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Peaceable Kingdom: A Tribe of Heart Documentary
It's no secret that our world is full of problems today. Foreign and domestic, war-wrought and economic, involving poverty and corruption, dictators and chaos. But there's a problem of gross injustice right here in our own country that's of such a massive scale that it involves every single American. And yet, it seems like almost no one can see it.
Peaceable Kingdom is about some of the few who do see it and have devoted their lives to doing something about it. The problem is factory farming and how it has changed the way we treat animals. Most people's eyes just glaze over when you start to talk about the way we treat farm animals, but to the folks at Farm Sanctuary, the rescue organization that is the subject of Peaceable Kindgom, the reality of factory farming is something that everyone should be aware of. And it's hard to argue with that viewpoint. People eat meat but they're only peripherally acquainted with where that meat comes from. They know that animals are killed but they don't want to get their hands (or their minds) dirty with the knowledge of exactly how.
It's very hard to talk about Peaceable Kingdom without injecting my own values and beliefs into this review. The magnitude of the horror on display is almost beyond comprehension: Chickens having the beaks hacked off so that they won't peck each other to death in their filthy, tiny cages. Piles of cows, deathly ill from neglect and mistreatment, literally left to die slow, painful deaths because it's simply too much of a hassle and expense to euthanize them. Trash dumpsters filled with baby chicks that the hatchery has decided to discard, even though hundreds of them are still alive, struggling to break to the surface of the sea of their dead siblings. Veal cows and pigs trapped in pens so small that they literally cannot turn around - a position that they will be forced to maintain for the entirety of their miserable lives. It is truly beyond the pale.
This horror show is absolutely real, and it's happening at this moment with the sole purpose of bringing you cheaper, fatter chicken, steak, bacon and turkey. If there were no other value to Peaceable Kingdom other than to disseminate information on how these animals are being treated, then it would be worthwhile viewing for every adult in America. I forced myself to watch every gruesome image (and I've been known to cover my eyes during my favorite mainstream zombie flicks) so that I could say with full honesty what kind of film Peaceable Kingdom is. We as a society seem to pride ourselves in not knowing what the true cost of our actions are. Recent wars and gas prices have actually made people aware that oil doesn't just come from the pump but follows a long, complex path to get there. A similar awakening is needed on the animal front. Books like Matthew Scully's brilliant "Dominion" and Eric Schlosser's incredibly successful "Fast Food Nation" have done excellent jobs at getting some of this backstory out there, but a person with any sense of feeling will be struck by seeing these actual images. If there were any justice Peaceable Kingdom would have an impact similar to Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" had on turn-of-the-century meat processing plants.
The experience of visiting Farm Sanctuary did have that impact on several of the people interviewed in the film. Thankfully, there are tales of uplift along with the exposés on misery in the film. The three that leave the deepest impression are with three men who spent the majority of their lives working in the farm industry. One grew up on an old fashioned farm and watched the transformation from family farming to this industrial nightmare, while another was the owner of a massive feedlot who regularly dosed his cows with countless toxic chemicals. (The feedlot system is about the least natural system you could dream up.) Hearing these men tell their stories is crucial to the power of the film, since they are far removed from the stereotypical PeTA hippie that mainstream audiences would never open up to. These men are as real as they come and hearing how they realized that what they were doing was wrong and the emotion that it brings out of them, is absolutely moving.
Farm Sanctuary is both a rescue organization and an educational tool. The film documents them rescuing animals from a variety of situations, whether it's downer cows who have been left for dead, goats so neglected and abused that they can barely walk, and birds with almost no feathers left from nervously plucking them out. In one particularly harrowing passage they attempt to save a few of the chickens trapped in cages left exposed by a hurricane that destroyed some corporate farm buildings. The cages of a half million egg-laying chickens are scattered, the chickens still trapped in the wire-mesh cages. Since the destruction is an insurance write-off for the farm, the debris, hundreds of thousands of live chickens included, is basically just trash. While farm workers throw thousands upon thousands of chickens - a great many still alive - into trash dumpsters, the Farm Sanctuary crew fills a van and a station wagon with the few they can grab. It's a massive tragedy that's barely offset by the few animals Farm Sanctuary can get ahold of. And while the weather that destroyed the farm is out of the hands of people, the confinement of the chickens and the lack of compassion is not.
