'Eating Animals': Film Review | Telluride 2017

Courtesy of Telluride Film Festival
Passionate if incomplete protest of the American feeding frenzy.

Natalie Portman narrates and helped to produce this doc adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer's bestseller about today's food industry.

Documentaries about the perils of meat and of the food processing industry have been seen before. Fast Food Nation and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me are just a couple that come to mind. Of course there are much earlier precedents, such as Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel, The Jungle, published in 1906. No doubt Jonathan Safran Soer, who wrote Eating Animals, was aware of Sinclair’s novel when he penned his own bestselling book about the contemporary meat industry. Now the film based on Soer’s book, which had its world premiere in Telluride, may revive questions and concerns about American eating habits. The familiarity of the theme may be an obstacle in getting people to see this film, but it does have some surprises in its protest of American addiction to unhealthy eating.

Instead of focusing exclusively on the appalling conditions inside the factories that slaughter animals, the doc directed by Christopher Quinn, produced by Foer and Natalie Portman (who also narrates), takes us around the country to the few remaining farms that are trying to raise animals in a more humane and healthy manner. These scenes, beautifully photographed by Mott Hupfel, add a wistful and lyrical counterpoint to more brutal scenes inside the factories that have taken the place of most traditional farms. And we meet an interesting array of farmers who speak eloquently about a vanishing way of life that they still cherish.

The factories that have replaced Old Macdonald and his real-life counterparts do more than mistreat animals. They also contribute to the pollution of the rivers and soil where they are located. Strikingly photographed scenes in North Carolina document the pink lagoons that lie outside these meat processing plants and contribute to a rise in human diseases.

In addition to the farmers, an array of scientists and environmentalists provide disturbing details about some of the grim facts within today’s food industry. To take just one example, the film indicates that the pharmaceutical industry uses more antibiotics to fatten animals than to treat human diseases. 

The filmmakers aim to honor the whistleblowers who have exposed the abuses, a crusade that is becoming more difficult as more states pass laws preventing any exposure of what goes on inside or near these factories. A title card at the end of the film tells us that the images caught around the North Carolina factories would be impossible to capture today because of a new law passed in the state that makes it a felony to photograph inside a company’s property.

Much in this film is eye-opening, but there are questions that are not answered. Farm-to-table cuisine is only affordable to upper middle class diners. How are poor people going to get access to this healthier but much more expensive food without a major restructuring of American capitalism? And how likely is that to happen in Donald Trump’s America? The film was launched in the era of Michelle Obama’s healthier lunch program for schoolchildren, a program that seems to have fallen by the wayside. So the film fails to provide many practical solutions to the problems it identifies. Still, it’s an effective piece of agitprop suffused with sadness over the decline of a rich part of the American heritage.

Narrator: Natalie Portman

Director: Christopher Quinn

Screenwriters: Christopher Quinn, Jonathan Safran Foer, Aaron Gross

Based on the book by: Jonathan Safran Foer

Producers: Jonathan Safran Foer, Christopher Quinn, Natalie Portman

Executive producers: Evan Williams, Biz Stone, Wallis Annenberg, Geralyn Dreyfous, Regina K. Scully

Director of photography: Mott Hupfel

Editors: Geoff Richman, Mary Lampson

Music: Daniel Hart

No rating, 94 minutes

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