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The Samsara Food Sequence

July 29, 2014


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So this week I watched the “non-narrative documentary” Samsara (2011, directed by Ron Fricke and produced by Mark Magidson). My reactions to the movie as a whole are mostly positive: it’s visually stunning and mind-expandingly huge in scope; it took 5 years to make in 25 different countries. What’s it about? Kind of everything: life and death, spiritual practices and worldly cravings, beauty and squalor, the planet and how we inhabit it, priorities.

If it were my movie, I’d have tried to orient the viewers just a little more. No need to add an explainy or preachy narrator, but would it really detract that much from the meditative experience to let us know where we are every so often? Just a discreet subtitle, so we know these mud-filled classrooms (for instance) are from post-Katrina New Orleans. But never mind; this isn’t really a movie review.

I want to talk about the “Samsara food sequence,” which has a life of its own on Vimeo, and which I encountered through somebody’s Facebook post last month. The six-minute clip starts with a montage of agribusiness operations: a vehicle with egg-beater-like twirling attachments drives through a shed crowded with tens of thousands of chickens, scooping them up and pneumatically squirting them back out, still alive, into efficiently stacked transportation crates.

Then cut to a factory where now-dead chickens move on hooks and conveyor belts past hundreds of identically pink-clad Chinese women. The filming angle here makes a visual connection between the vast indifferent structure which housed/fed the chickens during their brief unpleasant lives, and the other vast indifferent structure in which these women process the meat, repetitively making identical cuts a dozen times per minute to earn their living.

Chicken Processing

There’s also a sequence of dairy cows cycling through a gigantic milking machine, and sows feeding piglets from enclosures no wider than their own bodies and, later, a pork-processing facility. So far so good. But then the scene shifts again, to the interior of a warehouse club-type big-box store where customers are circulating.

Same camera angle, same music. So the consumers are like the chickens, like the factory workers — living creatures stuck in an unnatural environment being treated as widgets or cogs by a gigantic corporate enterprise. But wait! Now the camera zooms in on individuals: a fattish woman loads a cart with nothing but toilet paper. Others buy grotesque amounts of beer, fruit, and packaged meat.

And now we’re at a fast-food place busy enough to require assembly-line construction of its burgers. And now we’re lingering at the table of three fat people eating burgers and fries, and drinking from enormous styrofoam cups. I get it. Individual consumers, by thoughtless consumption, are complicit in larger structures of suffering and exploitation. And I don’t even disagree. But man, I don’t like the way you’re handling the camera around the fatties!

Fatties and Burgers

The toilet-paper woman in particular is getting a raw deal. Her body and her overflowing cart work together as a metaphor for excess. But the metaphor is faulty. Obviously she’s not buying hundreds of rolls just for her own individual use. Maybe she runs a summer camp or is in charge of supplies for her whole office. There’s some reason, other than mindless automatic greed, why she wants that large a volume of this specific product.

One of the commenters on the Vimeo site writes: “That did not make for comfortable or pleasant viewing; factory farming, conspicuous consumption and obesity.” Most viewers, I think, will mentally braid the sequence’s components together in exactly this way, as three aspects of one indivisible global catastrophe whose name is TOO MUCH. Or, at least, too much for a privileged few in the dominant global species, with collateral misery for everyone else. And the movie-makers, both thin men, appear quite comfortable conflating fatness and greed/exploitation.

But, excuse me, fast-food eaters may be making a suboptimal nutritional decision, but they generally aren’t exactly fat cats. The last thing a North American fatty eating fast food wants is to be is a conspicuous consumer. Plenty of fast-food customers aren’t fat. Plenty of fatties don’t touch fast food, or meat period (I know you already know that, FFF readers, I’m sorry.).

Fricke and Magidson, you’re the ones who need to know: plenty of fat people would be very pleased to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you in protesting against factory farming, if you could make the effort to avoid alienating and dehumanizing them.

The final scene is, guess what? A closeup of the big gut of a headless fatty about to undergo a medical procedure. As the doctor draws the blue line down his stomach, you can’t help associating the incision which will be made in his body and the way the headless pig carcasses were cut at the factory. The average viewer will, I think, easily read the fast-food eating scene and the fat-body-requiring-medical-intervention scene as simple cause and effect. So it will easily reinforce simplistic “obesity”-phobic stereotypes.

Fat Surgery

I liked most things about this movie and I wish I could endorse it without reservation. To the extent it has a policy-oriented point of view, I mostly agree with it. We can easily see past minor differences in styles of worship if we try. Natural beauty deserves reverence. Livestock suffer more than we should allow. There’s too big a gap between those who have most and those who have least. We gotta take care of the planet!

If you watch some of the bonus materials on the DVD, the filmmakers discuss the enormous amount of equipment they had to lug with them from country to country, paying excess-baggage fees at airports. One shot shows several dozen loaded carts lined up end to end to go through customs. Wait — these heavily loaded carts aren’t evidence of greed and wrong priorities? No, see, it so happens that if you know the whole story, individual people may have very good reasons to traffic in bulk.

