Dept. Of Dubious Documentaries: Planet Of The Humans

I haven’t watched this controversial Michael Moore-backed documentary. But if you are tempted to watch, read this first:

But the film, directed by Jeff Gibbs, a long-time Moore collaborator, is not the climate message we’ve all been waiting for — it’s a nihilistic take, riddled with errors about clean energy and climate activism. With very little evidence, it claims that renewables are disastrous and that environmental groups are corrupt.

What’s more, it has nothing to say about fossil fuel corporations, who have pushed climate denial and blocked progress on climate policy for decades. Given the film’s loose relationship to facts, I’m not even sure it should be classified as a documentary.

Docs Worth Seeing: Trophy

It won’t surprise anyone to know that I believe in the power of documentaries to tell a story that needs to be told, to illuminate, to change minds, and to inspire people to take action. Not every documentary sets out to do that, or achieves that. But I love the fact that there are so many creators out there working to use the medium to make the world a better place. As I have learned, it is perhaps the most effective medium for our visual, streaming, social media age (though it still starts with the written word!).

One new documentary that definitely illuminates, though it doesn’t come up with any easy answers (which makes it very honest) is Trophy, which opens in theaters September 8. In the words of the producers:

Trophy is a startling exploration of the evolving relationship between big-game hunting and wildlife conservation that will leave you debating what is right, what is wrong and what is necessary in order to save the great species of the world from extinction.

I do think the film delivers on this promise, and it beautifully conveys the complexity of the terrible choices before us as poachers and land changes relentlessly diminish the planet’s extraordinary bounty of beautiful beings. I came away devastated by the fact that the human relationship with the wild is so broken that we are even forced to consider whether canned big-game hunting–no matter how odious and self-serving the hunters are–or rhino horn farming, might really be beneficial to the future of lions, elephants and other big game.

The case for rhino horn farming (horns are harvested from the rhinos every few years in a relatively painless way) appears reasonably solid to me–no doubt aided by the passion and determination of the sympathetic rhino breeder featured in Trophy. A legal, sustainable international rhino horn trade would arguably have an impact on reducing rhino poaching, and that would save rhino lives because farming horn involves breeding and nurturing the lives of the animals while poaching means brutally killing the animals.

However, the case for high-value, canned, big-game hunts is harder to stomach. The hunters, their families, and the community around them are egotistical, crass, and thoroughly repulsive (as they cynically quote the bible, giggle their way through hunts, and then shed tears over the beauty of the animal they have just put a high-powered bullet through at virtually no risk to themselves). And it is abundantly clear that they don’t really care about conservation beyond the idea that it means sustaining species that they want to be able to add to their trophy walls.

Still, however much we dislike them (my son and I took to referring to Philip Glass, the hunter who is most featured, as “the dickhead”), it is not as easy to dismiss the fact that at least some of their dollars do in fact help fund anti-poaching and conservation efforts. That does not just come from their mouths, but from the mouth of a very thoughtful, very conflicted, anti-poaching unit leader in Zimbabwe. The choices are indeed hard, and hard to contemplate. But they are the choices a few centuries of industrialization, free market capitalism, rampant materialism, rampant population growth, and a thorough disregard for the natural world have left us with.

One very important policy goal that is simple to understand and simple to get behind, which sets the context for this crisis, is poverty. Trophy does not directly address the role of poverty in the ongoing extinction crisis, but it hints at it when it takes us into a poaching family’s destitute dwelling. It is very easy for anyone who is comfortable and well-fed to rail against the killing of wildlife and the assaults of humanity against the natural world (and I am describing myself, too!). But it seems clear to me, at least, that none of us will get very far in addressing the difficult and depressing problems raised by Trophy unless we, and the developed world as a whole, are prepared to address the underlying problem of extreme income inequality. It is poverty and desperation, and the need to feed one’s family, that often drives a young man into poaching. Or a farmer to kill a lion. Addressing that problem will take a quantum shift in how the wealthy nations of the world view our responsibilities to the global community and its impoverished nations, and a reassessment of what we are willing to sacrifice to achieve the conservation goals we all care so much about. (Along with a quantum shift in the moral consideration we give nonhuman species).

Millions of dollars from fat cat hunters from Texas may help buy some anti-poaching gear, or help preserve a slice of habitat. But it is a drop in the bucket compared to the income flows it would take to really solve the ongoing crisis of the relentless destruction of the great species and the environments they need to thrive.

I hope someone is making a documentary about that.

Documentary Watch: The Ivory Game

There is no more heartbreaking crisis than the ongoing, relentless slaughter of elephants (except maybe the ongoing, relentless slaughter of rhinoceroses). I’m not very optimistic about the future of African elephant populations, I’m sorry to admit, but when good people fight for a good cause there is always hope. So perhaps this documentary will mobilize lots of people who aren’t already mobilized, to take a stand against poaching and the infuriating, needless, worship of ivory.


Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Before The Flood”

It should perhaps be called “During The Flood” because anthropogenic change is already starting to flood parts of our planet. And giving anyone the sense that climate disaster is out there in the future somewhere instead of right here, right now is probably a bad idea. But credit to Leo for fighting the good fight and pushing on climate issues with persistence and sincerity.

I haven’t seen this new doc yet, but the full version popped up on YouTube, courtesy of National Geographic. So here it is:

Documentaries About Animals, Food, and Factory Farming

As regular readers know (and some former readers, who left as a result), I post plenty of material on food, the implications of eating meat, and the idea that giving meat up is the single most powerful choice an individual can make when it comes to the health of the planet, the health of humans, and the welfare of billions of animals.

Reader Maria Ramos wrote in and offered to write up a guide to some of the most thought-provoking documentaries on the topics of factory farms and meat consumption. Since the power of documentaries to inspire change is another of my favorite topics, I said “Sure.”

