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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Confession: I hardly know what I'm doing or how or why.

On Saturday night I hosted my fourth "Eco-film Night" at my friend Sandy's used book store/health food cafe'/craft-and-flea market headquarters/drum circle loft/local theater setting/vegan cookie haven. The movie I chose was Our Daily Bread [official site here, my advertisement here], a commentary/narration-free walk through some of the places and processes that bring us plants, animals, and minerals to eat.

I had shown three films before: What A Way to Go, about peak oil and its ramifications for the American dream; FRESH, about a few farmers in the USA working to improve the health of people, communities, and soil through organic and sustainable agriculture; and Baraka, another wordless film composed of time-lapse shots of nature juxtaposed with ones of cities, with intermittent footage of religious ceremonies and traditions that, the implication is, may be nearing extinction.

I don't usually watch the films in advance, both because I want to share in the experience of learning with the audience and because I can't stand watching movies alone. {For one, exactly to avoid this kind of slothtertainment, I chose not to purchase a couch or recliner, so it's hard to just lounge around and watch; for two, I could be reading, writing, or studying Chinese or Korean, or, come to think of it, napping; for three, I can never pick which documentary or Korean film is most important and most deserving of my attention at any given moment.} Just for safety's sake, though, I watch a minute or two here and there in order to make sure the file works properly and that there's nothing that will embarrass me in front of my viewers.

Thus, I didn't give Our Daily Bread a full screening before distributing flyers, inviting friends and strangers, and unleashing it upon all those kind enough to trust me to pick some images and information to stick into their heads. The photo gallery on the website primarily shows farmers and crops, probably to pre-empt the "it's just another whacko PETA flick" response, which, I must admit, I also try not to engender. I did peruse the film briefly, noting that there was one scene of a cow being skinned (major goosebumps) and a few more of chicken coops (which I already knew were nasty), but, trusting that an award-winning, legitimate, big-release European film wouldn't be too gory, I didn't do much more.

What a surprise come movie night! Pig('s carcasse)s, cloven in half, hung on a conveyor belt being vacuumed; chicks in baskets and on conveyor belts and in machines with indiscernible functions; bovine coitus interruptus; two men removing a (dead? it was hard to tell) calf from a hole in its mother's abdomen with bare hands; piglet castration; pig-gutting machines gutting pigs and the ensuing tumbling and sorting of various viscera; a fish-slicing contraption straight out of a Terry Gilliam movie; prodding pigs with electric wands; putting cows down with a tazer, bleeding them out, and cleaning up afterwards.

None of the scenes were exceedingly gruesome, particularly when compared to something like candid PETA videos, and there was no scary mood music or narrator to remind you how terrible it all is. Just the sounds. Of the tubes. Of the hoses. Of the belts and gears and planes and sprayers, the pigs and chicks and the wind and the knives. Nobody wants to work there. Nobody wants to be there. Nobody even wants to see other people being there, to be forced to know that people are there. That the animals were there, and will be there again once the belts are turned on in the morning. Which, of course, is now, somewhere.

Well, maybe not nobody, but at least a few people. In other words, a couple audience members walked off from or out of the screening, one overcome (a friend of his later told me) by the images and one (this is my intuition speaking) somewhat defiantly refusing to be forced to confront them. Many others closed their eyes, or lowered their heads, or took extended bathroom breaks. All of which left me feeling very...odd.

I often wish that people knew these things, or that they would accept their knowledge of them. But how can one present them without coming across as offensive, judgemental, righteous, or smug?
And how personally should one take those charges when leveled against them? I get so frustrated at my and others' ability to dissociate - I had an argument with a colleague a while back who was angry at one of his students for pulling the legs off of a butterfly. Cruel and unnecessary, for sure. But worse, more deserving of scorn and ridicule, than trading a few bucks for something to grill? Why is it so easy for us to focus on small, specific abuses and ignore the systematic ones?

If I knew that, maybe I could answer some other questions, like: what should I do in a situation like that? How can I encourage someone to extend his butterfly-sympathy to cover other animals, too? Should I trust in the power of argument and logic straightforward syllogisms? (Has that always worked me? Does it now?) How careful should I be not to vilify and threaten? Should I stay silent, tacitly valuing my friend's comfort and my easygoing relationship with him over the undeniable, physical, unimaginable, easily reducible frustration and pain of an animal in captivity? Hope that my influence may somehow rub off (as others' has rubbed off on me), that my aura may bleed into his? Along similar lines, what kind of movies should I show? The ones that get good reviews, that make people feel good, that nobody walks out from, that don't seem to change a thing? Or the ones that make people uncomfortable, that make a little less likely to come back, that make me feel like the bad guy, the harbinger of unpleasant truths?

Thankfully, more people have thanked me after the film than walked out in its midst. One Korean told her friends (who later told me) that she had never understood why someone would want to be a vegetarian, but that she understood better after watching. Another, my Indian neighbor, who grew up in villages where animals were almost like family members and crops were tended by hand, told me that he and his friends had learned a lot, and wouldn't allow me to apologize for subjecting them to the unpleasant scenes.

So, yes, that is the state of things. My head is all jumbled up with pride and regret and shame and gratitude and who knows what and it feels like I can barely put a coherent sentence together.

Thank you for your kind attention. Please come to my next screening.