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Watch and Learn

By Jill Howard-Church

Recently I've watched two important documentaries every consumer, citizen and/or activist should see: "Food, Inc." and "The Cove." They're in limited release across the country, but are well worth seeking out. One looks at modern agriculture in the United States and its impact on our health, and the other exposes the horrific annual slaughter of dolphins in Japan. Each has the potential to influence national and international policy - if enough people see them.

"Food, Inc.," directed by Robert Kenner, features subjects found in the books Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser (also a co-producer), and The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. Both authors appear in the film. "Food, Inc." - whose logo is a cow with a bar code on her side - focuses on the industrialization and homogenation of American food production (both crops and livestock) by a handful of multinational corporations with only their (huge) profits at heart. Viewers see how an absurd reliance on corn products, the genetic modification and patenting of seeds, and the mechanization of food production has had an impact on business, the environment, and our diets and health.

My main complaint is that the movie touches on the abuses of factory farming in general but not enough on the actual suffering of the animals who die by the billions. Farmers who "appreciate" their livestock are lauded, and the scenes of slaughter are too brief to effectively raise the ethical aspect of eating meat. The focus is more on the "product" than the animals killed to make it. Still, scenes such as downer cattle being dragged around and a glimpse inside a large chicken shed (with dead hens being pulled off the floor) offer at least partial insight, which is more than the average consumer who sees "happy cows" on TV ads usually gets exposed to.

"The Cove," meanwhile, is a lesson in both ferocity and tenacity. The cruelty of the Japanese fishermen who kill approximately 23,000 dolphins each year in Taiji is matched only by the hubris of the Japanese government, which goes to extraordinary lengths to both cover it up and justify it. The film documents not only the slaughter but also the remarkable determination of a small group led by former "Flipper" dolphin trainer-turned-activist Ric O'Barry. Their expertise results in heartbreaking but irrefutable footage of dolphins being herded into a small cove and stabbed to death, turning the water into an unforgettable shade of crimson. The slaughter footage is brief, but it is ample evidence that the International Whaling Commission and other regulatory agencies can use to confront the Japanese government and make it stop. Ironically, the Japanese government has prevented the film from being shown or discussed in Japan, meaning that the citizens of that country (some of whom have been unwittingly eating mercury-laden dolphin meat) will not have the opportunity to demand change within their borders.

"The Cove" also relates to the ASI policy paper released earlier this year and co-written by Lori Marino and Kristin L. Stewart ("Dolphin-Human Interaction Programs: Policies, Problems and Alternatives"). Dr. Marino has been helping to promote the film and its related calls for greater dolphin protection, especially as the capture of wild dolphins relates to their exploitation in marine parks around the world. Reviews of "The Cove" have driven home the point that anyone who goes to see dolphin shows or participates in "swim with dolphins" programs is providing the economic incentive for this capture and slaughter to continue.

Both of these films have important messages, but most of middle America will never hear them because these films don't usually make it to shopping mall multiplexes alongside "Star Trek" or "Transformers." It's odd how people will flock to see horror movies that go to great lengths to show fictionalized blood and gore, but they will run away from anything showing real slaughter because it forces them to confront their own habits. Even some animal advocates avoid these movies because they are disturbed by seeing cruelty; a woman sitting next to me at "The Cove" left the theater three times so she wouldn't have to watch the difficult parts. But as I watched those dolphins being killed, I thought, "If they can't leave, I can't leave." The very least we can do is bear witness and educate ourselves; the most we can do, as the producers of these films did, is to speak up and fight for what's right.

"Food, Inc." and "The Cove" are films you have to make an effort to see, and many people who make that effort are probably at least partially enlightened (or willing to be) already. I can only hope that those who do see them will become more active in demanding change, and that at least a few people in positions of power (hello, White House screening room?) will realize that business as usual cannot mean killing as usual.


Jill Howard-Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.

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