March 1, 2010
Doc Noms Probe Present Dangers, Past Misdeeds
Two of the Academy Award nominees in the documentary film category deal with whistle- blowing about subjects as basic as what we eat and why we fight.
“Food, Inc.” exposes the questionable practices of an industry that has become so consolidated that, according to the filmmakers, virtually everything we consume is controlled by a handful of companies, such as Tyson, Perdue, Smithfield and Monsanto, the latter also being the firm that manufactured Agent Orange and DDT.
The documentary explores an array of issues, including the power these companies exercise over farmers. “But the theme of the film is really that our food system has changed more in the last 50 years than it probably had in the last 10,000 years,” producer Elise Pearlstein said. “However, there’s a concerted effort to market the food as though it’s still coming from quaint farms with white picket fences and red barns, when
in fact the whole system has been very industrialized, and the food is coming much more from an industrial factory setting than from a farm. We consumers just don’t know that.”
Pearlstein observed that our modern lifestyle has made us increasingly dependent on processed food, and people are preparing their own meals less and less frequently.
“One way to know what’s in your food is to make it yourself. And cooking, in Jewish culture, is an important part of bringing families together, enjoying the experience of cooking and eating with family. I think that it’s hard in our culture because we’re busy, and we work, but cooking is a great way to bring you back to your connection with food.”
As it is, Pearlstein noted, we are disconnected from the sources of what we eat, and people on a limited income find it less expensive to buy fast food than to shop for fresh fruits and vegetables.
“The companies’ interest in supplying the cheapest possible food and making the greatest possible profit is often at odds with the quality of the food. The practice of doing things on a massive scale can have all different kinds of consequences.”
One example of mass production examined in the film is the way poultry and cows used for meat are raised. The documentary charges that many of these animals never see the light of day and are densely packed together in quarters littered with their own waste.
“There are many, many animals raised in close quarters,” Pearlstein said, “and they’re given constant streams of antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick. Most antibiotics are now used in the raising of animals, and it’s leading to antibiotic resistance, so that when humans need antibiotics, they’re not working.”
Pearlstein added that corn, which is a heavily subsidized commodity, is used for feed even though cows are biologically designed to eat grass.
“They get fatter more quickly on corn but it’s something that is difficult for their systems to process, and one of the byproducts of feeding corn to cows has been the emergence of a dangerous form of E. coli.”
A strain of E. coli bacteria killed the 2-year-old son of Barbara Kowalcyk, who is featured in the film as she and her mother comb the halls of Congress to drum up support for legislation known as “Kevin’s Law,” named for her late son. The bill would return power to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to close facilities that continually produce contaminated meat and force the recall, which is currently only voluntary, of tainted food.
Such is the power of the food lobby, however, that Kowalcyk was reluctant to answer when the director of the documentary asked her how the experience of losing her son has changed what she eats.
“That was one of the turning points of the film for us,” Pearlstein recalled. “We ended up putting her answer in the movie. She said, ‘I don’t think I can answer this question without talking to my lawyer.’ We were shocked that this woman whose son had died didn’t feel free to tell us what she eats.”
Apparently, as the movie reveals, there are so-called “veggie libel laws” that make it actionable to speak against a food product.
“It’s amazing that there are laws protecting food. You can’t disparage a food product, and, in some ways, I think that vegetables and meat have the same protections that humans do, in terms of criticizing them,” Pearlstein remarked.
In fact, the film holds that the food disparagement laws in Colorado are so stringent that it’s a felony to criticize the ground beef produced in the state, and one could go to prison if convicted. And in 1998, Texas cattlemen sued Oprah Winfrey for disparaging beef on her tlevision show.
For Pearlstein, the themes in the movie go far beyond what is or is not healthy to eat and involve matters fundamental to Jewish principles. “I think food is a social justice issue. We felt, at least I felt, that there are issues of morals and ethics here. To me, there’s a strong history in Judaism of civil rights issues and social justice.”
