"Calcutta" - Louis Malle (1969)

In 1968 French director Louise Malle took a two-month furlough from the stresses of his life and professional work to visit India. He was only 35, but his brilliant early career (he shared a Cannes Palme D’Or at the age of 23) seemed to be on a dangerous downhill slope, and he was coming off a marital breakup. What he saw in India was a profoundly different way of life and attitude towards reality, which undoubtedly commingled in his mind on his return to France with the student rebellion going on at the time in Paris. He immediately decided to return to India with a cameraman and sound recordist to make a documentary film, and he travelled widely about the country, shooting footage opportunistically and without a preset plan over the ensuing five months.

When Malle returned to India, he had to edit the thirty hours of footage he had accumulated into meaningful documentary material. Much of the footage went into creating the seven-part TV series, Phantom India (1969), which is a uniquely brilliant and reflective examination of the soul of India. But he felt that the material he had for Calcutta (Kolkata) was too much to fit into the Phantom India series, and he made a separate 99-minute documentary film, Calcutta (1969) from that material for theatre release.

One of the interesting things about Calcutta is just how different it is from Phantom India. As I remarked in connection with Phantom India:
Phantom India was very much in the cinéma vérité tradition that first flourished in the 1960s when the appearance of lightweight film cameras made possible the capturing of “real life” activities in the practical affairs of society. But cinéma vérité in its early European manifestation was distinguished from its counterpart in North America, known as “direct cinema”, which tried to capture “objective” reality by attempting to make the cinematographers invisible. Cinéma vérité filmmakers, in contrast to that, tended to acknowledge explicitly the presence of the filmmaker and his or her involvement in the processes under study. This, in my, view is the more realistic approach and is likely to lead to a more accurately captured “reality” on film. Whatever is captured on film is inevitably altered by the presence of the watcher, and in addition the choice of camera angle and the flow of edited images inevitably reflect the ontological context of the watcher. It is best to recognize this state of affairs and work within that context. This is exactly what Malle did in Phantom India. Indeed, Malle’s film is an extended examination of the issue of cinematic objectivity. He is less concerned with the camera’s putative “invisibility” (there are many occasions when his subjects look straight into the camera) than with the inescapable fact that the director, as well as each viewer, brings to the film his or her own intellectual categories by means of which the perceived reality is to be constructed.”
Calcutta is much less personal than Phantom India and strives for a more objective depiction. The contrast is particularly evident in connection with the presentations of Indian religious practices in the two works. In Phantom India, Malle reveals a personal fascination and amazed appreciation at the depths of Indian religiosity. There is almost a sense of envy at the dedication of Indian religious practitioners and the degree to which their beliefs may bring a profound sense of contentment, even under impoverished material conditions. But in Calcutta the bizarre religious practices seemed to be viewed from a remote and uncomprehending distance. There is no attempt to get inside what may motivate these practices. This remoteness carries over to the rest of Calcutta. Everything in the city seems strange, cluttered, exotic, and sometimes grotesque. There is less empathy and sympathy and more critical condemnation of the dysfunctional “system” in place. Nevertheless, this critical remoteness does not mean that Calcutta restricts itself to a purely objective topographic overview of the city. The film is still basically a randomly impressionistic presentation, but with a more dispassionate eye.

