"Nobody keeps a full-grown steer as a pet."
You hear "documentary" and you expect one or all of these: Controversy (Fahrenheit 911), insight (anything historical), or beauty (Winged Migration).
Animals: Friend or Food has little of the first two, and makes a token attempt at the third, following a nondescript Canadian as he runs his first animal farm in Nova Scotia, from purchasing the livestock to slaughter.
The title gives you the impression that a vegetarian or a hippie is behind this, and filmmaker Jason Young does sport the long hair and scruffy beard. But Young is not only a meat-eater, but seems to have few reservations about the issue. He just wants to see what being a livestock farmer is like, and whether being closer to pigs, steer and rabbits will alter his view of food. No statistics on animals slaughtered each year, no "meat is murder" mentality, just an animal farm captured by camera from start to finish.
And that's the problem I encountered with Animals: Friend or Food. It takes on a controversial subject (at least to non meat-eaters) and explores it in a non-controversial way. Knowing full well these animals will die eventually, the filmmaker embarks on a journey of either self-discovery or self-torture, depending on your view, yet ultimately comes to no conclusions about man's relationship with beasts.
Any livestock farmer will tell you: never name your animals. But that's priority one for Young as he buys his livestock, beginning with piglets Red and Ernestine and Jersey Boy the calf. Much of this documentary follows Young as he learns from other local farmers how to handle his new livestock, including feeding, breeding, killing, and cutting. Meanwhile, his wife — who says all of 10 words during the entire show, yet takes up an inordinate amount of screen time — raises horses. Meant to be a contrast to the brutal work Young is undertaking, his wife and her horses instead proves to be a mere distraction to the viewer, offering only aesthetic, countryside beauty.
The human element of this documentary is extremely subdued, largely because of Young's lack of screen presence. He laments in narration how much he doesn't want to kill this or that animal, how hard it's going to be to slaughter that steer, yet he follows through on most slaughters, and never shows emotion one way or the other when he's on screen. Never breaking down, and never showing emotion in any way, Young becomes hard to empathize with. His supporting cast — a line of one boring farmer after another — do nothing to energize the subject matter either, instead soberly going about their business.
Animals: Friend or Food isn't a failure of a documentary. Those ignorant to raising livestock will find a wealth of information here. But there's no energy in the delivery, and no reason for viewers to connect with the people or creatures.
4:3 letterbox presentation here, with the picture looking generally fuzzy and muted. True, this is farm country, filled with dull hay browns and grass greens, but all in all we don't get a very pretty picture of the countryside in this DVD. When the video switches to black and white, things are even less sharp. Not a terrible DVD picture, but not exceptional either.
Simple English Dolby Stereo option, with an OK mix comprised of background music, narration, and everyday farm noises. Things come through very clearly (I cringed at the "rip" whenever an animal was skinned), and for what it is, the sound here is decent.
There are no special features for this DVD, only a scene selections option.
Animals: Friend or Food doesn't offer opinions about whether meat is right or wrong, but instead simply follows a rookie raising and slaughtering animals. Feel free to Rent It, but you won't be wowed like the Atlantic International Film Festival committee was.