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Fork in the road

'At the Fork' documentary filmmaker John Papola talks about why we all should care more about what we eat

All Animals magazine, July/August 2016

John Papola steps inside a gestation crate, where many pregnant sows spend their entire lives so tightly confined they can't even turn around. Papola is the director of a new documentary about animal welfare in the food industry. Photo courtesy of At the Fork.

It’s time to change our eating habits. That’s the message of At the Fork, director John Papola’s documentary about animal agriculture in America. The premise is deceptively simple: Papola, an omnivore, and his wife and co-writer, Lisa Versaci, a vegetarian, travel across the country to interview farmers, academics, activists and politicians and meet the animals who become our food, providing a nuanced view of this complex issue. What they find is cause for both horror and hope. Papola talks with All Animals staff writer Kelly L. Williams about the film in this unedited interview.

Why was this story important to tell at this moment in time? What compelled you to focus on animal welfare in the food system?

My wife, Lisa, has been an animal advocate and vegetarian since 1989. She even got Burger King to add a veggie burger to their menu! I’ve been an omnivore mostly with my head in the sand on these issues. So our diets have been a tense topic in our household from the beginning. This documentary was a chance for us as a filmmaking couple to finally stare this issue in the face, literally. It’s a timeless issue.

What does the title At the Fork mean to you? Why did you choose it?

Our society is at a crossroads on the treatment of farm animals as billions of people move out of poverty and demand more meat, eggs and dairy around the world. We wanted to capture the essential call to action as well as the road-trip dimension of the film. We crisscrossed the whole country to make it. And we each face a choice with every meal that impacts the lives of animals. We are each “at the fork” with our forks.

The film doesn’t shy away from showing fairly graphic footage (a piglet being castrated, chickens being culled). Why did you choose to include these potentially disturbing images?

We were very sensitive about the balance between keeping the film watchable for a broad audience who needs to see this stuff and the realities of animal farming. So far, early audiences have been surprisingly receptive, and even appreciative, of the balance we struck. People don’t find it gratuitous.

  • Photo courtesy of At the Fork.

Around the 37-minute mark, you admit that you had trouble empathizing with the animals because the numbers are so huge, describing the situation as "so abstract” that it “defies empathy.” How do you inspire empathy for animals when these abstractions are so difficult to surpass?

I truly felt that disconnect. I think it’s baked into our tribal minds. We evolved to comprehend small groups of 150 or less. This is our great challenge as a species on many fronts. Focusing on the individual animals is the best place to start. In a sense, our film’s mission is to overcome this very problem for our audience.

Many of the interviewees (academics, activists and farmers alike) touch on the idea of “conscious capitalism.” How do you see this notion affecting animal welfare practices? How do consumers hold the power to enact change?

We heard from every farmer at every scale that they will adopt the practices that their customers demand of them. I believe that the market ultimately reflects the moral considerations of everyone at the table. The “market” is really just each of us interacting with each other, after all.

The film includes many high-profile interviewees, such as Temple Grandin and Mark Bittman. Why do you think people wanted to discuss this topic? Did anyone refuse to be interviewed?

Some people were more skeptical of our intentions than others, so it did take some convincing. Our team of producers were really exceptional in conveying the opportunity that the film provided and our nuanced approach to the subject. That mattered a lot.

At the beginning of the film, you’re shown eating barbecued meat with your family. Have your eating habits changed since making the film?

Pigs are really extraordinary animals. I haven’t eaten any pork products since our production wrapped. I appreciate the moral arguments that vegans make in a new way, though I’m not there yet. But my heart has really opened to these animals, so this is just the beginning of a new journey for me.

The end of the film includes a call to action, asking viewers to take the At the Fork challenge. What do you hope viewers will take away from this film? How do you hope it inspires change?

Farm animals are thinking, feeling, social creatures that should demand our moral concern. Being physically disconnected from them has stripped our culture of that daily consciousness. So our challenge is to consciously decide to think about them in the food choices we make. This issue is a massive ethical blind spot for most of us. It was for me. Lisa, on the other hand, hopes everyone will become a vegan!

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