Natalie Portman credits “Eating Animals,” Jonathan Safran Foer’s book about the moral and environment implications of factory farming, for converting her to veganism. The Jericho-raised actress has no illusions, though, that her new documentary version of Foer’s book will convert others.
“It’s unrealistic to think that anyone’s going to completely change,” Portman says, but she adds: “Like, maybe a ‘meatless Monday,’ or saying no meat before lunch — even that would make a huge impact.”
As the producer and narrator of “Eating Animals,” which arrives in Manhattan theaters Friday, June 15 (it's scheduled to open June 29 on Long Island), Portman says she hopes the film raises awareness of industrialized agriculture without preaching or proselytizing. Although the movie is clearly concerned with animal suffering — seen in footage of chickens with deformed legs and cows bleeding from udders — it also points out the environmental impacts of large-scale meat production, notably the water pollution and human ailments that have been linked to pig waste. If “Eating Animals” offers a solution, though, it isn’t necessarily in widespread veganism or activism, it’s in supporting small farmers who treat their animals well and leave a relatively modest footprint on the Earth.
“We were conscious about making something that you would actually be able to watch, and not be cringing and turning away from,” Portman says. “It’s really about those great farmers, and how this kind of old farming tradition has been lost.”
The film’s director, Christopher Quinn, echoes that thought. “The challenge was to make this movie in a way that wouldn’t just alienate people for 90 minutes,” says Quinn, whose 2006 documentary on Sudanese refugees, “God Grew Tired of Us,” won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. “The idea is to ask, ‘What are we doing here, and what system have we put in place where we’re really compromising our own health?’ ”
The notion of adapting “Eating Animals” into a movie began roughly a decade ago, when Portman received a pre-publication manuscript from Foer. (The actress and the novelist became friends after she introduced herself at a reading of his 2002 novel “Everything is Illuminated.”) Portman, a longtime vegetarian, was surprised to learn that eggs and milk — foods she considered ethically acceptable — were also linked to animal cruelty. “I called Jonathan right away and asked, ‘Can I help make this into a documentary?’ ” she says. “It’s such an impactful topic.”
During filming, Quinn and his crew were shooed away from corporate property, told to turn their cameras off and, in once case, not-so-subtly accused of terrorism. Quinn, however, who grew up in Virginia with farming relatives, says he understands the hostility. “I have empathy for these guys, who were probably generational farmers and are now more like managers of facilities that house and raise animals. You can see it in their faces, they know something’s wrong,” he says.
“That gave me a lot of hope,” Quinn adds. “There’s something encouraging about the fact that they still know it’s wrong.”