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New documentary "American Meat" focuses on alternative production

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New documentary "American Meat" focuses on alternative production

By Chris Scott on 9/6/2011

If the American meat industry doesn't feel like it's in the middle of a crisis, its protagonists probably haven't seen the new film "American Meat."

The feature-length documentary -- which premiered in Iowa City, Iowa, last month -- places a spotlight on a growing number of farmers, chefs and consumers that believe in eating animals raised without antibiotics and under conditions that have very little resemblance to current procedures at mass-production poultry, hog and cattle farms.

The main protagonist is Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Virginia, whose believes that farming can be done with the goal of establishing emotionally, economically and environmentally enhanced agricultural practices.

He's a major proponent of consumers knowing where their food comes from and the farmers who produce that food. The film also provides a voice to conventional meat purveyors, who argue that smaller operations simply are unable to produce enough food to feed the American public.

Meatingplace spoke with "American Meat" Director, Cinematographer and Producer Graham Meriwether about the goals of the film and its reception so far. Meriwether, who also works with the pro-environment social network Leave it Better, said the film took four years to complete as he and his team met scores of American farmers who outlined their approaches to food production.

How would you describe the film?

The film is the story of the meat industry and of a growing segment of production that might change the entire industry. It's a look at the current state of meat production in the United States and a picture of where it's headed.

How did the project start?

The initial goal was to do a film about the pioneers of the green movement. We had started looking at agriculture and then realized that Joel (Salatin) was a representative of this new breed of farmer. We spent a year filming through the four seasons (of the farming cycle) and figured out that we also wanted to include the industrial side of chicken, hog and cattle production.

We had to ask a lot of community farmers for access to their operations, which we were able to eventually get because we gave them our word that we wouldn't position them in a negative light. These farmers were very brave to open up their farms and they've all had a positive response to the film. In fact, the head of the Iowa Pork Producers association also came out to screening and those types of groups usually don't support these types of projects and worry about the perceptions this type of project might deliver.

How is the film being seen since you currently don't have a theatrical distribution agreement in place so far?

We've had between 15 and 20 screenings since the premiere in Iowa City that all have been very well attended. We generally provide a local food component where meals featuring locally produced food are served before the film is shown. We hold the screening and then we have a panel discussion with local farmers or members of meat-related local organizations. We very much want to create a community around this food-based movie experience and we've had screenings in theaters, churches, schools and even on farms. Our goal is to hold about 100 screenings over the next six months.

What has the overall response been to the finished film?

We haven't had any complaints so far and we haven't heard anyone say anything negative -- again, so far. The topic in the film that sparks the most discussion is the issue of farm subsidies, where some of the farmers (in the movie) discuss shifting the $15 billion in subsidies so that $5 billion is distributed locally and $10 billion goes to support local agricultural initiatives. After seeing the film, some farmers during the panel discussions said they want to cut all of the subsidies. It's the one topic that anyone has raised after seeing the film. But there's been no anger or negativity from people who've seen "American Meat" and nothing but positive comments from the audiences and the panelists.

We have an "American Meat" website and Facebook page where people can see the trailer and find out where screenings are being held near their communities.

The next screening is in Hopewell, N.J., and animal welfare expert Temple Grandin is scheduled to appear on the panel after the presentation. Interested parties in others part of the country can request a screening on the "American Meat" website.

After the screening tour, "American Meat" is scheduled for release on DVD in February 2012.

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