That's the most striking thing about the stories profiled in Peaceable Kingdom: The lack of compassion. One sanctuary work says "we don't even talk to children about human compassion, let alone animal compassion." The former-farmers all talk about how as kids they truly loved animals, but that they had to turn something off in their psyches to deal with the realities of killing animals for a living. One even mentions how strange it is that he was able to love his dog but somehow had conditioned himself to think that the farm animals were "different," a separation he now realizes is wholly artificial.
Farm Sanctuary is an extraordinary place. It looks in the film like the closest to heaven on earth that I've ever seen, where the only thing its inhabitants need to do everyday is what comes naturally. That it's so unusual and special anymore for a cow to be able to stand in a field and eat grass, or for a pig to lie down and relax in a nice, cool mudbath, says something right there. The casual cruelty that would torment an entire class of animals simply for being born is reminiscent of human struggles of the past, a comparison that several of the people profiled in the film make. One black woman compares the struggle for animal rights to the civil rights movement, a comparison that skeptical viewers will laugh off. But she's sincere and she has an excellent point. She thinks back to a time when people were living under oppression and could never imagine things changing for the better. She remains hopeful that we are in a similar dark time for animals and that we'll come out of it eventually. Similarly, the former feedlot owner talks about the origins of the spiritual "Amazing Grace," which was written by slave ship captain John Newton. Much as Newton realized that the cruelty he was perpetuating was abhorrent, this man tearfully renounces his past as a perpetrator of immeasurable suffering on many thousands of animals.
Peaceable Kingdom is not strictly a documentary; It's advocacy. There isn't much of an attempt to show the other side of the debate. But the thing is, other than profit and a desire to eat cheap, easy food without understanding where it comes from, there isn't much for the other side to hold up. The Farm Sanctuary crew don't necessarily lecture that everyone should become a vegetarian, although there is little doubt that nothing would make them happier. In fact, they don't seem to prescribe a path for viewers at all. I suspect they hope that the imagery will do it for them. But really, their ultimate goal should be to try to make people more aware: If an audience truly understands where their food comes from then they need to ask themselves whether or not it's worth it, whether or not they want to actively support the practices that go into providing it. Peaceable Kingdom offers up the information. Hopefully people will be open to viewing it so they can make informed decisions themselves.
The full-frame video contains original footage shot for the film and "exposé" footage of the feedlots, slaughterhouses, hatcheries and other farm locations. The original footage is razor-sharp and colorful. The rest of the footage varies in quality, from grainy undercover footage to shaky handheld shots. The purpose here, obviously, is not visual clarity but dissemination of information, and it's effective in that.
The stereo audio is good. The voices in the interviews are clearly recorded. Again, there isn't much to the audio production.
The only traditional extra is a clip of a sanctuary staffer singing to the cows. Kind of silly. There is also an assortment of clips culled from some sections of the film that can be played on their own once or on a loop, presumably in case someone wants to use them as part of an awareness installation. There's also a trailer as well as a trailer for The Witness, another animal rights documentary released by Tribe of Heart.
Peaceable Kingdom is the rare production that could prove to be life-altering for some segment of its audience. Over the years I've received plenty of mail from readers who thanked me for introducing them to a classic film they hadn't seen before. I don't know what sort of mail Peaceble Kingdom will bring, but I do feel strongly that everyone who can see it should. It is about all of us and how we live our lives. I can't tell people what to do but to make decisions based on willful ignorance is wrong. That the Farm Sanctuary folks still have hope that things can change is testament to their incredible optimism. They aren't robotic ideologues; In fact, the film shows them to be quite the opposite. This is a thoughtful, thought-provoking, tough film that offers images that will stay with you long after the video is done.