowledge that the system as it exists today is too vast and entrenched to overthrow. Genetically modified turkeys, who are so big-breasted they can barely stand, eating feed laced with antibiotics, their feces channeled into a “pink lagoon” (a sprawling and weirdly photogenic pool of disease that pollutes local rivers): This is our new normal. “Eating Animals” offers two sobering statistics — that 80 percent of the antibiotics manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry are used for factory farming, and that factory farming ranks among the top two causes of water pollution and climate change. That’s what’s all happening as we look the other way.
The answer, to the extent that “Eating Animals” has one, is to support non-factory farmers and hope that their numbers can grow. It’s also to start eating veggie burgers, which the movie, in a nod to Foer’s book, endorses during its final minutes. But not in a way that’s going to make many converts. Americans are addicted to processed food, and even those of us who try to steer clear of that addiction tend to be addicted to eating meat. Could all that change? Maybe, maybe not. But meat that comes from animals who are raised humanely is an ideal, however precarious, that needs to remain a part of things. And a movie like “Eating Animals,” by making you think twice about what you’re taking a bite of, has stood its ground and done its job.