The Samsara Food Sequence
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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.
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!
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.
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.