Natalie Portman is vying for awards this Oscar season with films that range from the fictional to the disturbingly real.
Critics are praising her performance as a music icon in Vox Lux, out next month, but her other awards contender comes from the realm of nonfiction, the bracing documentary Eating Animals. She produced and narrated the film that explores the ethical and environmental dimensions of raising animals for slaughter on an industrial scale.
“It’s about the world of factory farming and what has happened to our system of creating food, because it’s been put into this capitalist, corporate kind of frame,” Portman explains. “I think it’s really upsetting when you see the impact on human health, from so many different aspects—the environmental aspect…to the consumption of the product.”
The film directed by Christopher Quinn is now available on iTunes, after a theatrical release over the summer. It’s based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer.
“Reading the book really had a big impact on me,” Portman tells Deadline. “I’d been vegetarian for a long time so obviously I had a lot of care for animals, but I don’t think I ever realized the extent of the mistreatment, the extent of the environmental degradation because of factory farming.”
In one example of that environmental degradation, the film shows massive hog operations in North Carolina, where pigs are confined in large metal buildings. Their waste collects in lagoons and the “fecal marinade,” as Rick Dove of Waterkeeper Alliance puts it colorfully, is then sprayed over fields.
“It ends up in the ditches, it ends up in the water and then our river goes out of balance,” Dove maintains in the documentary. “The fish begin to die and people begin to get sick.”
Hurricane Florence, which bashed the Carolinas in September, has compounded the problem. At a recent IDA screening of Eating Animals, Larry Baldwin of Waterkeeper Alliance described what the hurricane wrought.
“We’re in a crap storm,” he declared flatly. “The lagoons…were either over-washed or in some cases actually breached, millions of gallons of this hog waste getting into the flood waters that now is going downstream to communities.”
Equally distressing in the documentary are scenes of animals suffering in the meat production system and poultry engineered to the point that birds struggle to stand upright.
“Today’s meat birds have been bred with mutant obese genes to grow faster and fatter than ever imaginable before,” Portman narrates in the film, “so much faster and fatter that if a human baby had her growth similarly accelerated, a two-month old would weigh more than 600 pounds.”
But the documentary also shows farmers who have rejected the industrial model in favor of raising cattle, hogs and poultry in a humane fashion, in line with methods from decades ago. Frank Reese, a Kansas farmer, raises turkeys and chickens with an actual concern for their quality of life.
“This is poultry farming 50 years ago,” he says in the film. “Everything I’m doing here is nothing new. In fact, this is very, very old.”
“It’s exciting to see these small farmers who have preserved these old ways of farming that are more environmentally sound, that are more ethical with treatment of animals, that know what to do,” Portman tells Deadline. “It’s not like we need a new technology to fix this, it’s just kind of going to old practices.”
The documentary doesn’t disguise the fact that to put meat on a dinner plate, “an animal had to be murdered,” as one rancher phrases it. And yet the film is not about shaming meat-eaters, Portman insists.
“There was a conscious decision not to…be telling people what to do or making people feel bad about what they do,” she told the audience at the IDA screening. She added that polarizing debates over the proper diet get in the way of solutions. “A big part of the problem is the identity politics of labeling yourself as a certain type of eater—‘I’m a vegan,’ or ‘I’m a vegetarian, I’m an omnivore.’”
Portman advocates more modest, and perhaps more realistic steps to lessen the demand for meat, which would benefit the environment and reduce the scale of animal suffering.
“It actually might make a much bigger impact if everyone just has a little bit more consciousness,” she says. “If everyone is conscious of not eating animal products once a day or once a week that would make a huge impact.”
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