Jean Braithwaite

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Terrakian permalink
    July 29, 2014 12:16 pm

    It saddens me how so often people with a “good idea to show what evils we commit in our daily lives” simply blow it with a few ill-considered scenes. I probably would have tagged on the same hypocrisy in that film, too. I often see how people make judgements about others with no other evidence than what they see with their own eyes. Sometimes, that’s enough, but too many times, like with the fat woman buying toilet-paper, we forget that the “thing” we’re seeing is a PERSON who has motivations for what they do. We’ve objectified the scene and the person in it without ever considering that we might be acting like a detestable bigot.

    The guys who made this movie obviously have some “opinions” about what greed and consumerism do to our bodies and health, but I see blind consumers everyday who aren’t necessarily fat. Skinny people commit these same crimes, all unknowing–or uncaring–that it’s probably tanking their health (and their souls, if they believe in such. I don’t) as they blithely go about their narrow little lives.

    See? I do it, too.

    We inject our views into our art, often without realizing it, and it’s sad how ingrained prejudice can be. People of colour see this all the time. So do people of faith or a differing sexual-orientation, or as the next oppressed group of our coming age have been finally getting people to see how they’ve been abused–transsexual and inter-sexed folk.

    We larger folk see it too, and we’re as sick of it as those other groups are. Thing is, “fat” (I put it in quotes because I think it is subjective what we consider fat or ugly–see history) transcends race, culture, colour, orientation or bodily-differences. ANYONE can be “fat”, and so, the larger society (giggle), who we keep trying to educate, just cannot see that there is a distinct favouring of the “beautiful”, and the “skinny”. You know, the “perfect consumer” that the advertising companies try to get US to hope to be like.

    Screw that.

    I’m fat. Deal. And guess what “dealing” entails? Accepting that not only am I here and that I’m NOT going away, but that I’m as worthwhile a human being as anyone else. I might not be the “perfect consumer”, but hell, I want to be able to wear pretty clothes, sit in a comfortable chair, and eat a decent meal without the side-order of effing guilt people keep heaping onto anything I might choose to eat, wear or buy.

    We ALL make these consume, consume, consume mistakes in whatever area we forget to walk lightly on the planet in. We’re human. We screw up. But, as humans, we can also change, and I’m hopeful when I see the kinds of changes that have been happening lately, despite the constant barrage of “No! No! *put fanatical misunderstanding of one’s own religion here* That’s against God!” nonsense and the silly nits who keep voting for people who are such obvious liars and charlatans (look at all the twits who voted for Romney).

    But, I also weep when I see how fatness has become a signal for greed, and how things that we NEED have robbed of their innocence.

    I was at a concert recently that had been presented by a school of gifted students–the music was superb–and it was at the reception after that I saw something that made me cringe in both horror and sympathy. A tall, gorgeous young lady–one of the musicians–was eyeing the delicacies on a trays arrayed on the table. She turned to one of her friends and asked, “should I be a fatty and have a cookie?”

    A cookie! A single serving of maybe 80 to 100 calories. This from a child who was obviously thin and might never be fat, based on what I could tell from her bone-structure and probable genetics.

    We have made FOOD our enemy. This kid was so afraid of her own guilt and potential derision for wanting a simple treat that she had had to displace the derision she expected to receive onto someone who only existed in her mind so she wouldn’t have to feel the guilt when she took her cookie and ate it. She made “fatness” into an object that she could then safely sneer at, all without realizing, I suspect–she didn’t seem like the snide and mean type–she created an overall, general concept of fatness equalling evil, ugly and social pariah so she could use it as a scapegoat and still have her cookie.

    THIS is what we have to deal with every day: the quiet forms of bigotry that are accepted and not even thought about..

    • July 30, 2014 11:21 am

      Yeah, it really irritates me when relatively slender people publicly chastise themselves for being “fat” in front of much larger people. Sometimes it may be a well-intentioned (if misguided) way of trying to be inclusive, like, See, we’re all the same boat, really! Other times it’s sheer passive aggression.

      • July 30, 2014 11:40 am

        I certainly wondered, but there were only youngsters around her at that point, and I wasn’t quite in line yet for my own nibble so I don’t think she knew I was there or within hearing-range (one thing on my body that works REALLY well. LOL). All of the kids with her were similarly slender (some outright THIN) and privileged: IE, well-to-do kids who’s families could afford to send them to this school. See, I never could have attended such a place. My parents were poor, and our diets were pretty much all starches. I’m sure these kids had access to expensive nutritional counsellors :-p.

        No, I think there may have been something else going on there, such as a passive-aggressive attack on her OWN self-esteem (she wasn’t fat by any stretch of the imagination, unless you think Twiggy needs to lose a few pounds), not any attempt to be inclusive or even attacking anyone else but herself. I don’t really think she ever thought her comment through–it was just a comment to her and meant little to nothing. It was just a joke.

        That’s what I meant by “unthinking prejudice”. At one time, it was nothing to call a black person “coloured” or even “nigger”–those were just what you called people of colour back then (I was hearing those words as late as the seventies back home), or to tell horribly racist “jokes”, even ones that attacked one’s own ethnicity. Now, it’s people who make fat comments without taking into account that there might be someone within ear-shot who might hear something deeper under the surface context.