Another significant distinction between the two works is the overall narrative flow. In each of the seven hour-long segments of Phantom India, there is a sort of narrative theme that oversees the images. In those films Malle seems to be relating part of his personal journey and encounter with the soul of India. But in Calcutta we see a repeating sequence of critical segments without Phantom India's sense of personal narrative flow. In fact the segments in Calcutta seem to move almost cyclically through three thematic subjects:
  • People/Religion. I put people and religion in the same thematic category here, because in this film, both the customs of the people and their religious practices are viewed from the outside as things that are interesting, but somehow odd and unfathomable. The religious practices in this film are just one more strange aspect about the Indian people and do not represent something fundamentally different from other customs (which contrasts with Phantom India, where religion and spirituality was fundamental to the whole work).
  • Politics. There are some segments that take a critical look at politics in India – from the perspective of Malle’s European leftist/Marxist sympathies. These segments are the most “distant” and represent depictions from a critical, Western viewpoint.
  • The Poor. Calcutta at this time was the epitome of impoverished human suffering, and its horrors were also brought to Western eyes at about the same time by Ved Mehta’s 1970 article in The New Yorker, “City of Dreadful Night” [1], which later appeared as a chapter in his Portrait of India (1970) [2]. Malle dwells here on the wretched conditions of the many people who have come to Calcutta, some of whom were fleeing perhaps worse conditions of starvation in the countryside.
The segments circling though these subjects that are described below do not show much progression, and it almost seems as though they could have been placed in a different order.
  1. People/Religion 1. The first fifteen minutes of the film show the sights and sounds of Calcuttans without any voiceover commentary. The segment starts off with people, mostly men, bathing in ritualistic fashion in the river (presumably the Hooghly). Then there are images of various people observed moving about the city in dense crowds, with a particular attention to interesting faces.
  2. The Poor 1. This segment presents brief coverage of the “Dying Rooms” of Mother Teresa, who was not well-known to the West at that time (she was highlighted in Ved Mehta’s article soon thereafter). Here the “poorest of the poor” are picked up off the street by Mother Teresa’s charitable volunteers and given some care to alleviate their suffering prior to (for most of them) their deaths.
  3. Politics 1. Some local politics are discussed. The 1967 election led to a centre-left/communist government in West Bengal, but it was overthrown by a parliamentary manoeuver, and to restrain dissent the new government declared martial law and forbad people assembling in groups greater than five (an absurd decree for the crowded city of Calcutta). Malle explains that both the two communist factions in India, the left-wing communists (who followed the Soviet line) and the right-wing communists (who didn’t follow the Soviets) refused allegiance to Mao. Only the fledgling Naxalites started in Naxalbari in 1967 followed the Maoist line, which was where Malle’s sympathies lay.
  4. People/Religion 2. There is a coverage of the joyous Festival of Saraswati, the Hindu consort of Brahman and the goddess of knowledge and the arts. Calcuttans spend considerable effort to build and decorate numerous life-size statues of Saraswati, only to throw them all into the river on the final day. One can’t help but reflect on what seems to be the obvious waste of material resources and labour that all this entails.
  5. Politics 2. There is a brief depiction here of the Westernized rich, who are cut off from Indian traditions and ape Western practices and lifestyles. Malle repeats the widely-held view of many Indians concerning the British plunder of India:
    “The British East India Company systematically exploited and exhausted the riches of Bengal, taking considerable capital back to England. This influx of money allowed the Industrial Revolution and English capitalism to get underway.”
  6. The Poor 2. Before independence, Calcutta was the processing centre for jute fields that were later partitioned off into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). To replace the jute fields, the Indian government used land in West Bengal normally used for food production, leading to severe food shortages in the region and semi-starvation.
