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Emotion & Activism in the Films of Jennifer Abbott. Part One: Slaying Our Dragon.

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

Hunter Valley New South Wales, Australia

Still from Jennifer Abbott's The Magnitude of All Things (2020)

Is it healthy to be slain?

Well, of course, not in the literal sense. We are not in a gladiator ring fighting for our lives. We are not being forced to kill a fire-breathing dragon to avoid death. Or are we? In terms of what the majority of people are denying or throwing up their hands about, we most metaphorically are. [1]

We may not keep up on statistics, but even when shrouded by denial and self-protection, we likely know the planet has been warming causing ice-caps to melt and sea-levels to rise. We are likely aware of the fact that this warming has impacted the earth and other species in a negative way. Agree or not, we have likely heard this catastrophe is caused by human activity. But, for the majority of citizens of the industrialised world, these nebulous negatives have not affected us personally. Yet. Maybe things have to get worse before they get better. Some psychology suggests people need to feel things personally before they act—especially the richest who emit the most carbon and consume vastly more of the earth’s resources. [2] In the words of Roger Hallam, Co-founder of Extinction Rebellion: “When hope goes action begins …. Hope enables you to think that everything will be OK and you don’t have to act. Another dynamic is: you’re really miserable, you have some hope, and then you act.” [3] Perhaps, for the privileged people of the world to become actively aware by being devastated personally things need to get a lot worse. But this means those already suffering will be either wiped out or have their way of life destroyed. A most cruel double edged sword. It would be much better for everyone and everything if we could become aware through noticing the suffering of others, through learning empathy, and not only notice when our individual lives have been encroached upon.

Nunatsiavut, Northern Canada

Still from Jennifer Abbott's The Magnitude of All Things (2020)

There are people in the industrialized world who have experienced climate trauma. Remember, just last year, the California wildfires that the LA Times called “The worst fire season ever. Again”? From 2011-2020, .5 million acres of California wilderness was destroyed. In 2020 especially, the fires devoured towns and parts of cities. Global warming has gone far beyond not-in-my-back-yard; it has jumped the fence. [4] However, as Greta Thunberg says, even when citizens of the powerful nations of the West are starting to suffer and die, we “completely fail to connect the dots.” [5]

New South Wales, Australia

Still from Jennifer Abbott's The Magnitude of All Things (2020)

In British Columbia, Canada, a large part of the vulnerability of forests is because the work of pine beetles has rendered it standing tinder. The beetle proliferation is caused, yes, by the warming of the earth. Pre-1990s, temperatures in the winter were cold enough to control these forest scourges. Not anymore. Dot 1: Warming of the earth. Dot 2: Beetle proliferation. Dot 3: Raging forest fires. This is one of many sequences instigated by the burning of fossil fuels. We have created a serpent biting at its own tail; tonnes of carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere from the forest fires then increases the rate of global warming. And around and around we go.

Tasmania, Ancient Gondwana Ecosystem

Still Jennifer Abbott's The Magnitude of All Things (2020)

Let’s not forget the devastating Australian Bush Fires of 2019-2020 whose extreme nature was directly caused by climate change related drought; the on-going destruction of the Amazon Rainforest by deforestation, mining, fossil extraction and swaths of cattle raised for beef; the rising of the sea levels that are literally swallowing up low-lying islands, and the imminent approach of the destruction of 90% of the coral reefs due to rising ocean temperatures and bleaching. All of these symptoms eradicate the ways of life of primarily Indigenous people and thousands of non-human species. But we all know this, right? Or at least something about it? But do we feel it enough to act? Should we maybe feel more?

Oil extraction from Sápara Territory, the Amazon Rainforest, Ecuador

Still from Jennifer Abbott's The Magnitude of All Things (2020)

Regardless of the Covid pandemic where suffering has affected the lives of the privileged (and in the wealthy countries, again, predictably, having the gravest effects on the disenfranchised), the upper and middle classes are all revved up to get back to their vacation-package lives as soon as they are safely vaccinated. [6] Perhaps not enough people in the privileged West have experienced pain that corresponds to that of other sentient creatures and humans on the frontlines of climate change who are helplessly watching their ways of life being destroyed. Maybe we all need to be emotionally slain in order to slay that dragon that is far from mythical because it resides within us.

As documentary filmmaker Jennifer Abbott told me in our January 2021 interview:

"I feel very strongly, and I'm certainly not the only one, that one of the foundational reasons that we have not made adequate progress on the climate front is because of the emotional dimension, which for the most part, culturally, we push away and ignore. We have to each individually, collectively, on a societal and global level, come to terms with the emotional dimensions of what we are losing."

And that means truly feeling pain and, most importantly, the pain that our culture of excess, individualism and greed is directly responsible for.

Unless otherwise stated, all of the following stills are from

Jennifer Abbott's 1996 documentary A Cow at My Table.