        Here’s what REALLY burns me: fat people sneering at other fat people… for being fat. This has actually happened, again, within ear-shot. I tore that asshole a new one for it and suggested that he look into a mirror sometime and understand that he insults himself as much as his target every time he plays bigot.

  2. vesta44 permalink
    July 29, 2014 12:35 pm

    Was there anything in there about the conspicuous over-consumption of the very rich? Those people who build huge houses costing upwards of $1,000,000 (some costing as much as $20,000,000 or more)? How about the very rich people who have a whole stable of cars? And what about the people who spend thousands of dollars on a tree house as a private getaway in their back yards (and they have huge houses and more land than they know what to do with)? The kind of people that have so much money they don’t know what to do with it all? Those people are contributing to the death of our planet too, and they’re usually the ones with the money and influence to be able to change things for the better, but are more interested in going along with the status quo because it brings in more money for them (or so they think). But that money isn’t going to help them much when global famines hit (you cannot buy what doesn’t exist), and it isn’t going to buy them a place in whatever afterlife in which they believe.
    I agree that our farming and processing of animals needs to change, but how do you raise and process enough meat to meet the demand of the number of people now on this earth? Is there any way to do it humanely, without driving the cost up so that only the very rich can afford to eat anything but highly processed, cheap foods? Even with the factory farms and mass processing that’s done now, the price of meat has increased by about 500% (a pound of the cheap hamburger that used to cost 89¢ now costs over $4, ground chicken/turkey that used to cost 49¢ a lb is now almost $3 a lb, and this holds true for other cuts of meat as well). The cost of fresh fruits and vegetables has also risen so that people without a substantial amount of disposable income just can’t afford to buy them often enough to make a difference in their health.
    I hate to inform the filmmakers, but I’ve seen plenty of thinner people doing the over-consumption thing at fast food places, and I’ve thinner people loading up their shopping carts with huge amounts of meat and other comestibles at warehouse stores. But it’s easier to make a “statement” about over-consumption if you use stereotypes – fat people as gluttons of everything – instead of seeing those same fat people as a symptom of what’s wrong with the world today and documenting ways to change what’s wrong with the way things are done.

    • Dizzyd permalink
      July 31, 2014 6:28 pm

      Yeah, God forbid that they show the face of overconsumption as being rich, thin, white, etc. Easier and more fun to beat up on the poor, fat, anyone-other-than-themselves. where it belongs! (sarcasm) And I think that the poor guy getting a blue line drawn down his stomach is probably seen as nothing more valuable than a pig carcass that they slice and dice up into bacon. And attacking someone for getting a lot of toilet-paper, or eating lunch, or whatever? Just more ways to demonize those “horrible fatties” as causing all the world’s ills so those who build big mansions and treehouses for their snooty country-club friends and drive gas-guzzling big cars and fancy cars the rest of us couldn’t even dream of in our lifetimes can feel good that THEY are the paragons of virtue cuz they’re THIN!!! To hell with everything…

  3. July 30, 2014 11:41 am

    It really wasn’t an “argument” type of documentary at all. There are no words spoken throughout the movie. All ideas are created solely through the juxtaposition of images… and even this particular sequence is rather uncharacteristic of the whole movie.

    My own feeling is that unless the human population of the planet is drastically reduced, there’s no way that, species-wide, we can collectively continue eating this high on the food chain. Current meat-production practices are simply not globally sustainable. Of course I hate to have this particular concept–which I agree with–get conflated with a meme that I despise, something like: fat=disease of affluence=addiction to unhealthy short-term gratification blind to long-term consequences. I’d love to have the chance to help the film-makers disentangle the insight I think is wholesome and true from the one I think is false, unfair, and damaging, but I’m not holding my breath.

  4. July 30, 2014 11:43 am

    I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch “Samsara” after being warned (don’t laugh now) at the grotesquerie of the chicken-processing scenes…Yes, I still eat chicken but I have a ridiculously deep soft spot for ’em.
    Trying to avoid factory-farmed meat is all but unaffordable w/a husband and a teenaged son – Vesta, I want to find some of that $4/lb hamburger! Right here in TX which should be Beef Central, decent hamburger is close to $6/lb; I prowl the aisles for chicken-thigh specials @ $1.99/lb.
    Great point, bottom line: “if you know the whole story, individual people may have very good reasons to traffic in bulk”
    (Now I’ll be able to critique more “fully” when I DO force my son to sit down w/me & watch it)

  5. July 30, 2014 11:45 am

    Great point Jean: “…unless the human population of the planet is drastically reduced, there’s no way that, species-wide, we can collectively continue eating this high on the food chain. Current meat-production practices are simply not globally sustainable.”
    Truth, dat!

  6. December 2, 2014 12:12 pm

    What is shown in the film isn’t picking on fatties, it’s a visual language that the director used, making a visual reference between the pigs and humans. The message wouldn’t be so strong if he had shown a footage of skinny people eating fast food.

    • December 2, 2014 1:53 pm

      Hi, lola. So, can you explain why you think that the “message wouldn’t be so strong” if conveyed with images of skinny people?

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