  7. People/Religion 3. Calcutta was home to some 50,000 Chinese immigrants, and this section shows some of them celebrating the Chinese New Year. Today, though, the ethnic Chinese population is probably only around 2,000. This is followed by discussion of the Sadhus (these were also discussed in Phantom India), who have renounced all material amenities to practice their lone, individual spiritual paths. Despite the poverty in India, the Sadhus are respected and offered alms by even the poor people. Finally, this section shows a Hindu burial.
    “For the Hindu, death is not a dramatic event. It is neither an end not a deliverance . . . . life is only a stage, a passage, a brief moment in a cosmic cycle.”
  8. The Poor 3. There is further coverage of the massive, abject hutments of Calcutta where squatters live on privately-held land. This is followed by shots of unskilled labourers and emaciated pedicab drivers struggling to pedal about their heavy loads. As always, Malle is fascinated by the seemingly pointless, menial tasks of labourers who often appear to be doing nothing more than moving useless objects or paper around. (But after all, are not most of us doing the same? The only difference perhaps is that we are better paid for our seemingly nonsensical tasks.)
  9. People/Religion 4. This section covers a middle-class wedding, whose ceremonies appear to be ornately weird and laborious. But the large feast provided the groom’s parents is welcomed by the guests. This section also depicts a musical conservatory for sarod-playing that is run by Aashish Khan (son of master Ali Akbar Khan). Many of the students have studied the sarod there for years without plans for professional play, just for their personal satisfaction.
  10. Politics 3. Students rebel when the University is closed by the state governor. Many of the students evidently advocate the idea of an armed peasant revolt in the style of the Vietnamese and Maoists. The ensuing student riot, however, is forcefully broken up by police.
  11. The Poor 4. Here there is a coverage of the awful conditions of the lepers in Calcutta, which at that time numbered around 75,000. Since that time, however, the treatment of leprosy has been one of India's relative success stories, and the number of lepers has been greatly reduced in the country: there are now less than 5% as many cases as there were then.
  12. People/Religion 5. Another Sadhu is shown. This one took up a vow seven years earlier never again to sit or lie down. He is shown surrounded by his disciples who attempt to tend to and alleviate his physical pains. This is followed by a series of shots covering street mountebanks, musicians, and further opaque religious ceremonies.
  13. The Poor 5. Here there is extensive coverage of the slums of Howrah, a southern industrial sector of the Calcutta conurbation. Forty percent of Calcuttans were said by Malle to be living in “subhuman conditions”, and this section depicts the squalor and filth of their habitations. There is also coverage of Tamil immigrants from southern India, who don’t speak the local Bengali and are forced to live in squatter settlements outside the city in equally “inhuman” conditions.
At the end of this cyclical coverage of Calcutta, one is left with a feeling of the crowded, cacophonous, almost lurid conditions of life in Calcutta. Since Calcutta was not an ancient Indian city, but was created as a service centre for British imperial interests, Malle is evidently castigating the West for creating these monstrous, inhuman conditions and not rectifying the faults that linger on. This is a fairly grim viewpoint, seen by an outsider, and it is one that might not be shared by Indians aware of the rich Bengali traditions and culture. Still, the film is a fascinating record, because Malle was one of the first people to get out on the streets and make movies about life as it existed there. He had amazing access to a wide spectrum of city life in Calcutta, and the images are not staged or faked. Malle’s interesting kaleidoscopic perspective is still available on film, as it was forty years ago, for anyone to see and make of it what he or she will. For Malle, and for Mehta and Kipling, too, Calcutta may have been “the city of dreadful night”. Whatever perspective one takes, though, we are still trying to understand and learn, as Malle was, from what seems to be an alluring phantom.