This first story I am going to tell you

isn’t about climate change per se—even though it is driving the deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest [7] and the methane gas produced by this living commodity contributes to global warming. [8] Have you guessed what I’m referring to yet? It’s about meat. And the fact that “[t]here are currently approximately 1.6 billion cattle on Earth, and their gas accounts for a significant amount of global warming,” [9] meat production, though certainly not a primary source of carbon emissions, is another one of the many dots that need to be connected.

This first story, the one I am about to tell you, is not only one of the essential dots; however, it is an integral part of the solution. This is not a solution in the traditional sense like transitioning to sustainable energy and chaining ourselves to old-growth (which are all extremely important!). This solution is not tactile. It is, rather, existential; it affects all other solutions. It is about emotion. And empathy. And the courage to feel the pain that is necessary in order to get to any possibility of the other solutions. Or hope.

In 1998,

I saw Jennifer Abbott’s agribusiness exposé A Cow at My Table. In the first world, the politics of meat became a topic of discussion in the 2000s, most notably with the documentary Food Inc. (2008). Always ahead of her time, Abbott’s film was one of the first. And it was the first time I personally became aware of the torture that is the main ingredient of our meat, fraudulently presented in benign cellophane packaging, chopped from its context of suffering in the same way the consumer’s consciousness is severed from where their meat really comes from. We eat torture. Both physical and psychic. This is the first time I was exposed to what I personally had been participating in all of my life; this was the first time I felt the suffering of other creatures not only beyond my individual self, but beyond the parameters of my arrogant culture. By being shoved into a place I had previously been kept out of, I entered the fight for justice for all living creatures—including the not-human.

I had definitely eaten animal before arriving at the theatre. Maybe bacon with my eggs and maybe even some barbequed pork from its greasy paper with my fingers as I waited at the bus stop. Within 1 hour 29 minutes and 22 seconds, though, I no longer thought about pork, beef, or chicken: these anonymous entities had become pigs and cows and chickens. Creatures like me. Feeling, thinking individuals. I entered the theatre an absolute carnivore; I haven’t eaten animals since. As I watched the film, emotion surged, like a lump of grief that will always be there. I just teared-up while writing this. The lump still rises. My personal transformation still hits me in the gut.

And it all began with this:

very quickly during the viewing of the film, tears started streaming down my face. I remember feeling very uncomfortable.

“We don’t cry for these kinds of animals,” I thought, as the tears flowed uncontrollably.

“Why am I crying about food animals? We cry for people or our pets,” I thought frantically. I looked nervously around the theatre. A lot of other people were crying too. And this is because of Jennifer Abbott’s ability to emotionally slay. And to transform behaviour.

The film opens with the sounds of cows vocalizing their discomfort. There is no image. Only a black frame. As we are introduced to the torture of animals in agribusiness, we are also introduced to the fact that we don’t see it. In synchronicity with the invisibilized brutality that produces such agonizing calls, we are blinded to what we are going to be forced to see. An image as a phantom rises from the black; a human that could be anyone kicks cartoon-like at the gate of an animal pen. The gate isn’t cooperating; the same way this film and its filmmaker will be fully irreverent to the animal exploitation industry and the truth will spew, yes, ‘spew’ out. I am fully aware of the extremity of my word choice which could be accused of being hyperbolic. But systematic torture of and disrespect for other creatures in our culture is nothing short of hyperbolic.

The film cuts to the pastoral innocence of prairie filmed from a car window; the scene, simultaneously familiar and surreal, streams past like an abstract painting. The artist, the activist, the witness is beginning her journey. And we along with her. The pacing is dreamlike; images appear hazily onto the surface of the video plane; it feels as though the truth that the film is about to show us is already exhausted before the trauma has even begun. The editing moves in time with music by Oh Susanna, grieving, always grieving, even when the viewer doesn’t know exactly what has been lost, yet. For Abbott, the form of her films are a part of the meaning; her creations are both acts of poetry and documentary.

“I aspire to beauty,” she told me, “even within difficult and torturous circumstances. For I believe beauty is everywhere. There’s also a lot of footage shot in low light and slowed down, which contributes to the dreamlike, gritty quality.” We are caught in a cinematic world we are simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by, as grit and beauty are one and where we could only wish that what we are about to witness was actually a dream and not a living nightmare for billions upon billions of non-human animals.

The first stop is the paradoxical lesser of the evils of where we are headed. A mere rodeo—the Calgary Stampede no doubt—where male arrogance and its entitled need for the incessant maintenance of his power is played out through the bodies of enraged or terrified animals, or both. The game is rigged; the odds are in the rodeo’s favour. The calf will be lassoed; the bulls, steer and broncos will be subdued by prods, spurs and bucking straps, broken backs and leg injuries. No animal is meant to hurl themselves up and down repeatedly as men perform their prowess. But this is nothing. In a world ruled by the self-appointed superiority of the male in patriarchy, and the brutality that is guaranteed in order to keep everyone and everything else in its rightful place, it could be argued that rodeo animals get off easy.

