________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 7 . . . . November 26, 2004


Animals: Friend or Food?

Jason Young (Director and Writer). Kent Martin (Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2003.
72 min. 31 sec., VHS, $99.95.
Order Number: 9103 060

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Frank Loreto.

** /4

My brother-in-law comes from a long line of dairy farmers. His lifestyle is demanding, and he is totally dependent on the well-being of his herd. Twice a day, every single day of the year, he must tend to the milking and care of the cows. He grows most of his own feed, an activity which takes up the warmer months of the year. In addition to growing the food, he ensures that the barn is in good shape and the machinery needed is in good working order. He has raised two children and knows that this would not have been possible if the farm was not run efficiently and well. This is a difficult way to live and most urban folks who come to the farm and see its beauty, sigh and say that this must be the life. He agrees, but not for the reasons they see. He was born a farmer, and, while once an elementary school principal, he has chosen to be a dairy farmer and all that this lifestyle demands.

     So when Jason Young decides to embrace farming in Animals: Friend or Food?, it is much like someone trying on an ancient way of life, going through the motions, but not fully understanding the importance or value in its traditions or practices.

     When Jason and Julia Young moved to a farm, Jason, for some reason, decided that if he was to remain a meat eater, he should be able to raise and kill his own meat source. We see him buying two piglets, a sheep, rabbits, and a bull Jersey calf. Unlike Julia, Jason was not born to farm life. So, while she comfortably works with her horses, he painstakingly tries to reconcile the fact that he likes eating meat with his love of his animals. Despite the advice of his in-laws and neighbours, he ignores the fact that on a farm the animals are food and not pets. He is told by experienced farmers that he should not treat the calf like a dog, and yet he does so anyway.

     Jason seeks out the expertise of local farmers and learns what is required in the raising of animals. When the pigs had to be castrated, Jason does the deed himself. When the sheep needs to be sheared, Jason studies the sheep farmer in action first, then tries to put what he learns into practice. The first sheep done by the farmer comes out clean and smooth, but Jason's sheep, after several nicks, looks like a punk sheep. He learns how to kill rabbits from his sister-in-law who has mastered what she feels is a humane method-shooting the rabbit in the back of the head. While the shooting is done off camera, Jason graphically describes the rabbit's death throes in detail. He is taught how to skin a rabbit and, as the procedure is done on camera, the viewer, like it or not, learns as well.

     When it comes time for Jason to kill his first rabbit, he decides to dedicate a piece of land as a ritualistic killing area. Here, he clubs his first rabbit and has his first pig slaughtered. For the pig killing, Jason enlists a farmer's help who guides him through this elaborate process. The killing, boiling, skinning, and gutting are shown in detail. Later, as the pig becomes the feature of a family barbeque, Jason eats it but never comments on the taste or the fact that it is the centrepiece of an enjoyable time of community.

     Jason goes on to kill the sheep, dehorn a calf, and castrate a goat. He takes great care with the preparation of sheep's skin as he plans to use it under a saddle. He finds it odd that between the rider and the horse will be the skin of a sheep and a cow.

     One should not think that the film is filled with nothing but death. With the coming of winter, Jason plans to increase his livestock, and the viewer is treated to a graphic presentation and discussion of the mating of rabbits and the pigs. We are told that rabbits can mate so furiously that heart attacks are not uncommon in the males. The pig mating is less frantic, but no questions need be asked afterwards.

     When the time comes to slaughter his calf, Jason is unable to carry through even though he thought he could. He prepares his killing area and gets his rifle ready. This time, he would not ask for help from any neighboring farmers. However, at the crucial moment, he falters and decides instead to deliver the calf to a slaughterhouse where the film ends.

     This is a memorable film. The cinematography is beautiful. Each frame is almost a picture suitable for framing. Jason is sincere in his search for whatever it is he is trying to find. However, the point of the film is illusive. If the intent is to criticize the use of animals as food, it succeeds very well. The opening scene, repeated twice, shows a young pig being hauled by its leg and dropped into its pen. The instrument used for castrating the pig later on is given a long close-up, and the viewer can see how it works. The last scene lingers on the calf after it has been killed in the slaughterhouse. The viewer is treated to its slow, twitching death and then the credits. Nothing is said about where the meat from the calf would go.

     If the film is attempting to show the complex procedure of getting meat onto a fork, then it succeeds, but it does not celebrate any aspect of this. The professional farmers are presented as decent folk who do this for a living and are efficient. They respect their livestock, but they do not get emotionally attached. However, it is Jason who takes centre stage, and it is Jason who has much to learn. He looks like someone acting out a role that he finds uncomfortable and unsuitable.

     The film misses the opportunity to show the demands on family farms and how the professional farmers treat their animals. Jason becomes far too attached to his few animals and, of course, feels pangs of conscience for each killing. Farmers may find this film offensive in what it does not say, and animal rights people could also find it offensive for what it shows.

     Clearly there is a growing divide between urban and rural lifestyles, and there is a need for this gap to be narrowed. While this film may be used in an attempt to show a kind of farming, the focus is on Jason and his conscience. There is nothing here which celebrates the difficult lifestyle of the farmers.

     This is a long film and very slow. For most of the time, Jason is seen brooding and questioning. While there may be suitability in Food Services, Ethics and Law, perhaps at the senior level, students may find the treatment tedious. The graphic death of the calf at the end of the film would most certainly upset most viewers.

Recommended with Reservations.

Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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