Media Acclaim for A Cow at My Table

From NOW magazine, Toronto

    "Cows come home in clever documentary"

        By Cameron Bailey

A Cow at My Table gently pits animal activists against the meat industry in a probing reflection on flesh food. Vancouver-based Abbott blends interviews and farm images with rarely seen archive footage, drawing viewers on all sides of the issue into the questions she raises. Her background is experimental film, which makes this film remarkably visual for a political documentary.

A Cow at My Table screens this weekend as part of Harbourfront Centre's Vegetarian food Fair. That context tips the balance of the film, but Abbott refuses to simply join the animal liberation clarion call. She lets her subjects, including the animals themselves, speak. Like all the best documentaries, this film offers more questions than answers.


From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 1999

Billed as "a feature documentary about culture, meat and animals, A Cow At My Table is an idiosyncratic and often refreshingly unpredictable mix of interviews, excerpts from agriculture industry teaching-and-training films, early 20th century silent comedies, and undercover videos of abusive practices mostly made by director/editor Jennifer Abbott herself.

Abbott did brief time in the Saskatoon hoosegow for allegedly trespassing in order to document the death of a cow on the premises of Intercontinental Packers Inc., though all charges against her were dropped.

"Her experience in Saskatoon," the box blurb states, "was a perfect example of her thesis that social forces conceal, distort, and legitimize factory farming, with perilous consequences to animals, humans, and the environment...Our acceptance is what Vandana Shiva calls the 'ethics of anaesthesia.'"

The vegetarian activist Shiva is only one of many interviewees whom most viewers probably will not have encountered before. There are plenty of conference circuit regulars, including Carol Adams, Gene Bauston, Karen Davis, Howard Lyman, Jim Mason, Tom Regan, and Peter Singer. They all have points to make, particularly Mason, who focused his activism against factory farming long before it was a general concern of the animal rights movement. However, the real stars of A Cow At My Table are the little known agriculture industry spokesperson Susan Kitchen and animal welfare moderate Ian Duncan. Visibly uncomfortable, Kitchen rattles off platitude after platitude; Duncan gently explodes them. As he is not a prominent career activist, his testimony will probably carry greater weight with whatever members of the not already persuaded public eventually see the video.

Longtime activists may liken A Cow At My Table to The Animals' Film, narrated by Julie Christie, and Tools For Research, produced by the late Marie Carosello, which helped spark the rise of animal rights activism in the early 1980s, through repeated airings on college campuses, public access TV stations, and in front of any civic group that activists could get to hold still. Animal rights conferences often had one or both films in continuous showings on a closed-circuit monitor.

...the open question is whether A Cow At My Table can ever break out of the dwindling veggie/vegan and animal rights conference circuit to reach beyond the already persuaded. The conference circuit crowd will at most only be convinced to refocus their activism on farm animals--away from dogs and cats, lab animals, marine mammals, hunting, and/or endangered species. And, as the late Henry Spira pointed out in his final Animal People guest column, posthumously published in October 1998, recent surveys show that this has already occurred among the younger half of the activist core.

If Abbott can find a way to get these younger activists to take A Cow At My Table into their communities, it may become one of the most persuasive videos of the coming decade..."



        By Steve Hall

The use of animals for food provokes strong feelings from both animal activists and agribusiness supporters. It can also elicit little or no reaction, as many people would rather not think about what they eat or how their food got to their plate. A Cow at My Table explores how cultural and social pressures shape our relationship with animals and account for these different reactions as well as the development of the factory farming systems that dominate Canadian food production today.

Directed, photographed and edited by Vancouver film-maker Jennifer Abbott, the documentary is organized into sixteen different sections that weave together interviews with animal activists and agribusiness representatives with interesting archival footage – including a turn-of-the-century cattle branding by Thomas Edison – and Abbott’s own research. Largely self-taught, Abbott, 34, has worked in film and video for nine years, but this is her first time directing a feature documentary. "Fund-raising was hell," she says, "because mainstream funding bodies and broadcasters for the most part didn’t want to touch it, and I had very little success getting support from organizations involved in these issues." Once funding was secured, three years of research and production took Abbott across Canada as well as to the United States, New Zealand and Australia.

