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Even diehard lovers of burgers and bacon may reconsider what they put in their mouths after watching Eating Animals. The documentary, directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn and based on a book by Jonathan Safran Foer, takes a look at modern-day animal farming, a practice that has mutated over the years to keep up with consumer demand for meat that’s cheap and convenient. It’s undeniably an assassination piece, but sticking a fork in a target this slow-moving is easy.
Organization, however, is not the strong suit of the film, which is narrated by co-producer Natalie Portman. Besides starting off with the account of a Delmarva woman who is said to have invented the practice of factory farming in the 1920s, the content is random, with little sense of story or progression of time. We meet, for example, a North Carolina man who discovered “pink lagoons”—what he describes as the waste of pigs, or a “fecal marinade of feces and urine” sluiced directly into pits without lining—hugging the river where he fished. Then we get a profile of KFC’s Col. Harland Sanders, see a chick rolling down an assembly line (all together: “Aww!”), and are told that the practice of raising animals for consumption contributes to between 14 and 50 percent of climate change (quite a range, but I suppose you’re supposed to swallow this without question). There’s a scene in which a truck driving down a country road stops and is then shown in shadow as its occupants seem to get out and then run. What’s going on is unclear.
The effect is that you don’t always know what the finer points of the documentary are beyond “eating animals = bad.” However, that message comes across clearly. Maybe you’ll pause at the story of a U.S. Meat Animal Research Center cow that was “raped to death.” Or Portman’s description of how “white blood cells, also known as pus, accumulate and end up in our milk.” If nothing else, seeing is believing: A contract poultry farmer for Perdue shows the condition of his chickens, many with diseased bodies and legs that bend like rubber. “This is your premium prime-time, no antibiotic ever, cage-free, humanely raised, whatever else is on that label,” he says.
Portman’s voiceover, meanwhile, though mostly informative, leans toward the melodramatic. Regarding the dawn of factory farming: “No one fired a pistol to mark the race to the bottom,” she says. “The Earth just tilted, and everyone slid into the hole.” At another point, she rattles off a list of accusations to an initially unknown subject, ending with: “You silence the whistleblowers who do the job you were created to do. Your job is to guard the fox, not the henhouse. You are now known as the USDA.” Even if you side with her, you’ll roll your eyes.
Eating Animals also covers the growth of superbugs resulting from antibiotic use (not to treat sick animals, but to prevent them from getting sick under unhealthy conditions), veterinary whistleblowers, and the development of plant-based meat substitutes. One farmer changes his ways; another never danced with the devil to begin with. The film may indeed be all over the place, but it still gives you a lot to chew on.
Eating Animals opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row.