As I watch the film again, I am reminded of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl where we are “listening to the terror through the wall …/ destroyed by madness …/ bleak of brain.” Like his merciless stanzas that bombard us with “the crack of doom,” Abbott’s film is relentless and, as Greta Thunberg has said, “We need to get out of our comfort zones if we want to activate change.” And I was certainly smashed out of mine. I felt nauseous (and still do) as I watch an assembly line of chicks being de-beaked. Uncaring hands grab their tiny bodies and shove their beaks into an automated cutter. The reasoning for such cruelty is that chickens crammed into battery cages will peck each other to death. I ask anyone who falls for such a callous justification: if you were crammed into a cage with a bunch of people all your life with less than a foot to move around in, wouldn’t you lash out?

The close up of one of the chicks is an intimate portrait of a just-born creature traumatized in the aftermath of its chopped off beak. The beak, full of nerve endings chickens use to negotiate the world the same way humans use their hands, bleeds from its recent absence. The brutality of its taking. And what is so horrifying about this image is not only the physical mutilation: it is the confusion on the bird’s face, as she or he stares back at us in disbelief seeming to ask: Why? While watching in 1998, I plummeted into well-deserved shame. [10]

Abbott’s camera gains entry to sow feed-lots, an endless series of geometric stalls, each literally the size of a pig to fatten up enough to bring in the highest profit possible (as always, deregulated Capitalism is most efficient). This is the job of the food animal: produce as much meat as possible as cheaply as possible. The quadrants of pigs are shot in the available light through a chain-link fence. The camera finds a mother, trapped, having been forced to lie on her side for who knows how long, as offspring suckle her like a machine through a metal grate. The camera pans, caressing the barrier between us and them, and communicates a thwarted yearning to reach out, to know, to liberate. We are feeling it now. The pigs call out in uproar, in their unheard dissent, the magnitude of the noise echoes their suffering. Shot in low light, the sharp-grained photography speaks to the harsh, unfeeling culture that put them there, the source of the images, the reason for this film. And yet, despite the horror of these cinematic revelations, there is nothing particularly special being shown to us. After all, it’s always happening. We are simply watching fellow creatures who never see the light of day, who spend their short lives in stalls producing bodies destined for our consumption. These atrocities are normal.

But we all know this, right? To varying degrees. Certainly more of us now than in 1998. Maybe some readers have stopped reading by now. Maybe because: “Yah, I know all this”; maybe because of “Oh no! I can’t stomach what's coming!” But for those who haven’t stopped reading, those who have the courage and compassion to continue, what I want you to know is that, unlike any of the other agribusiness exposés that came after A Cow at My Table, it is the intimacy of Abbott’s documentary films that draws us into feeling; it is the revolutionary activation of the viewer’s emotions that creates possibilities for change.

After another shot of grids of imprisoned sows, the film cuts to two cows interacting in a field. The change is soothing. It is a respite of another reality, one that could be as common as the horror we have just witnessed. The footage of the animals engaging naturally with one another was shot at Farm Sanctuary, a not-for-profit organization in New York and California that rescues animals from agribusiness. At Farm Sanctuary, the animals are able to live out their full lives with dignity and grace. [11] In this sequence, we watch two Holsteins, most likely rescued from the dairy industry where they would have stood on concrete with metal milking machines attached to their udders for as many as 305 days a year. This non-stop milking often causes painful inflammation of the mammary glands. They would have been artificially inseminated every year to keep up maximum milk production and would have had their newborns immediately taken from them. If they had been born male, they would have most likely been shuttled to dark boxes and made into veal with the succulent, tender texture of children. The cows we are watching escaped all of this; amidst the horrors, Abbott gives us this scene of beauty.

The camera moves in sync with the cows’ intimacy. A dance. We are calmed by this moment of tranquility, this witnessing of how all animals are naturally supposed to be, who all have a right to their own lives, like humans do. The artist is giving us a short intermission from the torture as she reinforces her message. The two cows move together to the sound of their own breathing and there is no question that they have a relationship, that they have feelings for one another. Near the end of this sequence, Joy Ripley—the then President of the Alberta SPCA—muses on the possibility of animals having psychological and emotional lives. The cows’ heads touch. We have our answer.

