I became vegetarian at the age of 12. To be honest, I didn’t really have a reason for it other than not liking the taste of meat. I do remember thinking it was cruel to kill animals just to eat them, but I was nothing close to the passionate animal lover that most of my meat-eating 12 year old friends claimed to be.
At the time, I had no idea of the realities of the animal agriculture business. Documentaries like Cowspiracy and Food, Inc. have since shed light on the corruption of the meat industry, and the impact of animal agriculture on the environment. However, these exposés are reported from an American context and are only offer one representation of the food and industries. As such, The Animal Condition, an Australian documentary on farming practices, has been described by its director, Michael Dahlstrom, as “the first movie in the world to thoroughly examine all sides of the animal welfare debate.”
I caught up with Michael to learn more about the inspirations and intentions behind the film.
Q. What was your inspiration or motivation for making a documentary about animal welfare and Australian farming practices?
Me and my fellow filmmakers, Ande, Gus and SJ, were watching funny animal videos on YouTube when fate, or a faulty algorithm, led us to uncover videos of animal abuse on farms. Shocked, we decided to act, and used the skills we learnt studying at NIDA to make our first film.
Q. Was it difficult to find animal welfare groups, activists, farmers and politicians that were willing to talk to you so you could expose different stories?
I’m the beginning, Mark Pearson at Animal Liberation NSW set up a rendezvous with two activists in the middle of the night. We wanted to see inside farms and they wanted a light shone on animal abuse, so we just had to trust each other.
We’d heard that the animal industries would never talk to us, so it took us a long time to approach Australian Pork Limited, but when we did, they let our cameras go places the media had never been allowed to see. Farmers are generally cautious of cameras, they’re concerned people with cameras will distort the truth in the editing room. But, once we’d shown good faith to APL, other industries also opened their doors.
The hardest interview to get was with then Agriculture Minister, Joe Ludwig, who we wanted to speak to about live animal exports. His minders originally deflected our requests, so to get him on camera we spoke to all of his rivals, then he had no choice but to agree to an interview.
Q. Many reviews have said that the documentary leaves audiences to come to their own conclusions. As the director, was this your intention? Did your intentions change while filming?
We started off making an expose style animal rights documentary, but during the filming we realised we were only hearing one side of a complex issue. What we ended up making was a film that gives all sides of the animal welfare argument a chance to state their argument, then we leave it up to the audience to reach their own conclusions. Audiences are smart, who am I to push my opinions on them? We, the filmmakers, decided the best thing we could offer was information and education in the most entertaining way possible.
Q. Filming required you to witness some pretty horrific scenes, were there any points where you found it difficult to keep going? Was there anything you witnessed that you decided not to show?
There are plenty of films out there that show the worst of the worst animal abuse, and they do a good job of that. We took a different road and focused on average conditions that animals are kept in. Shock can be a good tool, but often it doesn’t lead to lasting results. Our film hopes to influence lasting change through open dialogue between the various stakeholders.
Q. What are some of the main messages that you try to get across?
The Animal Condition documents the rise of animal welfare awareness in Australia, from fringe issues to the major national scandal when live animal export took over our television screens.
You see us, the filmmakers, grapple with each other and question our own morals as we try to make sense of the complex web of opinion.
What we ended up making was an analysis of human thinking, an examination of how we, as a species, reach decision about how we should treat animals.
In hindsight, I think becoming vegetarian at the age of 12 was my own little way of reaching a decision about how we should treat animals. This is not to say that there aren’t other equally valid conclusions to make, and I look forward to watching The Animal Condition to better understand the discourse. Michael’s suggestion to stay informed, ask questions and know you may not have all the answers, is key to continuing the conversation on the ethics of farming, animal welfare and social reform on these issues.