  1. Mehta, Ved, "Profiles: City of Dreadful Night." The New Yorker, 21 March 1970.
  2. Mehta, Ved, Portrait of India, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970.

"The King’s Speech" - Tom Hooper (2010)

The King’s Speech (2010) tells the story of Prince Albert, the Duke of York and the future King George VI of England, and how he struggled to overcome his lifelong speech impediment during the period leading up to and just after his assumption of the crown. The film, directed by Tom Hooper, has been one of the most lauded productions of the year, having been nominated for fourteen BAFTA awards, twelve Academy Awards (Oscars), and having received widespread acclaim from the critics and the public. In the face of such overwhelming approval, I could perhaps remain silent, but there may be some people out there who are sympathetic to some of the misgivings I have about the film.

The story concentrates on Albert’s continuing distress concerning his pronounced stammer and the lengthy working relationship he had with an eccentric speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who was engaged to help him with his disorder. The film concludes in a triumphant, feel-good manner in 1939 when Albert, now King George VI, manages successfully to deliver a radio speech to the country when war was declared with Germany. Although the film begins in 1925 with Albert delivering a brief, but disturbingly stuttering, address at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium, most of the film’s action concentrates on the five-year period between 1934 and 1939.

What makes the film interesting as a narrative are the three parallel and interwoven narrative threads that run through the film.
  1. The Speech Therapy. The main thread is the Albert’s personal struggle to overcome his stammer and the mortification that it induced. In a sense this thread is a metaphor for Albert’s development into a person fit to rule an empire.
  2. Historical Developments. There were interesting developments during this five-year period, including the death of Albert’s father (King George V), the ascension to the throne and then abdication of Albert’s older brother (King Edward VIII and after abdication, the Duke of Windsor), and the threatening rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany.
  3. Relationship with Logue. A third narrative thread is the developing relationship between Albert and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. Logue was a commoner from Australia, and the evident contrast between the down-to-earth Aussie bloke and his royal patron and their ensuing gradual rapport elevates the Logue character to a lead role.
This adds up to interesting material, and the three narrative threads have considerable potential to reflect upon and amplify each other. But the film falls short of greatness due to a number of drawbacks. I will briefly list them by category.
1. Film Narrative. Outstanding films are those that tell a compelling story using the visual dynamics of cinema. There is considerable potential with this material, but the realization here comes up short. As the narrative threads #2 (Historical Developments) and #3 (Relationship with Logue) meander along, they don’t have the dramatic arcs or developments that make them interesting stories on their own. Of course the Historical Developments thread culminates in a declaration of War, but Albert’s role in those events is on the sideline, and the film counts on the viewer’s external knowledge to carry that thread along. The Relationship with Logue thread is vague throughout. We never really get a feeling for what each thinks of the other, or how that thinking evolves – although they eventually come to some sort of unspoken accommodation. This leaves only thread #1, the Speech Therapy thread, as the driving narrative. This one also doesn’t work well, because whenever the film returns to it, there is a session in which significant progress concerning Albert’s stuttering appears to have been made. Yet on each successive return to this thread, we are back to square one, with Albert stammering worse than ever. Although the dramatists may have felt compelled to evince some progress with each session, these repetitive sequences are delusive and ultimately frustrating. In addition, this thread carries the suggestion that the cause of Albert’s problems was due to psychological traumas he experienced as a child, but this idea is neither developed nor resolved. At the end the film winds up with its triumphant radio speech, which presumptively concludes and resolves all three threads in some sort of victorious mood, but the narrative buildup to that finale has been ineffective.

2. Character Development.
  • The characterisations of most of the people around Albert are all wooden stereotypes of upperclass manners. Although this may appeal to some audiences fascinated with the Upstairs, Downstairs contrasts in British society, the exaggerated postures in this film, particularly that of Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury, are severe. One might argue that, in real life, members of the British upperclass are playing stereotypical roles, so such dramas are only reflecting reality. But the characterisations here are not even that true to life. In addition the Aussie-English contrast between Logue and Albert appears to be forced to the point that the film is sometimes described as a comedy. Lionel Logue’s son, for example, has stated that his father never swore in front of Albert and never called him , “Bertie”.
  • The role of Lionel Logue, though, is an important one with considerable screen time devoted to it, but it is never really developed into a meaningful character. It is difficult to develop a mental picture of what is going on in his mind.
  • The portrayal of Wallis Simpson (later, the Duchess of Windsor), whose affair with Edward VIII led to his abdication, is that of a manipulative, poisonous viper. In fact there are two conflicting narratives about Ms. Simpson’s affair in popular culture: either it is a story of romantic love that sacrifices all, or it is a story of a Jezebel-like she-devil who threatened the British crown. American portrayals of her often follow the former narrative outline, while British portrayals usually choose the latter, as did The King’s Speech.
3. Historical Accuracy. Taking liberties with some historical details is often necessitated to simplify and condense a story into a coherent two-hour vehicle. But such liberties need to be around the edges. In this case, it seems, compromises with historical veracity may have been made in connection with core issues of the story.
  • The film celebrates the British war effort and resolute British opposition to the Nazis, with the presumption that George VI (Albert) embodied this attitude. But commentators have argued that Albert was pro-appeasement.
  • Albert apparently hired Logue in 1926 and demonstrated progress in his speech within months, whereas the film depicts Logue being hired around 1934, with speaking progress taking a much longer period. In addition, some people have argued that Albert’s stammer is greatly exaggerated in the film and that Albert’s stuttering in real life was much milder.
  • The film suggests that Winston Churchill was in favour of Edward’s abdication, but commentators have maintained that Churchill urged Edward not to abdicate.
4. Cinematography.
  • The extreme wide-angle, almost fish-eye lens, photography used in connection with Albert’s sessions is disconcerting and renders these scenes unrealistic. This was probably done to make the figures around Albert imposing and threatening (suggesting the psychological cause of Albert’s problem, which is never really developed), but instead the technique merely makes the scenes more like slapstick comedy.
  • The many full-face, backward-moving tracking shots are laborious and not visually motivated – and only contribute to further claustrophobia.
5. Music.
The musical background score is far too intrusive for this sort of story. In particular, the use of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony during the final radio speech is ponderous and heavy-handed. Its use is also a bit curious for a speech aimed at marshalling British resolve to fight Germany.
On the positive side, I would have to say that Colin Firth does a good job under the circumstances in his role as Albert. I find it hard to believe that Albert was such a conflicted, anguished personality, but Firth does appear convincing. In addition, Helena Bonham Carter, as Albert’s wife, Elizabeth, has little to do in the story, but she adds a convincing and sympathetic element to the domestic surroundings. Her mere presence makes Albert a more sympathetic character.