When watching A Cow at My Table, one cannot help but ask how such treatment of other sentient beings can be ethically justified and deemed—always paradoxically—‘humane.’ In the footage of cows’ heads protruding from rows upon rows of feed-lot bars, to the grids of pigs entrapped in what must be a constant state of claustrophobia, to the corridors lined by layers of battery cages crammed with chickens, to a concrete slab as big as a football field alive with recently de-beaked chicks moving as one traumatized body destined to be shackled upside-down and dropped into a vat of electrified water that (it is said) is supposed to stun them enough to not suffer as much during the throat slitting to come—not to mention becoming more manageable. Thrown into a feather removal machine, we witness the absolute division of the subject from the object, the mind and the body, the superior human and the inferior ‘beasts.’ [12] This is the legacy of René Descartes, often referred to as the father of Western philosophy, whose so-called rationalism laid the groundwork for The Enlightenment, the ideological shift to the rule of science and technology, the industrial revolution and the religion of monetary profit. Descartes wrote his infamous essay “Animals Are Machines” in 1637. He argued that “[animals] have no reason at all and that it is nature which acts in them according to the disposition of their organs, just as a clock, which is only composed of wheels and weights is able to tell the hours and measure the time.” For Descartes, and for the culture of agribusiness that came centuries later, “animals are nature’s automata.” [13]

The automation of animals is based in Descartes’ androcentric reasoning that they have no language (in the human sense) and are incapable of thought and reason (in the human sense). It is, therefore, reasonable that they be designated as objects for human use. Beginning with the Post-War baby boom of the 1950s when consumer culture took full hold of Western consciousness, the hierarchical ideology implemented by the Enlightenment two centuries earlier allowed brutalization to be reduced to mere economics; the modern meat production industry stated that the consumer wants cheap meat and that they are simply—regardless of the abuse—filling a need. After all, one cannot abuse a machine. Ironically, though, Descartes gives animals the privilege—or curse in the living nightmare of the factory farm—of having sensations and physical feelings. Unlike in agribusiness where chickens are but ‘layers,’ cows mere ‘milkers,’ and pigs only ‘porkers,’ the father of Western philosophy, one of the philosophers responsible for elevating the human white male above all other forms of life, admits that non-human animals feel pain. Too. [14]

One of the words that is often used by agribusiness defenders is ‘humane.’ What is called ‘humane’ (as though the humans who designate ‘humane’ treatment would ever willingly live in the conditions they have constructed that serve to justify the torture of others) is: enough water, enough light, enough food. For animals in factory farms, there is only enough light to see their confinement; only enough food and water for their flesh to ‘perform well’ and, in the words of activist and author Karen Davies, “convert feed into food.” Activist, artist and writer Jeanette Armstrong comments: “One of the questions I have is what does ‘humane’ mean?”

Susan Kitchen, the manager of the Alberta Foundation for Animal Care (AFAC) at the time, answers: “Were they squealing?” At this smug and callous utterance, the audience at the Vancouver’s Cinematheque in 1998 gasped. Some laughed nervously. Shocked. Having the misfortune to be at the bottom of patriarchal hierarchy, factory farm animals live lives of non-stop traumatic stress disorder—they are well beyond squealing.

The eyes. Always the eyes.

When we have the courage to look into the eyes of a tortured creature, there is no longer any reason or enlightenment involved. [15] As I watched A Cow at My Table, as I watch it again now while writing this essay, I am struck by how Abbott frames the eyes of the animals so intimately that the viewer has no choice but to look into them, no choice but to feel their trauma; the filmmaker is deeply aware of the emotive potency of film. In our interview, she told me how:

"I think film is an extremely emotional medium. Walter Murch said, when you leave a film, you don't remember every little detail about it, but you remember how you felt. I feel huge amounts of sadness, rage, grief, despair, but also joy and gratitude related to the themes that my films explore. As a filmmaker, who does want to create art that contributes to essential public discourse and even change, I am most attuned to the emotional arc of my films and that I want people to feel deeply because I think that's the way ultimately people are going to be impacted. I want to pull people into my world and my emotional landscape and share that."

When watching A Cow at My Table, I am cut off from all other thoughts; I am with the suffering; I am fully connected to this raw knowledge that is kept hidden. Abbott gives us the experience of an inversion of perception from the feelings of the human animal to those of the non-human by ever-so-gracefully forcing us to feel beyond ourselves.

The downer is an animal who falls in transit, so ill they can no longer stand. At the slaughterhouse, they must be killed on the kill floor in order to be used for human consumption. So how do they get to the kill floor? They are forced to live through one of the biggest traumas one can imagine.

The film falls silent; subtitles appear; the human is silenced. And it is the cows, like a chorus from a Greek tragedy, who are given voice. The first subtitle is by Abbott. It reads:

“In the summer of 1996, I interviewed a Canadian livestock trucker.” This part of the film is one of those moments where the limitations that an artist experiences during their process of creation become serendipitous. As artists, we make the most of what we are not able to access and, by the inclusion of obstacles, open up a deeper, multi-nuanced and more acute documentation of truth: the limitations become a part of the art—and its message.

The trucker wouldn’t talk. At least he didn’t want his voice heard. The footage is from dairy industry activists who surreptitiously filmed the plight of downers, Abbott told me. The photography is raw; it’s amazing any of it was captured at all. The camera work, alive with the precarity of the camera-person and the erratic focus of the camera, narrates the difficulty in documenting what is meant to be hidden. As we watch, we can’t see everything and sometimes it’s difficult to make out anything at all. Figuratively that is. The blurred images are like abstract paintings where the viewer participates actively to create meaning; and we can certainly hear what is going on. With this lack of visual information, our listening becomes more acute. The fragmentation of this sequence serves as a metaphor for our detachment from the truth about the meat we obliviously consume. As we have no choice but to give up seeing exactly what is going on, our imaginations connect us more fully to the terror. Paradoxically, by being kept out visually, our awareness is heightened. My body clenches. Like the cows we can't see, we know something really bad is about to happen.

