"Why would anyone eat a baby?"
"Just a little baby... a little baby... lamb?"
Pushing aside the categorical lines between humans and non-human animals, Simon Amstell's recent film Carnage: Swallowing The Past leaves behind a poignant message about speciesism. Namely, why do we think we have a right to own, use and exploit other animals? Set in 2067, this mockumentary about veganism, available now on BBC iPlayer, is at once harrowing and hilarious.
Carnage imagines a vegan future - admittedly an absurd, hyperbolic one where hippie youths cry over the mere thought of eating meat - and yet, it's strangely uplifting. In spite of the comic upheaval and stark satirical commentary which both plant- and meat-eaters are subjected to, the tone is decidedly pro-vegan. Amstell, a vegan himself, challenges us to think differently, to conceive of veganism differently, which is perhaps communicated best when the film's hero, Troy King-Jones, flips the label on its head: "We are not vegans. They are carnists."
For a film about veganism, there is an awful lot of flesh. Footage of people gnawing their way through greasy chicken nuggets, fat-dripping burgers and buckets of chicken wings, alongside images of obesity highlights a clear yet overlooked point: if you eat a lot of flesh, you gain a lot of flesh. The film deals with many other, all-too-real national problems over the past 10 years - direct effects of climate change and flooding, swine flu, mad cow disease - and shows how each of these issues can be linked to the consumption of meat.
I should probably mention at this point that I myself am a vegan, and had already been exposed to disturbing images of animals on factory farms, similar to those which are briefly featured on the film. Yet, when sandwiched between playful cartoon clips, adverts, and mock news snippets, they carry an unbearable shock factor. I watched the film with a non-vegan friend, and both of us veered from laughter to repugnance, and back to laughter, within split seconds. I'm surprised that no one thought of it before - because comic relief really is a highly effective way to get a point across.
As well as the future, the film veers us into the past - right to the beginnings of the movement with the world's first vegan society, founded in 1944. Taking a pit-stop tour of its history from the fifties to today, meat-eating is shown to be unnecessary, mindless and even grotesque, through footage from cooking shows, advertising and TV. We see the rise of processed meat in the 70s and 80s, "when the animals people were consuming stopped looking like they'd ever been animals." We see the rise in animal-based children's movies in the 90s, when Babe soared in popularity for its heart-warming tale about a pig who escapes slaughter, alongside Babe the pig becoming a free toy given out with Happy Meals.
Fast-forward to 2016, and no-one is safe from the film's shrewd and cutting observations. From Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall banging on about "sustainable" fish farming, to Nigella Lawson sensuously stuffing a chicken, to a clip of Jamie Oliver cooking burgers followed directly by one in which he says, "the future is about a plant-based diet," Amstell doesn't hold back. Well-meaning politicians, celebrities, and TV presenters are also satirized, outlining the plethora of contradictions and oddities within our modern-day approach to health.
Non-vegan critics have praised the mockumentary for "not being preachy" - because it doesn't just satirize meat-eaters, but pokes fun at vegans, too. People feel less like they're being preached to if they're laughing along the way. As the film moves back into the present day, we are given the bizarre YouTube hit, the "Vegan Rap," in which an elderly vegan couple bob from side to side, rapping about animal rights and speciesism. "The vegans were still ridiculous, and rarely allowed on television," Amstell narrates from a 2067 perspective.
By acknowledging that the current vegan movement is flawed, and suggesting how it could be different, the film's make-believe future steps in the movement pave the way for real-life questions. Such as, why aren't there any mainstream vegan TV chefs, like the film's sexy and charismatic Freddie? Why have we let our pro-vegan protests slip into the fringes as inaccessible, weird and off-putting? Can we conceive of a new definition, freed from the negative connotations of the word "veganism"?
And yes, some of the mockumentary's future plant-eaters are ridiculous. They wear floaty, floral clothing, strange glittery make up, dance around in a cult-like woodland home, and meditate. I would probably be irritated at this perpetration of existing stereotypes about vegankind if it wasn't so damn funny. Revealing many current animal rights demonstrations as futile and inaccessible, Carnage gets to the core of the issue with the movement and its decidedly preachy tone. Replacing these clips with his own comical forms of peaceful protest - vegans laying flowers outside butcher shops for the dead animals, peaceful protesters toting amusing "Eat a cracker" signs - Amstell proves that, perhaps, there is insight to be gained within comedy.