Overall and from my perspective, though, The King’s Speech is a misleading, confused, and disappointing work. It has a few good moments, but not enough of them.

“Earthlings” - Shaun Monson (2005)

Earthlings (2005) is a documentary film by Shaun Monson that asks us to think authentically about who we really are. It forcefully, sometimes disturbingly, reminds us of an essential character of our consciousness, something about ourselves that our culture often dismisses: compassion and empathy. Along the way it shows and tells some inconvenient truths that most of us (including Al Gore) would probably prefer to avoid. Though we sometimes feel compassion and empathy towards other human beings, we try to run away from the natural empathy we should feel towards other beings on the planet, other earthlings. This is essentially a mass hypocrisy that we mindlessly accept. Earthlings shows us what is right there to see, if we would only look directly and honestly.

As a production, Monson’s Earthlings is a meticulously crafted work, featuring narration by Joaquin Phoenix, a moodily effective musical score by Moby, and rare footage from inside the animal factory farming industry that must have been difficult to acquire. But due to some of the film’s unsettling images and the fact that the film is partially an exposé of barbarous practices across various sectors of society (particularly the meat and dairy industry), Monson has faced difficulties gaining mainstream distribution for the film. But movies should be more than just escapist entertainment. This film has a thought-provoking social significance, and I urge readers to seek it out (you can get it here) and watch it.

To a certain extent Earthlings can be considered to be a visual companion of Will Tuttle’s The World Peace Diet (2005). Although the two works make no reference to each other, they share the common vision that we must regain our feelings of empathy towards other earthlings if our human civilization is to survive. They both make the point that, generally, no matter how different people may seem to be, they all share some basic feelings:
  • a desire for companionship,
  • a chance to live a normal life,
  • freedom from pain and violent death
And all people recognize these feelings in other members in their immediate social group and feel empathy for them. In addition we all know that there are “uncivilized” people (in our modern sense) who fail to extend that empathy towards members of other societies, other races, or the opposite gender, and we appropriately condemn them as racists or sexists. Such narrow-minded people view others towards whom they are prejudiced as mere objects, unworthy of consideration as bona fide human beings.

But there is another mode of prejudicial narrow-mindedness, called “speciesism” that is less commonly recognized. Speciesists are people who fail to extend empathy towards animals, even though animals, too, are clearly sentient, sensitive creatures who have the same basic desires for companionship, a chance to live a normal life, and freedom from pain. Although we typically condemn those who are racists and sexists, the overwhelming majority of us are guilty of speciesism.

Early on, Earthlings presents striking images of Nazi genocidal atrocities towards Jews, which elicit a curious cognitive dissonance in the viewer’s mind – certainly the Jews were cruelly “treated like animals”, but on this occasion we are moved to ask a different question: should even animals be treated this way? Or did the Nazi treatment of Jews stem in fact from the socially accepted reduction of animals to mere objects? The rest of Earthlings goes on to discuss the extent of modern society’s pervasive speciesism,  successively covering five areas:
  1. Pets
  2. Food
  3. Clothes
  4. Entertainment
  5. Science
The ordering of this sequence is cunning and effective, and it helps Monson make his case about the endemic nature of speciesism in our society.

1. Pets
Certainly the subject of pets should be at least one category where animals are well-treated and given love and affection, no? Yet even in this most benign category, people often prove to be careless and unfeeling towards the animals they claim to love. Although people enjoy the companionship of dogs and cats, they often treat them as toys or playthings and fail to look after them. Every year there are about 25 million of them are left as strays on the streets, and 9 million eventually die there. Another 16 million are euthanized per year by civic authorities and animal shelters. Interestingly, the film claims that 50% of animals that are brought to shelters have been taken there by their caretakers.

