There's Something about dairy:

Cowspiracy and the rise of revolutionary veganism

BY SIOMHA MCQUINN

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Whether to your disgust or delight, the vegan lifestyle is gathering momentum. One reason for this growth is the awareness raised by films like Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, of which the Indiegogo fundraising page claimed “together we aren’t just creating a movie, we are creating a movement!” Directors Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn clearly knew that their in-depth exploration of the toxic relationship between the environment, animal agriculture and big business would instigate change but in terms of what the film exposes, and the impact its content has had on viewers, it is undeniably revolutionary. The insightful, often comical, film questions the viewers’ understanding of their individual environmental impact. Andersen, who also stars in the film, becomes alarmed upon discovering that animal agriculture is a huge contributor to climate change and he investigates environmental organisations who fail to publicise this. What follows reveals the dark side of industries that the average consumer supports, and the deplorable cycles that they perpetuate, every time milk is added to tea or chicken nuggets are availed of after a night out.

What is seen cannot be unseen and activist filmmakers make the most of this by taking advantage of the visual medium at their fingertips. For this reason many people are wary of watching documentaries like Cowspiracy for the fear that they will be influenced and feel the need to change their lifestyle. Despite their undesirable subject matters, these films find ways to persuade audiences to sample them. Cleverly sugar-coating their message with the use of memorable, punny names like Cowspiracy and What the Health instantly makes these films stand out and prompt conversation. I’ll be honest, 50% of my decision to watch the latter was informed by its title. The other 50% was influenced by my love of the film’s executive producer, Joaquin Phoenix. Evidently another way these documentaries draw an audience in is by having a celebrity’s stamp of approval. Leonardo DiCaprio, star of his own environmental documentary, Before the Flood (available on YouTube) also executive produced Cowspiracy before it was released on Netflix. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has named Netflix "Company of the Year" for 2017 as a gesture of gratitude for making so many animal-rights films available to the masses (Netflix-original Okja included). Hearing the word PETA can instantly alienate people as it has associations with pushy, manipulative and controversial animal-welfare tactics. With Cowspiracy, Andersen and Kuhn have found a more palatable way of influencing audiences to ditch the meat and dairy. It does not force viewers to cower behind their fingers with explicit displays of harrowing slaughterhouse imagery. For the most part this documentary targets common sense over the emotional torment that characterises some other anti-animal product appeals. It favours statistics relayed through vivid animations and manages to communicate the sinister by-products of the meat and dairy industry in ways that will be more chilling to some than foregrounding the death of animals.

Another way Cowspiracy has found its audience is through word-of-mouth. This speaks volumes to the enthusiastic and loyal following it has accumulated and leads me to the second part of my discussion.

For those with which Cowspiracy resonates the most it is truly revolutionary. These individuals are inspired to become part of a collective that strives to adjust their lifestyles in accordance with the films insights. There is a tendency for some activist films to leave audience members feeling discouraged about their ability to make a valuable difference. Cowspiracy, on the other hand, emphasises that cutting animal products out of the average diet makes a huge difference and it is a practice that any audience member can adopt immediately. The power to drive change is in their hands.  

Cowspiracy empowers audiences and prompts them to encourage others to watch it. In my experience, despite how it might feel, vegans do not wish to force their lifestyles upon others. It can be frustrating for vegans to see people who rely heavily on animal-products in their diets because of the shocking revelations they have encountered in Cowspiracy and other sources. Cowspiracy, therefore, becomes a “go-to” recommendation for vegans who wish to engage in a more open, and less heated, discussion with those who might criticise them for their diet. It does not force veganism on the spectator but it makes it pretty difficult to argue against.

Considering the devotion of audience members to Cowspiracy it is reasonable to categorise it as a cult film. Cult films, for example The Room and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, gain their status as such once they accumulate a significant, but niche, audience. Traditionally, adoring cult-fans are extremely knowledgeable in relation to their film of choice and celebrate it with special screenings along with other fans. The Cowspiracy fan-base respond to it in a similar way which exceeds the boundaries of the film itself. They are passionate about the films message and become a support system for each other when adopting a lifestyle that often presents challenges.

Cowspiracy is revolutionary as it exposes injustices and falsehoods in our society. If nothing else it promotes a healthy scepticism within the viewer but for many it prompts a lifestyle change. This change can be as simple as going from ‘hating’ vegans to genuinely understanding their motivation. It is a film about actively questioning our society. Of course, viewers should approach Cowspiracy cautiously as well. Like all documentaries, and all film for that matter, every shot and sound is chosen with the filmmaker’s intention in mind and is likely to demonstrate bias. The makers of Cowspiracy have an agenda and all of the evidence they present is careful to reinforce that.  In any case, it is a film that has encouraged many people to live their lives differently and if that cannot be classed as revolutionary, I don’t know what can. If you are curious and find yourself trawling through Netflix, give Cowspiracy a go. Who knows, you might be compelled to join the revolution.