“What you are about to see, is beyond your worst nightmares” – with this prescient line, Alec Baldwin’s husky voice introduces the documentary Meet Your Meat (Bruce Friedich, 2002; pictured below), a hellish ride through the most egregious abuses in various industries that draw from the bodies of animals their raw material. Welcome to the world of undercover animal rights video, an increasingly popular genre that borrows heavily from the gory semantics of fiction horror. The difference is that what they show is real.
The prime goal of such films is to shock people into action and stop buying products from these industries that include meat, fur, eggs, dairy, experimentation, entertainment and any other ones that involve enslaving and killing animals.
The tactics worked for me. I went vegan 10 years ago because of this horror video, which, like fiction horror, is designed to draw a physical reaction from viewers. In my case, it was a fat stream of tears and a life-long repulsion for meat, eggs and dairy. Like when I watch horror movies, especially the ones involving possession, at points I felt compelled to cover my eyes with my hands, but I made an effort to keep my eyes glued to the screen and not flinch.
The increasing number of those videos, which U.S. heads of animal enterprises want to ban by lobbying for legislation that labels undercover agents capturing the footage ‘terrorists’, is a consequence of the rise of animal NGOs with a global reach and a vegan message. Those charities appeared in the 1980s, influenced by the book Animal Liberation (by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, 1975). They represented a new school of animal activism, one that called for true liberation with vegetarianism, and later veganism, as their moral baseline.
Peta, producer of Meet Your Meat, is the best example of this new crop of animal NGOs. From a small group of activists to a global force with Hollywood actors amongst their supporters, the NGO grew into a powerhouse that was quick to grasp the potential of the internet to spread its message and grab headlines.
It understood the power of shock tactics in order to reach the public (later it added sex to the mix, but that’s a different story). Other U.S. nonprofits followed suit, such as Mercy For Animals, whose extraordinary growth in recent years also hinges on its steady stream of horror videos revealing the gory facts of animals farming.
The early years
There are many earlier examples of documentaries revealing the reality of production animals before any modern concept of animal rights had entered mainstream awareness.
In 1949, filmmaker Georges Fanju made the documentary Blood of the Beasts, in which he surveys the gory conditions of the slaughterhouses in the bucolic outskirts of Paris. Despite being shot in black and white, its formal precision, ultra-realism and candid observation hit the viewer hard.
Even a few years earlier, Walt Disney Studios had already started to imbue human children with sensitivity towards animals with the film Bambi (1942), which was decried as anti-hunting by the gun-loving, blood-shedding lobby. It remains a seminal film with a lasting impact on the way the world perceive wildlife and nature. The mere anthropomorphisation of animals helps closing the imaginary gap that separates man from other species and nature. This sort of approach has influenced a crop of animal-friendly contemporary films aimed at children, such as Babe (Nick Park/Peter Lord, 1995) and Chicken Run (2000).
In the 1976, the American documentarist Frederick Wiseman also made a film depicting the production entitled Meat. Like all Wiseman films, his observational, impartial style creates a sense of truth that allows the viewer to arrive at their own conclusions. Even so, Meat is a not an easy watch, which perhaps proves that no matter how distanced the film is, when it comes to the showing the backstage of the livestock business, the facts are always dirty and painful to see.
The roaring ‘80s
Film activism for animals and veganism started in earnest in the 1980s with the release of The Animals Film, a 1981 British production that was released in cinemas and also broadcast on Channel 4. Directed by Victor Schonfeld and narrated by the vegetarian actress Julie Christie, the film was a landmark. It got behind the dirty business of all types of animal exploitation, from factory farms to the military, fur trade, hunting and the pet food industry. It was the first time that kind of imagery hit the big screen. Musician Elvis Costello ditched meat after watching it.
Fast forward to the internet age and the film most widely credited as the biggest vegan-making film of all time is Earthlings (Shaun Monson, 2005). Narrated by Hollywood vegan Joaquin Phoenix, it uses archive footage to create a terrifying essay on all forms of animal exploitation, some of which is almost too hard to endure. It’s a sobering, heart-wrenching experience teeming and burning with horror, thrown at the viewer like a hot rod. It is also a call for humans to learn how to co-exist with other species more peacefully.
Giving you goosebumps
But there’s humor in the world of animal rights moving images, too. One of them is the ironically trashy Poultrygeist (Lloyd Kaufman/ 2006; pictured at the top of the article). Clearly made from a vegan point of view, this horror pastiche updates the zombie genre and pokes fun at American famously bad food habits. The film is set around a fast food restaurant built on an ancient burial ground. The chickens they cook are coming back to kill them.
Year of the Dog (Mike White/ 2007) is the type of dark and awkward comedy for which White became famous. It describes the process of a woman that goes from having one pet dog at home to becoming a vegan and an animal rights activist. It is a social comedy that contains accurate references to contemporary veganism, its challenges and emotional turmoil. The light, sitcom-ish cinematography is as far removed from horror as it gets, but underneath its hipster fluffiness, it is serious about the vegan view of the world.
Looking forward, films and videos with a vegan and animal rights message are likely to become increasingly numerous and sophisticated. The horror genre will always be a strong influence in response to slaughterhouses, fur farms and dirty laboratory testing on helpless animals, to name but a few examples. However, the diversity of the vegan community will influence filmmakers to expand their repertory on the topic.