2. Food
The next topic is at the opposite end of the spectrum. These creatures who, like all animals, want to live and be free from pain are slaughtered and eaten by us on a massive scale. Although most of us eat animals for food, we studiously avoid thinking about what that means – that a sentient being has been slaughtered for our pleasure. The meat that we find on our plates has been abstracted away from the living being that it once embodied, and there seems to be a collective conspiracy to keep that thought out of mind: “don’t spoil my dinner by talking about it,” people typically say. But if you watch the images in this section of the film, you cannot ignore seeing the obvious fact that these fellow earthlings share a basic commonality with us: they do feel pain and they struggle to stay alive. Nevertheless, we have created a massive and mechanized food industry whose operations are generally shielded from the public eye. The mass slaughter of animals is relentless – 10 billion per year in the US (~19,000 per minute). Earthlings shows how the often terrorized animals are ruthlessly transported and then shows some of the operations of branding, dehorning, and slaughter, all of which is done without anesthetics. The slaughter may involve the hurried and often haphazard use of the “humane” bolt guns, but they all end up with live animals having their throats slit so that their still-beating hearts can pump out much of their blood to make their meat more palatable for human consumption [1].

The cruel excesses of the meat industry are gruesomely detailed; and although the viewer may already have a dim inkling of what generally goes on inside the slaughterhouses, the specifics shown here must be brought to the attention of everyone. There are some people, however, who will concede the excesses of the slaughterhouse, but who hold onto the belief that at least the dairy industry is less cruel to the animals. However, as Tuttle points out, in some ways dairy farming is even more cruel than meat farming, because the animals “are severely abused for longer periods and inevitably slaughtered when their productivity declines.” Consider the grim fate of newborn calf when a dairy cow gives birth. There are four horrific paths it could take:
  • If female, it might be raised as another dairy cow. Then, like its mother, it will be dehorned and then impregnated within its first year (normal, natural calves would not be ready to mother until 3-5 years of age), fed hormones and milked by machines incessantly, producing 4-6 times as much milk as normal cows would. It will from then on be kept in the unnatural state of both lactating and newly pregnant for several years until it finally collapses from exhaustion at the age of about 4 (a cow’s natural life expectancy is about 20-25 years). Then it will be taken to the slaughterhouse.
  • Or the calf might be killed immediately after birth. The rennet in its stomach will be used for cheese production. Its tender skin can be used for expensive leather, and its body will be ground up for animal feed.
  • Or it might be used for veal. In this case it is forced to live in a tiny veal crate so that it cannot move and develop muscles. This makes the veal meat more tender. The calves are fed an iron-deficient diet (to give the meat a lighter, more appealing look) and denied bedding, water, and light during their miserable four-month existence prior to the slaughterhouse.
  • Or, if male, the calf might be lucky enough to be raised for beef meat. Then it will be quickly castrated (without anesthetics), branded, and dehorned. After 1-1½ years of grazing, it will be sent to a feedlot to be unnaturally fattened with steroids and other chemicals for a few months prior to the trip to the slaughterhouse.
It seems likely that the conditions almost all factory-farmed animals face are so excruciating that the animals must inevitably be driven mad. This is clearly documented with the next segment depicting what happens in the pig farming industry. The pigs are subjected to tail docking, ear clipping, and teeth removal in order to lessen the damage that occurs when the driven-mad animals turn to cannibalism in their crowded pens. The assembly-line nature of pig slaughtering, by the way, is so hasty that a certain fraction of the pigs are not even dead yet when they are next boiled for hair removal.

The situation is no different for the poultry industry, which has become an increasingly significant proportion of the Western diet – Americans consume as many chickens per day now as they did in one year back in 1930. In order to reduce the effects of cannibalism that inevitably arises from their dreadful living conditions, the chickens are routinely debeaked, a painful procedure that sometimes kills them.