The trucker’s identity had to be kept hidden. A whistleblower. His opinion, his dissent, his culture, his community, had to be concealed. His empathy was an act of betrayal. He couldn’t take it anymore. This secret was burning inside him. He had to tell his story. Anonymously. Silently. Truth is often a threat.

Cows move in the back of the truck. Crammed in as one agitated body. Their hooves clatter on the wooden floor. The focus manages to land on a cow in the middle of the frame. Their eyes are wide with desperation. The cow is having a panic attack! Why wouldn’t they! I certainly would be! But there is nowhere to go! The only escape is to become unconscious. To become a downer. And to be guaranteed even further torture.

By this point in the film, the emotive agony is excruciating. The trauma we are being shown is unbelievable. At the Cinematheque in 1998, I noticed people walking out. And I knew it wasn’t because they thought the film was bad; on the contrary, it was because it’s so powerful. They couldn’t handle it; for whatever reason they didn’t want to go there, to feel the pain, to be fully in this world. With the reality of factory farming having become much more talked about in 2021, I would like to think that everyone would have the courage to stay now. To feel the pain that our culture inflicts upon others, so that we can feel their pain, and learn empathy.

The eyes. Always the eyes. It always gets back to the eyes. We have to look.

Susan Kitchen comes on again. After the squealing comment, this expert has lost all her credibility. I felt the audience cringe. We know now that Kitchen is lying, maintaining the cover up, even if she believes the capitalist dogma herself. Not only have we witnessed the animals in captivity, we are listening to the testimony of the anonymous trucker silenced by the industry she defends. ‘Humanely’ again, Kitchen says. The word reeks of hypocrisy.

“The handling of unfit animals is a very grave concern that must be handled immediately and as humanely as possible,” Kitchen dictates, smug and robotic. “And when it isn’t, something should be done.” Should being the key word.

“No,” the traumatized trucker eye-witness tells us. This isn’t true. Nothing is done.

“Either they should be charged, fined,” Kitchen continues. Should. Should. “And the industry does not tolerate the inhumane handling of unfit animals.” The clatter of hooves speeds up. We can feel the heightened anxiety of the cows. They know. They have arrived. Male voices enter the scene. Angry. Cursing.

“Hey!! Get outta there!”

“How about Agriculture Canada? Are there representatives there?” Abbott’s subtitled voice asks the anonymous trucker.

“That’s the inspector … I think they’re a joke if you ask me.” Kitchen’s ‘should’ equates to nothing. On a day when thirty-five pigs arrived dead, the trucker testifies, “I don’t think the vet did anything more than glance in the trailer.” The prioritization of profit is predatory. We have now witnessed a no-doubt-about-it.

The shouts intensify; the abstracted image is coloured by the cruel voices and the frenzied clatter of hooves. The cows who can still walk have been removed from the trailer. The shouting men begin to grapple with a downer.

“How do you get the downer cow to the kill floor?” Abbott asks.

“They tie a chain around its leg and they pull it off with a forklift,” the text shouts. From the depths of the abstracted image, we can see the impending atrocity before we literally watch it. Oh Susanna’s song of grief re-enters. The filmmaker is relentless with her: Feel This! The trucker recalls a downer bull who tried his hardest to get off the trailer.

“He had been prodded [almost] to death by three or four drivers.” We can still only read and hear what’s going on outside the mute image. The most potent images are created by what is not shown. What our other senses see.

“His back legs, his hips had given out … he’s crawling along the floor … and the spirit it had! … Until he was chained from his front legs and fell off of the ramp and smashed to the floor … I don’t know how many feet that would be but quite a racket …”

“Why don’t you just shoot it!” the trucker recalls having said once. The slaughterhouse workers never shoot, we learn.

“Why would I shoot when there is still good meat there.” This isn’t a question.

And then we see it. Oh Susanna stops. The sounds of the scene are the chained leg being yanked out of the back of the trailer, the whine of the forklift, the moan of the somehow-still-alive cow. And then: the eyes. Always look into the eyes.

I’m crying again. Grief has risen from my guts. Even though I have watched this probably five times now. Another cow is wrenched off the trailer. Her head bashes against the side. My being jolts. A downer pig is hurled as a sack. Another downer cow: it’s a miracle the animal’s leg isn’t pulled out of the socket! Slow. Excruciating. Cows don’t squeal. They moan. “They are moaning!” I shout in my mind at Susan Kitchen. The cow is finally dragged far enough towards the camera for us to see one of her eyes. An eye that couldn’t be more terrified. Horrified. Stunned. Broken. The cow blinks. Somehow raises her head. Oh Susanna sings the pain.

