It’s hard to believe that someone could make a film called MEAT about the animals we breed, husband, hunt, butcher and devour and not be pushing an agenda. But that’s exactly what filmmaker David White has done.
His feature-length documentary, billed as “the modern story of the animals we eat”, introduces us to three farmers and a hunter going about their daily lives while talking about their relationship to animals.
It is a feat in neutrality. “I did not want to make a film that told people what to think, to not go eat a steak, to give up the things they liked. Nor is this a propaganda film for farmers. This is a story primarily about people and the way they are with their animals.”
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White, 34, who is in possession of a magnificent, unruly mane and a pair of nerdy glasses, looks, by his own admission, like a Wes Anderson character – which is to say, not an awful lot like a country boy. But a country boy he is. He spent his childhood, along with five siblings, on their fourth-generation sheep and beef farm in the Hawke’s Bay and is well acquainted with the realities of farming. It’s also where he wrote MEAT.
Now living in Wellington, he says he made the film because he felt that although we live in a culture increasingly obsessed with food in which global meat consumption is rising, familiarity with the production process is paradoxically waning. “People are further away from their food than ever before.”
He believes the connection between consumption and production is being lost and even in a country the size of New Zealand, many people do not understand where their meat comes from.
“The urban rural divide is much bigger than it’s ever been and we need to be having these conversations.”
MEAT takes us into the worlds of Ian the South Island commercial pig farmer who produces 400 tonnes of pork a year and has been farming for nearly 30 years; Jill, a former police officer who runs a lamb and beef farm in the Manawatu; and Tony, a retired teacher and accidental chicken farmer from Whanganui, who admits he could legally double the number of chickens he keeps but resists as “the conditions would be terrible”.
Offering an interesting counterpoint to the commercial farmers is Josh, deer-hunter and social media star, who lives on the West Coast of the South Island and relies entirely on what he kills to provide his family with meat. Josh, beardy and knife wielding, has perfected the made-for-TV sound bites: “We are predators, we’ve got two eyes in our head that face forward, we are designed to harvest meat. And so this,” – cue camera panning across luscious wilderness – “is my supermarket.”
The documentary, which recently landed an international distribution deal, is beautifully shot and unflinching in its imagery: think dead lambs, plucked chickens, cows having their throats slit and Josh rifling through a deer’s lungs to look for lesions and nodules (a sign of TB). It also offers some interesting insights into the realities of commercial farming.
This is just one example, says White, of the complexity of food and why we consume what we do.
“That there’s a whole part of society that obviously thinks: ‘The way to get out of my situation is buy less quality food and to buy a Lotto ticket.’ And that’s insane to me. But I can’t tell you what to do. I don’t know your situation. I don’t know how much money you make. I don’t know how many kids you have.
“I don’t know anything about you so why do I have the right to judge you? And I think that’s one of the things that I came out of this film with that was really important. Food is not simple. Meat is not simple.”
Just when you think you might have reached your limit of watching animals in cages, barns, crates, trucks and tied to the side of 4WDs, we are brought back to Josh stalking about in the forest, climbing trees and nipping up mountains, like a palate-cleansing bush MacGyver.
“I am a little bit concerned about my offspring,” he says while squatting by a fire.
“Whenever we go shopping my kids ask me to buy them a toy. I say, ‘I will buy you a tool or a weapon, but I will not buy you a toy.’
“I don’t think there are enough people out there hunting and walking around in the wilderness, tramping and fishing to be able to hand those skills down from generation to generation… I think quite a few people are losing touch with basic skills. There are some people out there who wouldn’t even know how to start a fire.”
White, who can most definitely start a fire, returns often to the family farm, now run by his sister and brother-inlaw.
“It truly is a place I love dearly.” And it’s probably down to a combination of his farming background and genuine neutrality that he has managed to gain access to a commercial piggery, often notoriously private places – the result of relentless negative PR.
“One of my friends asked me how I got them [the subjects] to be so candid with me. And I was like, ‘Because, I’m not the city guy that’s turned up. You know, I can talk about lambing percentages and rural growth.’ This is a part of our society and it’s really important to me.”
White says he does eat meat, which is primarily home kill from the family farm.
“I actually get a phone call every few months saying: ‘What can we get you?’ He keeps a deep chest freezer in his Wellington office and “half way through the day I might go, ‘What am I going to eat today?’ and I will get it out and defrost it on the deck outside my office”.
He says he was recently motivated to make his own barbecue sauce when he couldn’t find one that he liked. David’s BBQ Sauce is now sold through selected stores and online. His pulled pork is legendary. “It is f…ing delicious.”
MEAT is White’s third film looking at the way we consume animals. Two short films: I Kill, about a mobile slaughterman, and Oink, which was Ian the pig farmer’s film debut, preceded it. But even so, White says there was still more he wanted to learn about meat production. There is a scene in the film where Ian, surrounded by hundreds of squealing pink piglets, talks about how frustrating food waste is for farmers.
“A friend asked me how I got the interview subjects to be so candid. I was like, ‘Because I’m not a big city guy.’ “
A South Island commercial pig farm and a lamb and beef farm in the Manawatu are two of the four scenarios in White’s film MEAT.
He’s heard a statistic that suggests 40 per cent of food is thrown away. “I produce 4500 pigs every year and if I was thinking there were 1600 of them that actually don’t get consumed, that’s horrendous to me. I’ve produced 1600 pigs for no reason at all.”
Says White: “I’d left my flat before shooting and I had thrown away like 10 pork sausages and when he [Ian] said, ‘You know, I’ve put all this effort in and it’s a sentient being and what the f… are you guys doing?’ I realised it [wasting food] had really not sunk in to me in a deep meaningful way. Until then.”