Morals, ethics and social justice, along with courage, are also at the core of the documentary, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” which deals with events that occurred some 40 years ago.
Filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith use archival footage, interviews, recreations and narration by Ellsberg himself to depict the conversion of this onetime war planner from proponent to opponent of the Vietnam War. The film also covers his work on a top-secret, classified document detailing the history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, his subsequent release of that document to the press, and his trial on espionage and other charges, culminating in his acquittal due to illegal activity on the part of the government that was prosecuting him.
“This story has all the elements of grand drama ... classic drama — a protagonist who starts in one place and makes a journey to another place, going through a series of stages where he learns more and more, and you see him change,” Goldsmith explained. “He’s just a great character, dramatically. When you put that up against the stage that he’s on, which is the stage of the Vietnam War and the stage of the Nixon administration and Watergate, with a terrific antagonist in President Nixon, you couldn’t have a better piece of drama than that.”
Ellsberg, a former Marine, was a strategic analyst at the Rand Corp. and later joined the Department of Defense, where he helped Defense Secretary Robert McNamara launch the bombing of North Vietnam. After observing the war firsthand when he was assigned to the American Embassy in Saigon, Ellsberg began to change his perspective on the conflict. When he re-joined Rand he did some work on the secret Pentagon
Papers study commissioned by McNamara.
“This story has enormous resonance with the current period because it’s a film and a story about a war that was not justified, and we’ve been in two wars that were based on lies,” Ehrlich said. “The story of what the Pentagon Papers represented was a pattern of lying by American presidents, starting with Truman and going through to LBJ, about the realities of the Vietnam War. I think that’s what was revealed to Dan as he read the Papers. He was one of just a few people who actually read the whole 7,000-page document.”
Ellsberg came to the conclusion that, in his words, “We weren’t on the wrong side; we were the wrong side.”
As he became increasingly involved in the anti-war movement, Ellsberg began copying the 7,000 pages, and, in 1971, he gave the study to Neil Sheehan of The New York Times, which began printing excerpts from the document. When the government obtained an injunction against The Times, The Washington Post began publishing segments of the papers.
“It started with The Times and The Washington Post,” Ehrlich said, “and then 17 other papers joined and refused to respond to the government threat of indictment.”
Ultimately, the Nixon administration’s suit against The Times to prevent further publication ended in the Supreme Court, which handed down a landmark First Amendment decision to the effect that the government must meet an extremely heavy standard to justify prior restraint of free expression, and the burden had not been met in this case.
Meanwhile, the FBI was hunting Ellsberg, who had been identified as the person responsible for leaking the papers and who had gone underground. When he turned himself in, he was charged with unauthorized possession, theft and conspiracy. He faced the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.
What saved him was the discovery during the Watergate hearings in Washington that burglars attached to the “Plumbers,” an investigative creation of the Nixon White House, had broken into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. Ellsberg had also been illegally wiretapped for two years. Because of such gross government misconduct, Judge Matthew Byrne dismissed all charges on May 11, 1973. Nixon resigned the following year under threat of impeachment. A day prior to the dismissal, Congress had voted to cut off all funds for the war in Vietnam, which ended in April 1975.
Goldsmith finds something very Jewish in the story of a transformation such as the one undergone by Ellsberg, who was born Jewish but raised as a Christian Scientist.
“There’s something about the Jewish background that makes you look at things from different perspectives, in a kind of talmudic way. Ellsberg was a war planner, and then he looked at the war from a different point of view, and then he looked at the war from the viewpoint of someone on the ground, seeing action. Then he sought out the experience of looking at the war from the point of view of peace activists. To me, there’s something very Jewish about that.
“Secondly, we don’t really care what people think of us. We’re going to speak up and offer our opinion, especially on issues of social and political import, because we know how important it is, and we know how devastating not speaking up can be. That’s in our bones. I grew up with that notion because I’m one generation removed from the Holocaust. I don’t think you can divorce a Jewish heritage from what you see on screen here.”