On a recent lush Saturday evening in San Rafael, I joined a gathering of filmmakers, activists, artists and community members to celebrate the 3rd Annual Mindful Eating Film Festival.
The festival was a weekend-long celebration of delicious vegan food, an education on the devastating impacts of factory farming and a solid dose of direction for community members worried about the state of the world’s food system.
Opening night was at once delightful and tragic. This is the unfortunate, but critical, reality of attending a film festival brave enough to tackle the American crisis of factory farming. A sumptuously dressed and lively gathering of around 250 people convened on the lawn in front of Dominican University’s Angelico Hall. Attendees enthusiastically filled their plates with some of the more breathtakingly delicious vegan options, which included dishes by TiNDLE, Souley Vegan and OmniFoods, and of course a spread of Miyoko’s Creamery vegan cheeses and honey.
I would be remiss if I neglected to mention that Miyoko’s Creamery’s cheeses are jaw-dropping. Heart-stopping. No, life-giving. Mouthwatering. They’re the most ludicrously delicious cheeses I’ve eaten, and I have eaten a significant amount of cheese in my 30 years. The Aged Smoked English Farmhouse, the Double Cream Garlic Herb … I salivate at the mere words.
The fact that these cheeses are entirely vegan is nothing short of miraculous. Anyone experiencing residual skepticism around the pantheon of vegan options need only take one bite of any Miyoko cheese to find their doubts forever assuaged. No, I am not a Miyoko’s Creamery propaganda plant.
We noshed, drank kombucha, sparkling water and wine, and discussed the positive impact switching to a more plant-based diet has on the environment. No one was pedantic, and though most attendees were proudly vegan, those who ate meat were welcomed and made comfortable—with the caveat that all meat-eaters in attendance do consume consciously, knowing the quality of life of the animal they eat. Those who willingly consume factory-farmed meat products would have felt out of place.
The unconscionably cruel treatment of animals in factory farms is not lost on the festival’s organizers, the nonprofit Rancho Compasiòn, established by Miyoko Creamery’s founder Miyoko Schinner and her family. Rancho Compasión cares for animals rescued from inhumane farming situations, providing them with tenderness and care after their cramped and abusive factory lives. While there was a graceful and inviting quality to the conversations I had regarding dietary preferences and needs, the topic of animal cruelty brought a determined look to the eyes of my conversation partners. For the festival’s organizers, it’s non-negotiable that these animals be liberated from their current inhumane conditions.
“The whole idea is to bring awareness to everybody, because we are running out of time on this planet,” Schinner said. “It’s like you’re either in, or you’re in the way. That’s what this film festival is about. We asked everyone who attended tonight what their dietary lifestyle was, and about 40 percent are not vegan or vegetarian at all. And that makes me really happy, because they’re curious. It’s critical to reach beyond just the vegans.”
The goal of the festival is to inform the public about the serious impacts that the American farming industry has. Methane emissions, animal cruelty and the skewed impact of flawed systems on BIPOC communities who live near hog, poultry and bovine farms are just a few examples of the topics addressed at the festival.
After an impassioned conversation, we moved inside for the screening of two films, marking the beginning of the heartrending portion of the evening. Within the first two minutes of Eyes, the short film from New York Film Academy sophomores Zachary Goodwin, Flynn Harris, Alex Flanagan and Alex Kumph, I was in tears. The film documents a Los Angeles-based vegan activist group conducting an Animal Save Vigil, during which activists wait for trucks full of pigs being driven into the slaughterhouse. In the two minutes they have with each truck, the activists provide the pigs with water, stroke whichever animals they can reach and look into their eyes, honoring their pain and apologizing for the cruelty of their situation.
The footage was heartbreaking. There was no way to misread the pain, fear, and shattered spirit in the eyes of these animals. It is a shuddering truth that everyone, those who eat meat and those who don’t, should be required to learn.
The main film of the evening was The Smell of Money, a documentary produced by Kate Mara. The film follows the decades-long fight by Elsie Herring and other Black families in North Carolina to save their homes from the unbearable stench and rain of animal waste from nearby hog farms. The problem started in the 1990s when North Carolina, and Duplin County in particular, became the epicenter of America’s pork industry, resulting in a high concentration of hog farms and their massive cesspools of animal waste which emit a reeking stench. To make matters worse, farmers empty the waste “lagoons” by sucking the contents into sprayers that disperse the fecal matter onto the land and the surrounding community.
“When there is a southerly wind, you can feel the spray hit you. It feels like rain, but it’s not. It’s hog feces,” Herring says in the film.
The story moves from the late 1990s to the present day, following the ongoing fight for a decent quality of life, free from an unbearable stench and the rain of fecal matter. Although residents have prevailed in five of the nine lawsuits they’ve filed against food-industry giant Smithfield Foods, the settlements have not resulted in a different method of managing the animal waste, and Herring died before receiving her settlement.
The films were painful to watch and difficult to digest—much like the meat America mindlessly eats.
“The intention is to put the focus on how the food system is impacting the environment, human health, animals, everything,” Schinner said. “There are lots of environmental film festivals, but none of them actually deal with the food system itself. And we felt that that’s very important. We’re really hoping that this is going to become the Sundance of film festivals focusing on the food system.”This year’s festival is over now, but there are ample opportunities to gain further education around the food industry and give back to the animals who have suffered. Visit www.ranchocompasion.org for volunteer opportunities and a list of the films screened.