Don’t Eat That: The Meat Market and Family Values in “At The Fork”

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At The Fork (2016)

Directed by: John Papola
Written by: John Papola, Cristina Colissimo, Lisa Versaci Papola
Featuring: John Papola, Lisa Versaci Papola, Temple Grandin
Produced by: John Papola, Cristina Colissimo, Lisa Versaci Papola, Jordana Glick-Franzheim
Executive-Produced by: Dave Matthews
Music by: Graham Reynolds
Cinematography by: Matt Porwoll
Edited by: Sandra Adair, Joshua Meyers, Alejandro Valdes-Rochin

*****

It is no small feat of courage – or barbarism, depending on your perspective – to consume veal on the same night you finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. As someone who has done just that, I know that Michael Pollan’s lovely book about meat consumption, farming, and the evolution of our global climate systems does not leave your mind for one delicious bite. Unlike many of his peers’ books, though, Pollan’s historic but thankfully intuitive, non-histrionic writing revealed a patience with the unconverted: no veganism, no sustainable resourcing, no natural energy? No problem: you only have yourself to blame.

Pollan’s ingratiating tone opened the door for equally gentle first-person considerations of the agriculture industry, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s beautiful Eating Animals (which chided Pollan to some extent) and now, John Papola and Lisa Versaci Papola’s sweet At The Fork. Along with the writer/producer Cristina Colissimo, the Papolas (married, and long-time filmmaking collaborators) have translated the intellect and warmth of those highly regarded tomes into their first feature-length film, somehow without proselytizing – a very rarely avoided trait in “The Cinema of Issues.” The result is an occasionally gorgeous documentary that, thanks to careful editing and the executive-producership of Dave Matthews, could with not much trouble become a serious addition to the national discourses on vegetarianism, mass farming, and cultural foodways.

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About those cultures: John, who directed and provides the voiceover, comes from an Italian family, given to sharing large meatballs and overdoing the dinner preparations. Lisa, by contrast, has been an herbivore for years, and with kids in the picture, there is now a tension as to how and what they should eat as a family. Trained in commercial documentary and short-form filmmaking, the Papolas turn the camera on themselves as they tour the country, speaking to “Big Agra” experts, educators, and family farmers about the benefits of meat-less (or at least “less-meat”) diets. Some of the country’s best talking-heads (think Temple Grandin) show up. Didactic but not preachy, concerned but not anxious, the film combines footage of these discussions with a motherlode of drone-shot B-roll and folksy guitar thrumming by Graham Reynolds to calming effect. Ultimately, in the hands of expert editors Sandra Adair, Alejandro Valdes-Rochin, and Joshua Meyers – co-partner in the Papolas’ Emergent Order production company – this documentary plays like the cinematic equivalent of a pleasantly drowsy Wendell Berry lecture.

Yet for all its intelligence and its pleasantness, the Papolas’ debut landed inauspiciously in American theaters earlier this year by the fact of its subject. Animal husbandry and vegetarianism have been in vogue for so many years that the film can’t help but step over the same well-trod ground as a half-dozen films before it. Just this year, Charles Ferguson’s climate-change tirade Time to Choose sullied the conversation around meat consumption by invoking the many evils of the trade (murder, corruption, you name it) at a time when America was nicely settling in to a non-locavore diet. Certainly these filmmakers are neither as angry as the Inside Job director, nor do they bring the artistry that Richard Linklater (and Adair, his Oscar-nominated editor) brought to the subject in Fast Food Nation. Perhaps a little more didacticism in the vein of Blackfish would have lent At The Fork a little heft – but then again, it would have made for a shittier film.

Editor’s Note: Although it does not upset the quality of the film, an end credit reveals that Whole Foods Market was involved in the production of this film. The selling of its corporate message is somewhat disturbing in that this is a movie about how to ethically research, purchase, and consume meat and vegetables. I would like to know more about its relationship with the film, and to clarify whether or not At The Fork is basically paid advertising/infotainment, before recommending or condemning the film to readers.

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