Seafood is covered next, and again, the viewer is reminded that fish, like other earthlings, have sophisticated nervous systems that indicate they are sensitive creatures who feel pain and struggle to survive. Dolphins and whales are known to be particularly intelligent, social creatures, and the story of their harvesting and slaughter, which is the focus of the recent excellent feature The Cove (2009), is also covered.

3. Clothing
The value of placing the subject of food relatively early in Monson’s account is that the disturbing images of the slaughterhouse cast a dark shadow over the rest of the tale. The coverage now turns to clothing, and the reminder that leather is “dead flesh” is all we need to remember some of the earlier sequences. Much of the world’s demand for leather comes from the US, the UK, and Germany; and much of the leather for these markets come from a different source than the cows we eat – India. In that country cows are venerated by Hindus and protected by law. But in sectors of the economy rife with corruption, the cows are apparently sold to leather merchants by poor Indian farmers who have been wrongly assured that their cattle will be able to live out their natural lives. Coverage in this section also includes the appalling conditions of fur farms, as well as the information that over 100 million wild animals are yearly murdered for their pelts (25 million in the US).

4. Entertainment
The next topic is revealing, because it reminds us that our culture has so accustomed us to animal mistreatment that we don’t see what animal entertainment is – just the grotesque manipulation of innocent animals as objects for our amusement. It was Mark Twain who said that man “ is the only creature that inflicts pain for sport, knowing it to be pain.” The topics depicted move from rodeos, roping, racing (mostly dog and horse), state fairs, circuses, zoos, bull fighting, and, of course, fishing and hunting for “sport”. In the section on circuses, we are reminded that the animals forced to perform actions unnatural to their nature (but amusing to humans) do so only because dominance, fear, and pain are integral parts of the training process. When we visit zoos, it is to see a freak show; it is impossible to get any understanding of the nature of those other living beings as animals or of how they would live in surroundings in which they naturally evolved.

As for the pleasure of hunting, there could be much said, and the film offers a few telling images. But to add even more perspective, I ask you to consider just what happens in one relatively benign state of the US, Wisconsin: during that state’s brief gun-hunting season their hunters kill (“harvest”) over 200,000 deer per year. Even more despicable is the state’s “Youth Deer Hunt” for 10-15-year-olds. I hope you agree that we need to raise our youths to have an entirely different view of wildlife and the world we live in.

5. Science
Finally, the discussion turns to vivisection, or “animal experimentation”, an attempt of reductionist science to learn more about potential health effects on humans by torturing and maiming animals. There are various estimates as to how many animals are subjected to these procedures, but the numbers could be as high as 100 million per year. There is no evidence that these procedures have led to significant scientific discoveries.

In the end it comes down to what I said at the beginning: it is a matter of who we really are, who we want to be. Are we authentically able to recognize our inborn feelings of empathy? We actually recognize pain in all other beings, but we pretend that we don’t see it. The word “speciesism” may sound somewhat artificial, but perhaps we should let Richard Ryder, who coined the term, expand upon it:
“[Speciesism is] like racism or sexism - a prejudice based upon morally irrelevant physical differences. Since Darwin we have known we are human animals related to all the other animals through evolution; how, then, can we justify our almost total oppression of all the other species? All animal species can suffer pain and distress. Animals scream and writhe like us; their nervous systems are similar and contain the same biochemicals that we know are associated with the experience of pain in ourselves.”
In many ways the film Earthlings complements another film that counsels us to avoid the consumption of animal flesh, Mike Anderson’s excellent, Eating (2009). For its part, Eating speaks to our selfish concerns about our own welfare, including both our personal health and the sustainability of our environment. The argument makes sense from a purely utilitarian perspective, where empathy plays no part. Earthlings, on the other hand, speaks to our innate sense of compassion. Something that is there inside all of use, but needs a reawakening.

Early on in the film, there is quotation from Henry Beston’s The Outermost House:
“Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."
We must make the connection.

  1. For an analysis of the flawed arguments and hypocrisy behind the Food Movement and its advocacy of ethical meat-eating (championed by writers Michael, Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Jonathan Safran Foer), see James McWilliams, "Loving Animals to Death", The American Scholar, Spring 2014, http://theamericanscholar.org/loving-animals-to-death/#.UzY91lcVet9