I stole one of the housemates last night and we went to see a screening of Fast Food Nation in Berkeley with a discussion featuring Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser afterwards. It’s sort of like going to see a movie and being told “oh, by the way, God will be there afterwards.” I also got to meet Dairy Queen of The Ethicurean, which was awesome. Although because I’m shy the housemate had to shout at her while she was running up the aisle: “hey, are you the Dairy Queen?”
Michael Pollan is a professor in the journalism department at Berkeley, which was sponsoring the screening. And Eric Schlosser wrote the book that inspired the movie, and therefore is being flogged across the country by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Well, maybe not. But he said he was in Colorado the night before, so it sounds like he’s logging a lot of frequent flyer miles right now.
Anyway, spoiler, the cow dies.
I liked the movie. I was surprised that they decided to turn it into a fictionalized account with a factual basis, rather than a documentary, but I liked it. I can respect the choice, because documentaries aren’t often released on movie screens all over the country, although March of the Penguins and Bowling For Columbine are indicators that might be changing. But, in general, documentaries don’t get huge releases.
In many ways, the film reminded me of El Norte or Maria Full of Grace, both fictionalized accounts of very real issues, and both heavily researched. Eric Schlosser obviously cares deeply about the labour issues associated with the fast food industry, looking in this case particularly at meat. Meat packing plants employ illegal immigrants in dangerous jobs without bothering to train them, and workplace injuries are a daily occurrence. This year is the 100th anniversary of The Jungle and as Schlosser pointed out after the screening, The Jungle talked about the abuse of immigrant workers, the terrible conditions in slaughterhouses, the exploitation of animals and men…and we still face the same problems, 100 years later. This seems wrong, in the 21st century.
My primary criticism of the movie ended up being partially addressed after the screening. In all of the slaughterhouse scenes, the slaughterhouse seemed unusually clean and shiny to me. Well washed, no filth and muck and blood everywhere. The scenes on the kill floor seemed highly unrealistic to me, because it was too tidy, and things were moving at a fairly slow pace.
The scenes looked like a real slaughterhouse to me, with real animals obviously dying, so it seemed unlikely that they had wasted budget building a giant set. But it’s also extremely difficult to get into slaughterhouses, and I doubted that the filmmakers had been able to enter and film in a traditional American slaughterhouse. Perhaps they had filmed in a smaller local abattoir for a day?
After the film, Schlosser said that at the screening in Colorado, two of the meat packers he interviewed for the book came up to him afterwards and said that their only criticism is that the slaughterhouse was too clean, and not a realistic reflection of American slaughter practices. It turns out that the factory used in the film is in Mexico, not the United States. And handles 175 cows a day, rather than 400 cows an hour on one line alone, as most American slaughterhouses do. Even in Mexico, they had difficulty being able to film, but when the filmmakers explained the purpose of the film, the owners agreed because of the exploitation of Mexican workers in the United States. The owners seemed to feel that although they were uncomfortable with filming, it highlighted a bigger issue and might improve the lot of Mexican immgrants in America.
So I was glad to have that cleared up, but my concern is that average viewers who don’t happen to have Eric Schlosser on hand to explain things might come away with misconceptions about American slaughterhouses. A viewer might leave the film thinking “well, exploiting immigrants really sucks, but the slaughterhouse looked pretty clean, and the cows were killed humanely.” While the movie touched upon some of the issues associated with a fast moving production line, the slaughterhouse scenes seemed to belie the claims. I strongly believe that there should be a disclaimer on the film, explaining that the packing plant is not a realistic reflection of slaughter practices in the United States.
I almost wish that they had intercut the grainy, illegally shot films of American slaughterhouses into the film. I would hope that the special features in the DVD edition include a discussion of the issue, perhaps including interviews with meat packers, labour activists, and so forth.
Other than this weak point, which I see as extremely serious, the film was excellent. It was a moving portrait of the people who work in slaughterhouses, and the kind of lives that they live. It also showed the underbelly of the fast food industry, in some senses. There was even room for hope in the character of Amber, who begins to explore her activist side in the film, suggesting that all of us could perhaps make a difference eventually.
After the film, one of the audience members asked Eric Schlosser if he thought civilian action or governmental regulation was the solution to the problems of the food industry. I thought it was kind of a stupid question, frankly, because I agree with Schlosser—both are vital. By being active citizens, we pressure the government to make changes, and make it clear that we are not happy with the state of our food. By legislating, the government can effect some changes. But there are things we as citizens can do, personally, as well, like voting with our dollars. If you don’t like an industry, don’t support it.
Afterwards, I drifted up to the stage because I wanted to ask Eric Schlosser about the slaughterhouse in the film, and whether misperceptions by audiences were a concern of his. I was, of course, too shy to actually say anything, but I did listen to Michael Pollan talk about grassfed beef.
It’s certainly a film worth seeing, although the weak of stomach may take exception to the slaughterhouse scenes. Just remember, as you watch it, that most slaughterhouses are hundreds of times worse, that the scenes in Fast Food Nation are tame by comparison to the actual industry, and ask yourself if you are willing to pay that price for meat.