Practical Issues > Factory Farming > Farming

A Cow At My Table

Flying Eye Productions
Site 46, Comp 30, RR2
Galiano Island, British Columbia
V0N 1P0

CDN$37.45 (CDN$30 + CDN $5 shipping & handling + CDN$2.45 PST) in BC, Canada
CDN$35.00 (CDN$30 + CDN$5 shipping & handling) in the rest of Canada
US$30 (US$25 + US$5 shipping & handling) in the U.S.A.
UUS$33 (US$25 + US$8 shipping & handling) in other international countries

A Cow at My Table explores Western attitudes towards farm animals and meat, and the intense battle between animal advocates and the meat industry to influence the consumer's mind. Five years in production took Director Jennifer Abbott across Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand to meet with the leaders of the animal rights movement, animal welfare advocates as well as spokespeople from livestock industries. A Cow at My Table intercuts these diverse perspectives with archival films, images from modern-day agribusiness and footage of farm animals shot from uncharacteristic vantage points. The result, say critics and programmers, is a documentary that is "brilliant," "visually smart," "extremely accomplished" and "extraordinarily compelling and powerful." In the words of Toronto's NOW Magazine film critic Cameron Bailey, "Like all the best documentaries, this film offers more questions than answers."

A Cow at My Table has won or been nominated for 11 awards.

"........a brilliant documentary"
    ~Toronto Star

"........Abbott has produced an extraordinarily compelling, powerful and visually stunning documentary. While Abbott is a thoroughly engaged documentarian who makes no claims to 'objectivity', she presents a story which is far more complex than one with only two sides. Her documentary is a profound and intelligent look at a situation many would rather not know about and many would prefer was never told."
    ~Vancouver International Film Festival

"........idiosyncratic and refreshingly unpredictable....may become one of the most persuasive videos of the coming decade."
    ~Animal People

"........gently pits animal activists against the meat industry in a probing reflection on flesh foods.....Like all the best documentaries, this film offers more questions than answers."
    ~Cameron Bailey, Now

"........a compelling & highly acclaimed documentary....presenting a powerful and thorough inquiry into the institution of meat."
    ~The Animals' Agenda

"........Stylistically inventive and able to find a visual beauty within this ugly subject, A Cow at My Table uncovers balance and truth in a very complex subject with numerous sides."
    ~Blinding Light!! Cinema

"Some of the most extraordinary documentary footage I've ever seen."
    ~Robert Enright - Reel Time - CBC TV Winnipeg

Jennifer Abbott is a documentary maker, media artist & AVID editor. A Cow at My Table is her first feature documentary. Her past work includes the experimental short Skinned which toured North America & Europe including New York's Museum of Modern Art. She is the editor of the book Making Video 'In': The Contested Ground of Alternative Video on the West Coast. She also teaches at Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design in Vancouver.

"A Cow at My Table"
by Steve Hall

A Cow at My Table explores how cultural and social pressures shape our relationship with nonhuman animals and account for the development of the factory farming systems that dominate Canadian food production today.
Directed, photographed and edited by Vancouver film-maker Jennifer Abbott, the documentary is organized into sixteen different sections that weave together interviews with animal activists and agribusiness representatives with interesting archival footage including a turn-of-the-century cattle branding by Thomas Edison and Abbott's own research. Largely self-taught, Abbott, 34, has worked in film and video for nine years, but this is her first time directing a feature documentary. "Fund-raising was hell," she says, "because mainstream funding bodies and broadcasters for the most part didn't want to touch it, and I had very little success getting support from organizations involved in these issues." Once funding was secured, three years of research and production took Abbott across Canada as well as to the United States, New Zealand and Australia.

Slaughterhouses, rendering plants and factory farms are notoriously secretive, and we rarely see what really goes on inside. A Cow at My Table opens the doors for us and at times what we witness is not easy viewing. The toughest section to watch is called 'Money.' Some animals arrive at slaughterhouses alive, but unable to walk off the trucks due to illness, injury, malnutrition or exhaustion. They are called "downers" and should be humanely euthanized, but, since only animals that enter the slaughterhouse alive can be used for food, it is common practice in Canada to attach a chain to a leg and drag the animal off the truck and into the slaughterhouse. To Abbott's credit, graphic footage like this is not used sensationally. The downers illustrate the point that in our society money is more important than the humane treatment of animals. It also shows how Canadians are kept unaware of what's really happening.

Culture influences our relationship to food in many other ways besides shielding us from how animals are treated at the slaughterhouse. A section called 'Parrots, Cats, Dogs' examines how we can love our pets yet feel nothing for food animals. The section 'Strength' looks at how meat came to dominate our diet as a sign of status and privilege, and how society looks upon vegetarians as weak.

Two sections, 'Speciesism' and 'Rights,' look at how we don't take seriously the rights of other species even though it can be argued that the moral equality we extend to all humans also applies to other species.

In the section called 'Pleasure,' Carol Adams explains how the difficult part of being a vegetarian is not meeting nutritional requirements, but simply being accepted by society.

Words have a powerful influence on culture. By using the word 'cow' in the title instead of 'steak' or 'burger' Abbott reminds us of our food's origin; the agribusiness industry prefers to call hens 'layers,' cows, 'milkers,' and pigs, 'porkers' for the opposite reason. In this section on words, Abbott effectively juxtaposes video images and audio clips in order to make her point. After Susan Kitchen, a Livestock industry spokesperson, says she doesn't like how animal activists use the term 'factory farming' to describe agribusiness, the screen shows footage from two 1960's agribusiness promotional videos that proudly describe a hen laying operation as an "egg factory" and a cattle farm as a "highly scientific beef factory." Later, she protests that animal activists inflame emotions to make their points while the agriculture industry uses a more accurate, fact-based approach. As she is saying this the screen shows cartoons from meat industry promotional material. In one, a cow wearing sunglasses leans back on a hay pile with one 'arm' behind her head while she feeds herself hay with the other. Another shows one smiling cow sitting upright in the back of a pickup truck on her way to slaughter.

This use of juxtaposition creates some visually powerful moments. Indian physicist and author, Vandana Shiva, introduces the section 'Science and Technology' by describing how we have converted living beings into commodities through what she calls 'reductionism.' As Shiva describes how we've reduced animals to "a bundle of matter ... to play around with as if it's plasticine" the image of a conveyor belt crowded with chicks fades into a mass of yellow rubber duckies floating in a steam.

The music of Vancouver's Oh Susanna, which is featured throughout the film, also creates some compelling moments. During the course of filming, Abbott was arrested when she crawled under a fence to film a downer cow that had been left dead outside a slaughterhouse (see May/June '97, pg. 5). The cow lays lifeless among muddy tire tracks; blood trickles from its swelled eyes and nose; an ear-tag identifies it as number 1611. As the camera slowly circles the cow, we first just hear the wind through the camera's microphone, then, Oh Susanna's music begins and lends a certain dignity to 1611's death.

Although a livestock industry spokesperson and poultry farmer are featured throughout the film, in general, it is dominated by animal rights and animal welfare experts like Gene Bauston, Karen Davis, Ian Duncan, Jim Mason, and Peter Singer. Some may dismiss this approach as biased, but the one-sidedness is understandable. This is the first Canadian documentary to raise questions about the social forces that influence our food production system. The people raising these questions just happen to be the ones concerned about how the animals are treated.

Copy available for loan at TVA. To order VHS copies send $37.45 (incl. tax and shipping) to Flying Eye Productions, Denman Place Postal Outlet, P.O. Box 47053,VA, BC V6G 3E1. Email: 90 minutes (c)1998.VA, BC V6G 3E1.