Slaughterhouses, rendering plants and factory farms are notoriously secretive, and we rarely see what really goes on inside. A Cow at My Table opens the doors for us and at times what we witness is not easy viewing. The toughest section to watch is called ‘Money.’ Some animals arrive at slaughterhouses alive but unable to walk off the trucks due to illness, injury, malnutrition or exhaustion. They are called "downers" and should be humanely euthanized, but, since only animals that enter the slaughterhouse alive can be used for food, it is common practice in Canada to attach a chain to a leg and drag the animal off the truck and into the slaughterhouse. To Abbott’s credit, graphic footage like this is not used sensationally. The downers illustrate that money is more important in our society than the humane treatment of animals. It also shows how Canadians are kept unaware of what’s really happening.

Culture influences our relationship to food in many other ways besides shielding us from how animals are treated at the slaughterhouse. A section called ‘Parrots, Cats, Dogs’ examines how we can love our pets yet feel nothing for food animals. The section ‘Strength’ looks at how meat came to dominate our diet as a sign of status and privilege, and how society looks upon vegetarians as weak. Two sections, ‘Speciesism’ and ‘Rights,’ look at how we don’t take seriously the rights of other species even though it can be argued that the moral equality we extend to all humans also applies to other species. In the section called ‘Pleasure,’ Carol Adams explains how the difficult part of being a vegetarian is not meeting nutritional requirements but simply being accepted by society.

Words have a powerful influence on culture. By using the word ‘cow’ in the title instead of ‘steak’ or ‘burger’ Abbott reminds us of our food’s origin; the agribusiness industry prefers to call hens ‘layers,’ cows, ‘milkers,’ and pigs, ‘porkers’ for the opposite reason. A quote from Hogs Today that appears in the film sums up the power of words: "We must try to avoid hostile, emotive words and phrases like crate, teeth-clipping, tail docking, slatted floors, cages, etc., because the public, our customers, is put off by them." In this section on words, Abbott also effectively juxtaposes video images and audio clips in order to make her point. After Susan Kitchen, a Livestock industry spokesperson, says she doesn’t like how animal activists use the term ‘factory farming’ to describe agribusiness, the screen shows footage from two 1960's agribusiness promotional videos that proudly describe a hen laying operation as an "egg factory" and a cattle farm as a "highly scientific beef factory." Later, she protests that animal activists inflame emotions to make their points while the agriculture industry uses a more accurate, fact-based approach. As she is saying this the screen shows cartoons from meat industry promotional material. In one, a cow wearing sunglasses leans back on a hay pile with one ‘arm’ behind her head while she feeds herself hay with the other. Another shows one smiling cow sitting upright in the back of a pickup truck on her way to slaughter.

This use of juxtaposition creates some visually powerful moments. Indian physicist and author, Vandana Shiva, introduces the section ‘Science and Technology’ by describing how we have converted living beings into commodities through what she calls ‘reductionism.’ As Shiva describes how we’ve reduced animals to "a bundle of matter ... to play around with as if it’s plasticine" the image of a conveyor belt crowded with chicks fades into a mass of yellow rubber duckies floating in a stream.

The music of Vancouver’s Oh Susanna, which is featured throughout the film, also creates some compelling moments. During the course of filming, Abbott was arrested when she crawled under a fence to film a downer cow that had been left dead outside a slaughterhouse. The cow lays lifeless among muddy tire tracks; blood trickles from its swelled eyes and nose; an ear-tag identifies it as number 1611. As the camera slowly circles the cow, we first just hear the wind through the camera’s microphone, then, Oh Susanna’s music begins and lends a certain dignity to 1611’s death.

Although a livestock industry spokesperson and poultry farmer are featured throughout the film, in general, it is dominated by animal rights and animal welfare experts like Gene Bauston, Karen Davis, Ian Duncan, Jim Mason, and Peter Singer. Some may dismiss this approach as biased, but the one-sidedness is understandable. This is the first Canadian documentary to raise questions about the social forces that influence our food production system. The people raising these questions just happen to be the ones concerned about how the animals are treated. If you’ve never given much thought to the food you eat or how it is produced, this film is sure to raise some challenging questions. There is also plenty of thought-provoking material for people familiar with the issues.

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