“You just don’t think about the animals,” the anonymous trucker explains a job requirement. “You just think they aren’t feeling or whatever.” The eye of a downer cow, staring at us, shining truth, as she is being forced to stay alive just long enough to be ‘humanely’ slaughtered.

If an animal is literally dead upon arrival, if they have had the audacity to not survive long enough to produce as much meat possible, they are thrown onto the dead pile out back. Sometimes the animals are still alive and organizations like Farm Sanctuary find and rescue them.

“How hard is it to get into a slaughterhouse today?” Abbott asks Gene Bauston, the co-founder and director of Farm Sanctuary. He laughs: “Very hard.”

The film follows Abbott’s car circling around the outside of a meat processing plant. We can’t literally see the car. The shots come from the inside of the vehicle. The filmmaker is looking through the chain link fence. So are we. She’s going to go in. And we are too.

“We have nothing to hide,” Susan Kitchen says.

“Except you can’t go into the meat processing plants,” responds the Truth.

No Admittance Except Authorized Personnel. A sign says. Warning Dog Patrol. More chain link streams pass. We hear footsteps crunching with determination upon gravel. We sense the filmmaker’s necessary stealth. She is about to transgress what we are forbidden to feel. May 16th, 1996: Jennifer Abbott breaks into the yard of Inter-Continental Meat Packers Plant in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. She is there to document one of the downers, one of the animals that failed to perform. Number 1611.

She begins with an eye. Stilled by death now. A stone. Abbott’s camera is searching. For what? Sense? Empathy? Why? It caresses abuse. Renders the invisibilized visible. The camera scans udders and we learn the animal was once, briefly, a she. We begin to feel this cow as other than a thing for our use. She has a story; she had a life. She was most likely used in the dairy industry until she no longer produced enough milk to be worth anything except meat. Falling on the way to slaughter. Another unfit animal. Thrown out behind the processing plant. Evidence. Abbott shows us every part of this unvalued being. She focuses on the tag, the number hanging from the cow’s ear. The sign of property. The sign of ownership. The sign of Capitalism. The sign of exploitation. The sign of monetary profit. The sign of greed.

The scene returns to the cow’s eye. Again. The stone. And Abbott slays us again as her dead eye, this betrayed being, was once a life. This is the last eye she shows us.

Fortunately, Abbott knew there is danger when telling the truth. “The truth has an emotional quality about it,” says writer and activist Carol J. Adams. Emotions are also dangerous. Feeling is revolutionary. Abbott hid the video in the glove compartment of her car just before her camera was seized. She was arrested and spent the night in jail. In the morning, she was served, but refused to eat, an Egg McMuffin, pig and all.

In the press, the meat industry deployed a ridiculous, passive-aggressive strategy of their own victimization. Abbott was accused of an ironic “Breach of Trust!” by filming the reality of meat production. “Ms. Abbott is a vegan with views that conflict with those of the animal agriculture industry,” they accuse. Irrational non-animal eater! How dare you care! She has betrayed those who keep the source of our food hidden. Who is guilty of betrayal? Those who lie and conceal or those who expose truth? They issue security alerts. Say exercise caution. Call to shun the filmmaker. Discredit the film. She is charged with 'mischief for interfering with public property.'

“I don’t think what I did was wrong,” Abbott responds. “The really criminal thing is what happened to that cow.”

Slaughterhouse workers also suffer from not only physical injuries, but also from post-traumatic stress disorder which results in other social devastations. “It will come as no surprise that the consequences of such emotional dissonance include domestic violence, social withdrawal, drug and alcohol abuse, and severe anxiety,” Animal Liberation reports. “As slaughterhouse workers are increasingly being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, researchers are finally starting to systematically explore the results of killing sentient animals for a living.” The Yale Global Health Review extends this form of trauma into “dissociation from reality.” [16]

In the 21st Century and with the acceleration of a globalized, deregulated economy, there has been an increase in migrant workers from underprivileged countries working in first world slaughterhouses. The migrant workers, treated with corresponding disrespect as the animals they have to kill, are crammed into inadequate housing. This reality came to the surface with the rampant outbreaks of Covid 19 in the meat processing plants in 2020. People shun Chinese wet markets as filthy and are horrified by the treatment of the wild animals. Yes, of course, the conditions and treatment of these animals is despicable, but we must not forget that such conditions exist in our smug first worlds as well, abusing animals who are not seen as valuable at all because they are not wild, along with the human beings who are brought into Canada, the US and the EU, paid next to nothing from our standards, to do what we won’t. [17]

Abbott came up against further barricades when she tried to get the film shown. In 1993 when she started the film, few were talking about agri-business policies and our cultural complicity. Thinking back to the resistance she experienced at that time, Abbott told me:

“I had a really hard time raising money to make it, and it was made on a shoe-string budget. When I outreached to the programmer of CBC Rough Cuts for production funds, they told me never to contact them again. As in, don’t ever contact us again about any project ever. They were completely unwilling to support a film about nonhuman animal cruelty and factory farming then. And once the film was finished, Hot Docs rejected it (to the surprise of several prominent filmmakers). I weighed less than 100 lbs when it was done, it took so much out of me to make. Thankfully The Vancouver Film Festival was brave enough to program it to begin with, and it got some exposure and even awards." [18]

I wonder how many other people at that first screening of a Cow at My Table back in 1998, whose faces also streamed with tears, haven’t eaten animals since. As the torture of fellow creatures for the sake of capitalist greed continues, the thought that some abstain is a small comfort.

