The Ottawa Citizen
November 13, 2000 Monday
The defenders and the terminators of chickens
The Ottawa Citizen
ARTS, Pg. D11 Television
'I feel guilty, ashamed -- and hungry."
This admission by filmmaker John Kastner about halfway through his
hour-long documentary, Chickens are People, Too (tomorrow on CBC's
Witness at 9 p.m.), sums up the ambivalence and gently mocking tone
of this self-styled black comedy about the chicken industry.
By the end of the program, viewers will be left with two firm
impressions: That chickens are brutally, even sickeningly,
mistreated in modern-day poultry factories, to a degree that no
right-thinking person would tolerate; and that animal rights
activists are wacko for thinking we should put an end to it.
There is no middle ground in the film, unless you count a message
appended to the end of the film. It states that the fast-food chain,
McDonald's has, after much lobbying from the People for Ethical
Treatment of Animals, agreed to buy its chickens only from farmers
using oversized cages. However, you get a sense that this is not so
much an armistice in the war between the vegans and the carnivores,
as a brief diversionary tactic.
That is because there is so vast a gulf between the goals of the two
sides. The carnivores (that is, most of us) are mostly concerned
with consuming as much chicken and as many eggs as we can before
being killed by deep fat and cholesterol, while the vegans, who
harbour the strange notion that humans can use their brains to
control their stomachs, want us to switch entirely to tofu and
Kastner's way of illustrating this great divide is to switch back and
forth between two protagonists: Karen Davis, a respected animal
rights activist who loves chickens to distraction; and "Bruce," a
mass-production chicken farmer who refuses to reveal his last name
for fear of retaliation from animal rights groups.
Davis is a bona fide flake who has more in common with chickens than
people, and Bruce is a solid, four-square Mennonite trying to do the
best by his family. But Davis undoubtedly holds the higher ground
Chicken farms generally won't let film crews near their operations,
and some employ heavy security to keep activists at bay, the film
notes. But the footage Kastner does obtain, of a chicken roundup in
Nova Scotia and of Bruce's farm in Ontario, makes it clear that
chickens are treated with about as much care as the inanimate raw
material in any processing operation. The handling and sorting of
baby chicks, in which the males are separated and put on conveyor
belts bound for slaughter, is particularly disturbing. They are cute
and fluffy, after all.
Davis's legitimate concerns about chicken processing might be better
appreciated, however, if they weren't so dramatically inflated.
"I think chicken catchers are like the Gestapo," she says in the
film, "in the sense that they are coming into a place of tranquility,
often during the night when the creatures are sleeping, and they are
rounding them up and terrorizing them and subjecting their bodies to
extreme violence and pain."
Despite such theatrical flourishes, Davis's arguments and Kastner's
own investigations do affect the filmmaker. As an avowed chicken
lover (and here we mean the kind of love that dare not speak its name
among vegans), Kastner plays out his own crisis of conscience on
screen. We see him consuming chicken with relish, even as he
interviews his subjects about the ill-treatment of the birds.
While Davis does make some headway with Kastner, the logic of her
arguments begins to fray as she explains how she, as a vegan, deals
with the steady supply of eggs produced by her bird "companions." She
won't eat them, and can't raise them, so she cracks them open and
lets the chickens have their fill.. At this point in the film, the
background music makes one think of the climactic scene from Suddenly
"I consider it a kind of Marxist-style opportunity to allow them to
benefit from the product of their own labour," explains Davis.
Given comments like this, Kastner could have made Chickens are
People, Too into a straightforward wry commentary on the misplaced
priorities of animal lovers. Instead, by documenting the validity of
some of the activists' concerns, he forces inveterate chicken eaters,
like himself, to at least consider the sad life history of Sunday
dinner before tucking in.
GRAPHIC: Black & White Photo: Animal rights activist Karen Davis,
lives with chickens as companions. They run freely through her,