'At the Fork': Film Review

At The Fork Still H 2016
Courtesy of Emergent Order
Familiar eco-doc format yields some interesting voices.

An omnivore tries to bond with his vegetarian wife by investigating American meat production.

Will first-hand exposure to industrial methods of meat production make a morally sensitive man turn vegetarian? That's the question behind At the Fork, which turns out to be significantly more than a polemic against carnivorism. Looking at a spectrum of techniques used by American meat producers, John Papola's doc gives viewers material to justify a range of responses, including happy and ethical meat-eating. Though the market has flooded with films like this in recent years, Fork is targeted enough to find some fans in niche distribution.

Papola starts unpromisingly, with the most annoyingly overused device in contemporary doc-making: At odds with his wife over the morality of meat, he decided "the best way" to resolve things "is to hit the road" for an investigation that results, in closing scenes, with vague assertions that "the experience has changed me." (Surely, at this point, the only aspiring filmmakers who don't groan at these phrases are those who don't watch many of their nonfiction peers' movies.) Along the way, scenes focusing on Papola and his wife Lisa add little value.

But as a meat-lover open to the other side of the argument, Papola brings us some perspectives not often seen in docs about meat and eco-conscious farming. Yes, we spy on massive beef feedlots and tour pig and chicken operations that cruelly confine their animals. But we also see places like Legacy Farms, whose owners are anything but secretive: Convinced that his customers can make up their own minds about how workers treat animals that spend time in close confinement, president Malcolm DeKryger has built viewing areas where visitors can watch the entire operation.

Many will scoff at a Legacy worker's belief that an animal can have a "rewarding" life in a stall. And the company clearly hears the public sentiment urging them to change. Echoing the opinions of several large-scale farmers here, DeKryger says he's happy to do that, "as long as the consumer's going to pay me for the expenses that I have to put into it."

The kind of ethical middle ground most of us inhabit is best represented here by Temple Grandin, whose insights into prevalent farming strategies — where the most efficient system is not just inhumane, but "fragile" in the face of disease — make her the doc's star. Going further in the direction of friendliness toward animals destined for slaughter, White Oak Pastures' Will Harris describes his conversion away from ranching's prevalent mindset: He decided that good stewardship meant not only not inflicting pain, but creating "an environment where the animal can express its instinctive behavior." 

Papola does give time to interviewees like Kim Sturla, of the Animal Place sanctuary, who thinks the only moral choice is veganism. Sturla's conviction that people choose to eat meat because "most people don't have the opportunity to get to know" the animals who become food, though, ignores the millennia in which farmers lived closely with their livestock. The film's visit to a Future Farmers of America event, where young kids sell pigs they've raised from birth, shows the other side. "It kinda hurts when you see them for the last hour of their lives," a teary girl says. But that doesn't stop her from sending her hog off to become bacon.

Distributor: Tugg
Production company: Emergent Order
Director: John Papola
Screenwriters: Cristina Colissimo, John Papola, Lisa Versaci Papola
Producers: Cristina Colissimo, Jordana Glick-Franzheim, John Papola, Lisa Versaci Papola
Executive producer: Dave Matthews
Director of photography: Matt Porwoll
Editors: Sandra Adair, Joshua Meyers, Alejandro Valdes-Rochin
Composer: Graham Reynolds

Not rated, 94 minutes