While I watched in 1998 and as I watch again now, one thought remains constant: what must the animals think of us? Do they wonder how this is possible? How is it one creature can brutalize another so despicably? So shamefully.

As we are bashed about in the world of Abbott’s heart-wrenching exposé, the diaphanous aesthetic feels more like a cradle where, paradoxically, we are woken up from our somnambulist state of consume and deny. Unlike in 1998, I am no longer shocked by these atrocities; instead, I am reminded of Ginsberg’s merciless calling of Moloch, the king of child sacrifice and shame:

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness!/ Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! …/ Moloch the incomprehensible prison! …/ Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! …/ Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!

Unlike Ginsberg’s starving hysterical naked generation, however, after having witnessed A Cow at My Table, after having been gutted by its candor, we are no longer blind. The filth and ugliness are no longer incomprehensible: awareness breeds comprehension. Despite the similarity in intensity of Abbott’s film and Ginsberg’s poem, she serves us our madness gently, strategically, in order to guide us to empathy. By giving us pain, by turning denial into grief, A Cow at My Table offers us the opportunity to redeem ourselves.

“So it seems to me,” Abbott told me, “that the same way grief and love are two sides of the same coin, in many ways, there's another coin with suffering and trauma on one side and resilience and strength on the other.”

“What must the animals think of us?” I can’t stop thinking as I drifted and drift, emotionally flayed both then and now, within the accusatory silk of Oh Susanna’s lyrics:

Oh take me down, I’m gonna’ bury my shame. Oh take me down, down to bury my shame.

A Cow at My Table exposes a brutal underside of our culture with grace. With love. With the essential duality of agony and empathy that is necessary to be fully human. The documentary jolts us into raw awareness and transports us to the place where putting an end to the madness, slaying our dragon, isn’t really difficult. All we have to do is stop.

Jennifer Abbott A Cow at My Table shoot (1994-1996). Photo Courtesy of the Artist.


About the Filmmaker:

Jennifer Abbott is a Genie and Sundance award winning filmmaker dedicated to filmmaking as art, philosophy and activism. She is best known as the Co-Director and Editor of THE CORPORATION (2003), still the top grossing and most awarded documentary in Canadian history also credited as one of the top ten films to inspire the Occupy movement. In 2020, she released two films: THE MAGNITUDE OF ALL THINGS (Director, Writer, Editor, Sound Designer and Co-Producer) and THE NEW CORPORATION: THE UNFORTUNATELY NECESSARY SEQUEL (Co-Director and Supervising Editor). Since the release of her first short film SKINNED in 1993 and exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, she has been the recipient of 39 international awards and 11 nominations including most recently Best Canadian Feature at Planet in Focus Film Festival for THE MAGNITUDE OF ALL THINGS. VIFF Programmer Tammy Bannister called THE MAGNITUDE OF ALL THINGS

“Perhaps the most visceral reasoned call to action for humanity since An Inconvenient Truth,” and POV MAGAZINE compared it to the “…lyrical and elegiac wonder of Terrence Malick.” THE NEW CORPORATION was called the “Must-see documentary of the year,” by FORBES, “Chillingly relevant,” by VARIETY and made the GLOBE & MAIL’s top 20 films of 2020 list. Inspired by the experience of writing and directing the dramatic scenes in THE MAGNITUDE OF ALL THINGS, Abbott is interested in crossing over to narrative film as well as pushing the boundaries between documentary and fiction filmmaking. In that vein, she has written the screenplay MONEY & OTHER LOVE STORIES and is in the process of adapting a science fiction classic into a contemporary feminist political thriller. While her primary interests lie in writing and directing, Abbott almost always edits and frequently sound designs her own films. She lives on Canada’s West Coast with her twin teenage daughters.

About the Writer:

Karen Moe is a writer, visual and performance artist and a feminist activist. She has been published in such magazines as Border Crossings, ArtSpace, WhiteHot and Revista 192. She is the editor and founder of the magazine Vigilance: Fierce Feminisms. Karen has exhibited and performed across Canada, in the US and in Mexico. Her first book, Victim A Manifesto, is being published in Fall 2021. Karen lives in British Columbia, Canada and in Mexico City.