So here is Maria’s list of films that can change the way we eat. Feel free to add your own favorites (Earthings–if you dare!–anyone?) in the comments. I would also recommend “A Peaceable Kingdom,” a very moving film about what it means to give animals the lives they deserve, as well as “The Ghosts In Our Machine,” about photographer Jo-Anne McArthur‘s quest to capture what it truly means to turn animals into human commodities.

Take it away Maria:

Documentaries That Show the Truth About Factory Farms

Factory farming, and its far reaching effects on both the environment and the public health of American citizens, is one of the most important issues of our time. Gone are the days of the small independent farm where animals have all the space they need to roam. Instead, farming has been turned into a corporate operation that continually sacrifices ethics for profits. Below are five documentaries that expose the truth about factory farms and other aspects of modern farming that need to change – now.

Food, Inc.

This 2008 film, directed by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Robert Kenner, looks at the many dark sides of corporate farming in America. The first part of the film exposes the awful living conditions of chickens, cows, and pigs on factory farms. Food, Inc. is effective because it changes people perspective on meat from an object bought at a supermarket to a living thing. This may make viewers apply a different set of ethics when purchasing their meat and has already sparked several companies to be more transparent with how their meat is produced.

Farm to Fridge

Farm to Fridge, a documentary made by Mercy for Animals in 2011, provides undercover footage of animal cruelty at some of the nation’s largest factory farms. Although it is only 12 minutes long, its graphic footage leaves a lasting impression. Some of the worst footage shows male chickens being grounded up while still alive. Other scenes show dairy cows being physically abused by workers. This graphic style of filmmaking has been a big contributor in the 100% vegan diet movement that is  growing steadily in America. It certainly leaves a lasting impression  – find it here on YouTube.


Cowspiracy exposes how Big Meat is the number one destroyer of the environment through the use of unsustainable farming practices. It discusses impacts most people don’t associate with agriculture, such as deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions from food transportation and slaughter factories, and the long-term harm most pesticides have on the environment. It also shows just how much political red tape surrounds the problem by including interviews with industry whistleblowers, in which the whistleblowers discuss various threats against their career and life for spilling industry secrets. This film makes viewers realize that there is a business behind their food and how these businesses have complete disregard for the health of their customers and the planet.

Indigestible: The Film

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Indigestible is a 90 minute film that exposes the hidden costs of providing cheap meat to consumers. It breaks down the illusion most people have of the small-time farmer showing his animals tender love and care each day, and exposes viewers to the realities of factory farming. Once people see how our food is confined to tiny spaces similar to a prison and treated as raw materials to be converted into product rather than a living organism. Like Food Inc, it changes the way people view the production of their meat by putting the face of a living animal to the process. You can find clips of the full film here on YouTube.

Cock Fight

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This heartbreaking documentary is one chicken-farmer-turned-whistleblower’s story on how the corporate chicken industry exploits its farmers to maximize their profits. He compares being a chicken farmer for a corporate farming company to being a sharecropper. The farmer just works the farm. The corporation owns all of the chickens and equipment and decides how these chickens are treated (cruelly). The film also shows how the number of chicken farmers have shrunk from over a million in 1950 to just 30,000 today, with 54% of them contracted by the same company. This documentary from Fusion filmmakers and DirecTV and makes viewers realize how their fellow Americans are also exploited in order to bring meat to their plates.

The one underlying theme that links these five documentaries is they outline severe problems within our food industry that must be changed if we are expected to survive as a species long-term. Films like these prove documentaries have the power to not only raise awareness, but inspire widespread positive change.

What I love about all these films, and there are so any good ones, is that they convincingly, systematically, and powerfully, rebut all the spin, truth-twisting and outright BS or the industrial farm lobby. Watch them and see whether you thing there are any happy chickens or cows. Whenever I hear such talk, or contemplate the vast industry that grows and processes meat for human consumption, I go back to Isaac Bashevis Singer, who captured the relationship between humans and animals in a perfect and unforgettable frame:

What do they know–all these scholars, all these philosophers, all the leaders of the world–about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.


Points Worth Noting…

From Anthony Barnosky, who is featured in the new Smithsonian Channel documentary Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink (which aired last night):

“We have killed about 50 percent of the world’s vertebrate wildlife in just the past 40 years,” he says. “We’ve killed half the numbers of individuals. We’ve fished 90 percent of the fish out of the seas. So these are big things we’re doing to the world.”

Yes, very big. Sounds like Barnosky’s book, Dodging Extinction: Power, Food, Money and the Future of Life on Earthis worth a read. (via)

Sylvia Earle Does Not Eat Fish

And here she explains why:

Except for those living in coastal communities — or even inland if we’re talking freshwater species — for most people, eating fish is a choice, not a necessity. Some people believe that the sole purpose of fish is for us to eat them. They are seen as commodities. Yet wild fish, like wild birds, have a place in the natural ecosystem which outweighs their value as food. They’re part of the systems that make the planet function in our favor, and we should be protecting them because of their importance to the ocean. They are carbon-based units, conduits for nutrients, and critical elements in ocean food webs. If people really understood the methods being used to capture wild fish, they might think about choosing whether to eat them at all, because the methods are so destructive and wasteful. It isn’t just a matter of caring about the fish or the corals, but also about all the things that are destroyed in the process of capturing ocean wildlife. We have seen such a sharp decline in the fish that we consume in my lifetime that I personally choose not to eat any. In the end, it’s a choice.

There are few people on the planet who have thought more about that choice, so Earle is worth listening to (though she isn’t quite willing to tell people not to eat meat as well; attention Cowspiracy).

And, since we are on documentaries today, you can hear a lot more about her and her work in the Netflix doc Mission Blue.

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