Of the many varied films screening at VIFF this year, there were a number of shorts that played before longer features. One of these was Facing Animals, a half hour documentary that showed before Birders: The Central Park Effect. Facing Animals is a Dutch production made by filmmaker Jan van IJken who was interested in exploring our disconnection between animals we keep as pets (cats and dogs) and animals we traditionally use as food sources (cows, pigs and chickens). The film does not present forceful arguments, and instead relies on visual juxtaposition to make its case. Although the film was at times uncomfortable to watch, it was fascinating, and takes viewers into a heavily shadowed system of which they play a crucial role.
The film begins with a shot of a couple entering a pet cemetery and lighting candles at the grave of their pet, before switching over to a scene of chicks hatching from eggs, and a farmer tenderly helping them out. The next scenes are not so comforting. We see hoards of chicks hatched and handled like products rather than living things, carelessly being throw down conveyer belts. The film follows this pattern, showing people throwing parties for pets, cuddling cows, conversing with pigs, before returning to images of the dark, frightening and cruel world of industrial farm animals. We are witness to chicks losing their beaks, and piglets screaming as their teeth and tails are docked. Contrasting painfully thin dairy cows weakly walking to their milking stations with happy, healthy cattle prancing and playing in an open pasture. The images are depressing, especially considering that our role as consumers makes us complicit in this torment. Van IJken notes that the film explores our complicated reasoning behind our behaviour and is “about man who in his inscrutable wisdom labels one animal as a cheap piece of meat, and the other as interesting research object, beauty ideal, pest, pathetic creature or partner/mate/child”. Indeed, one of the most upsetting features of the film is the behaviour of the workers we see on camera who appear to have disconnected with the idea that they are handling living creatures.
The film is short but a perfect length for the style chosen. There is no voice over narration, and no story to guide us, only images that reveal a world that is rarely seen. Although van IJken’s argument is not presented verbally, the style is effective in getting his point across. He reveals the cruelty that is nested in the foods we consume everyday. He doesn’t really offer any alternatives, merely pointing out differences between factory farming vs. traditional, love for pets vs. indifference to the suffering of millions of similar animals, respect and kindness vs. commodification. In many scenes, the camera is placed at eye level in a large group of farm animals as they are wheeled around. We see their frightened faces, and bulging eyes as they are tossed around like cargo. Our proximity to their pain makes the film a very emotional experience.
Although this has nothing to do with the film, I was disappointed with VIFF’s handling of Facing Animals. Before the movie played, a warning was given to those in the theatre that Facing Animals would be playing before Birders, and that it contained imagery that people may find disturbing. The warning was provided because some people in the previous screening were upset. However, the spokesman giving the warning had not seen the film and said it contained violent imagery from slaughterhouses. Many people were disgusted and about 1/5 of the audience left. This film, while disturbing at times, does not contain imagery from slaughterhouses, and giving a warning as such beforehand did the film and its creator a disservice by scaring away a sizable portion of the audience. I can’t understand why VIFF would provide such a description to this important film, or allow someone who had not even seen it to paint it so darkly.
Facing Animals provides important observations about our food system in a succinct manner, without being preachy. What we miss in the means of facts, we gain in emotional intelligence regarding the dark and terrifying life of factory farmed animals.