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December 2006/January 2007
If Slaughterhouses Had Movie Cameras
Film Review by Sangamithra Iyer

 

Bobby Cannavale and Yareli Arizmendi in Fast Food Nation. Photo by Matt Lankes

Fast Food Nation
Directed by Richard Linklater, written by Eric Schlosser and Richard Linklater.
114 minutes.

On Halloween, my colleague Maureen Wyse and I watched an advanced screening of a movie filled with blood and guts. The scary part, however, was the reality it portrayed—what’s behind the all-American meal.

Richard Linklater co-wrote and directed Fast Food Nation, a fictional drama released by Fox Searchlight Films on November 17th based on Eric Schlosser’s best-selling book of the same title. Like the book, the film manages to weave together many hidden aspects of our food infrastructure. The film unfolds this tale seamlessly through interconnected stories of characters in Cody, Colorado. The all-star cast includes Greg Kinnear as a corporate executive of “Mickey’s” burger joint on a mission to find out how cow manure ends up in their burgers. Wilmer Valderrama (That '70s Show) and Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) play a Mexican immigrant couple who cross the border in search of a better life working at a meat packing plant. Bobby Cannavale (The Station Agent) is the plant supervisor who preys on young female employees. Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) is the angry, disgruntled teenager working at the local Mickey’s. The film also casts a group of college environmental activists, including Avril Lavigne, plotting to free feedlot cows.

Linklater, a vegetarian since 1983, hopes the film will influence people to start analyzing the “global willful ignorance,” around food and realize “how unnatural and systematically cruel” our food system is.

While the fast food industry targets children, and Schlosser’s recent book Chew on This focuses on youth, this film is rated R. When asked whether a film more suited for kids was in the works, Schlosser replied, “I hadn’t really thought about that. But the film is definitely not for kids, and maybe needs a little ‘not for kids’ label.”

No Lights, Camera, Abattoir
The most compelling footage from the film is inside the kill floor of a slaughterhouse where the audience accompanies cows along the production line in the final moments of their lives. Schlosser notes “the whole film is built to essentially lead you to that moment.”

Slaughterhouses in the U.S. weren’t really eager to welcome in a camera crew. Linklater eventually found a slaughterhouse in Mexico that agreed to let them in, but gave them only three hours to document the slaughter process and film the abattoir scenes. No lights, makeup, or outside contaminants were allowed. Linklater felt lucky to get that footage. “I felt the film needed it. It is the reality that is hidden but so prevalent. Ten billion animals a year are raised for human consumption and if you can’t accept that reality, then you are just living in a dreamland.”

When asked whether animals were bought or killed specifically for the purpose of the film, Linklater responded emphatically “No. We even had the Humane [Association] monitor the scene with the rats.”

In terms of what it was like for him working in the abattoir, he said he found himself “willingly shutting down empathy and compassion” and “turning on the technical side.”

Catalina Sandino Moreno emphasized how scary and fast the production line was. “I thought we were going to close the slaughterhouse and there would be extras and they were going to use fake meat. But it was a working slaughterhouse and they were killing cows and you could see the whole process. The people next to us were the actual workers.” Wilmer Valderrama reflected, “People are expected to become part of the machine. The machine is perfect, but a human is not.” They both, while making disgusted faces, tried to describe what it smelled like: “raw meat, grease, blood, open stomachs and hair... fetuses.”

Bobby Cannavale remarked his slaughterhouse experience was “crazy.” He couldn’t stop thinking about the people who work there ten hours a day, every day. “There is so much violence going on—the sounds, the shots, and the skin being pulled off. That’s got to affect you somehow.” He never imagined the reality inside such a place. “I remember saying to Catalina, ‘I’ve never seen this in a movie before. I can’t believe we are doing this in a movie with the name Fox on it.’”

So, Does the Cast and Crew Go Veg?
We had the chance to ask some of the cast how working on this film and reading the book affected their diet and outlook on food. Wilmer Valderrama “always wondered why the fist ten minutes of eating fast food tasted heavenly but after ten minutes you start feeling like shit. You realize your body is digesting things it is not meant to or things that have already been digested.” He went on to say, “It’s mind blowing that in such an incredible country these things happen. And people choose to ignore the realities of such things.”

Catalina announced she is a vegetarian, but she eats “a little meat because girls…we have to have iron. But every time I eat chicken or fish or meat, I try to buy it where I know it’s safe. I try to know where it’s coming from.”

Cannavale is making wiser decisions as to what is going into his body, and hopes that people come away knowing they have a choice. “Just because there’s a McDonald’s on every single corner, doesn’t mean you have to eat there.”

When asked what he ate while filming he replied, “I hope it’s okay to say this. I’m not a vegetarian. I just enjoy meat. I was craving meat while we were there. We ate Mexican food that had meat in it.” The film trailers, however, were set up in the slaughterhouse parking lot, so Cannavale added, “I didn’t eat a lot while I was working. There were a lot of bugs and the smell…it was kind of gross.”

Paul Dano admitted, “I purposely didn’t read the book when it came out because I knew if I read it I would not want to eat fast food anymore. I was really worried I wouldn’t want to eat meat anymore, because I am a carnivore and I am scrawny and I don’t need protein out of my diet.” After reading the book, he gave up fast food, and now resorts to eating granola bars on long road trips instead. He’s still researching more about where his food comes from, but right now he opts for the deli over McDonald’s.

Referring to the workers, he said “I think what resonated with me the most, is that you see normal people and good people who are put in these situations where they don’t have much of an option. You see these people like yourselves that are caught in the bigger system that is not fair, that is not good.”

It seemed the cast universally was drawn to the workers’ stories and rejected fast food from their plates. Perhaps not realizing the vast majority of meat, whether fast food or not, comes from the same slaughterhouses rife with exploitation. By eating meat they are still subjecting workers and animals to that same cruel slaughter process.

Linklater is aware “there’s a lot of disconnect in our food chain. We love animals instinctually. You see a child and how they treat a pig, a goat or a cow, and then they are eating Babe for breakfast. It’s crazy.”

He came to vegetarianism slowly. “I was brought up thinking that if I didn’t eat meat every day I would die. But something just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right for a while.”

He later noted, “I heard that for every year you don’t eat meat, 100 animals don’t get slaughtered.” And he proudly proclaimed his sparing of over 2,000 lives so far.

Fast Food Nation in a War on Terror

To avoid libel suits, the filmmakers called the fast food joint “Mickey’s” and invented UMP, a fictitious global meat packing plant.

We asked Schlosser and Linklater their thoughts on the recent “Green Scare” and the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, and wondered if they feared any repercussions putting out a film challenging the meat industry. Schlosser replied, “The state of Colorado has a veggie libel law where disparaging an agricultural product of Colorado is a felony. I knew that when I was writing Fast Food Nation and set the film in Colorado.” Linklater jokingly proposed “We should do that in the film industry, [and say] you can’t disparage my movie.” Linklater further commented on the absurdity of where our anti-terrorism dollars go. “They are putting spies in like vegan societies, among anti-war activists, not to mention building a war along the border. It’s amazing how corporate power influences legislation. Is it against the law to present the truth about these industries?”

Schlosser offered his advice, “You can be intimidated and be silent or you can push up against it. I’ve chosen to push up against it, and I really hope I never regret it.” Currently trying to finish a book about prisons, Schlosser added, “I go to prisons all the time, but I get out at the end of the day, and I really don’t want to spend the night, and hopefully won’t have to.”

For more information visit: www.foxsearchlight.com/fastfoodnation.


 

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