If you would like to learn more about Farm Sanctuary and their invaluable service to non-human animals and the alleviation of suffering caused by agribusiness, check out

Stay tuned for Part Two of this series that will discuss Jennifer Abbott's latest epic, The Magnitude of All Things (2020).


[1] I am aware of the fact that not all readers will be included in the use of the personal pronoun ‘we.’ I have chosen to write in the first person because I am a member of the world of privilege, comfort and the prioritization of the individual and the corresponding ability to deny what such a lifestyle provides. I have insider knowledge of an ideology and way of being that is detached from the world and everything else in it that must be transformed if we don’t want to continue to destroy all others and what lies beyond us and, in the end (unless we create insular capsules to keep ourselves safe in our existential detachment), ourselves.

[2]“The richest 10 per cent accounted for over half (52 per cent) of the emissions added to the atmosphere between 1990 and 2015. The richest one per cent were responsible for 15 per cent of emissions during this time – more than all the citizens of the EU and more than twice that of the poorest half of humanity (seven per cent)… During this time, the richest 10 per cent globally blew one third of our remaining global 1.5C carbon budget, compared to just 4 per cent by the poorest half of the population. The carbon budget is the amount of carbon dioxide that can be added to the atmosphere without causing global temperatures to rise above 1.5C – the goal set by governments in the Paris Agreement to avoid the very worst impacts of uncontrolled climate change.”,report%20released%20by%20Oxfam%20today. “The World’s Wealthiest Consume 20 Times More Energy Than the World’s Poorest. Yet climate change will hit the world’s poorest the hardest.” consumption/#:~:text=The%20wealthiest%2010%25%20of%20the,widely%20between%20and%20within%20countries. “The top 10 percent of the global income spectrum consumes 20 times as much final energy as the bottom 10 percent … The only way to decarbonize many of the most energy intensive goods and services fast enough is for wealthy people to change their behavior and consume less of them.”

[3] Quoted in Jennifer Abbott’s The Magnitude of All Things (2020).

[5] Great Thunberg documentary “A Year to Change the World.” (2021)

[6] On March 31st, 2021, The Guardian reported how the wealthy countries have created a ‘Vaccination Apartheid’ and that a chorus of activists are calling for changes to intellectual property laws in hopes of beginning to boost Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing globally, and addressing the gaping disparity between rich and poor nations’ access to coronavirus vaccines. See: Somewhat happily, the ‘temporary’ relinquishing of Big Pharma intellectual property so that the poorer Covid ravaged countries can produce vaccines (and not rely on handouts when the wealthy countries have extra) is being seriously discussed now in May 2021. Even though corporations being forced to give up some of their deregulation for the sake of saving the majority of people on the planet from an unrelenting virus will very possibly happen, it can be seen as far too late as thousands are dying per day and poorer countries were asking for the patent in the Fall of 2020. Undoubtedly, it is primarily the fear of even more vicious variants attacking the first world countries and potentially rendering their vaccines impotent which is contributing to this temporary revolution. Nevertheless, even if the motivations continue to be self-serving, it is far better than nothing.


[10] Everyone by now has heard about the process of debeaking chicks in egg processing plants. The industry’s reasoning is because the chickens would peck one another to death in the battery cages. There are four to eight hens housed per cage, with each hen receiving as little as 432 square centimeters (67 square inches) of space, which is less than a standard size piece of notebook paper. I don’t know about you, but if I were crammed into a small cage with four to eight other humans, I would most likely peck at them too.

[11] You can learn about the wonders of Farm Sanctuary and donate to their amazing work at:

[13] Descartes readily admits to the human-serving basis for his argument when, at the end of the essay, he states: “Thus my opinion is not so much cruel to animals as indulgent to men—at least to those who are not given to the superstitions of Pythagoras—since it absolves them from the suspicion of crime when they eat of killed animals.” (19)

[14] As I write, I realize that the similarities between people being trapped in prostitution and animals being prisoners of the meat industrial complex and how looking into the eyes of a creature whom we are exploiting can lead to reforming behaviour. In Victor Malarak’s book The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It, a reformed john sends a message to all men who buy sex: “If I have one piece of advice, I’d ask you to look into the woman’s eyes. That will tell you if she wants to be there or whether she’s been forced into it. All drug-addicted hookers are forced to do it. All poor women are forced to do it. When I look back at the hundreds of women I’ve paid for sex, I know that most didn’t want to be prostitutes. If anything, they should be called ‘destitutes’ and I used every single one of them because I didn’t care. I would say that the majority of women don’t want to be whores and men should think hard about what they are doing and quit deluding themselves with excuses and lies.” (114)

[15] I heard on the radio once a ranch owner in Northern BC scoffing about how, when cows are shoved down metal shoots on their way to being shot in the head (and hopefully actually killed), they often shit themselves. She said how this proved how stupid cows are. I called in to the radio show and said: If she was shoved down a shoot and knew she was going to be shot in the head any minute, she’d shit herself too.

[18] Email correspondence between Karen Moe and Jennifer Abbott April, 2021.


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