A documentary that begins with the words, “This is rib fest,” doesn’t seem like a natural fit for a movie about conscious consumerism, but that’s part of the charm of director John Papola’s feature debut. “At The Fork” explores a number of questions around what’s on our plates and how it gets there, with the filmmaker and his wife taking a personal journey that they share with the audience. This is an enlightening doc about the ethics and morality of food that only occasionally feels like eating your vegetables.
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While enjoying his family’s annual rib fest tradition, Popola’s wife and fellow producer Lisa Versaci looks disgusted and gives him a hard time. “The best way for me to explore this issue is to hit the road and make a film about it,” he explains. They set off on a cross-country trip to examine the different ways that meat, eggs and dairy are produced. With his meat-eating and her plant-based diet, the viewer becomes witness to intimate conversations between them about what they’re eating and what they’re seeing in their travels. Together they’ve assembled an impressive and diverse group of interviewees, including Temple Grandin, Mark Bittman, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle. These experts offer insights and a variety of perspectives, but the most compelling footage is with the farmers from around the United States who share their individual approaches to food production. The director structures the documentary largely around pigs, chickens, milking cows, and eggs, showing a range of options in each. From large-scale industrial farms to smaller ones that employ pasture grazing, the farmers share the specifics of their ideas about the best way to raise livestock as they balance cost and the happiness of their animals. What’s most interesting is the evolution of larger farms to more humane methods, reflecting changing consumer desires, and the realization that the health and productivity of their animals can improve in these conditions.
Meat-eaters fearing an aggressive, PETA-approved doc with shots of slaughterhouses and abuse shouldn’t be wary of this largely gentle film. The acoustic-guitar-based score from Richard Linklater favorite Graham Reynolds only emphasizes its homeyness and simplicity. However, a shot of a piglet getting its tail clipped without anesthesia had me squealing. But for the most part, Papola and his team have crafted a movie that feels at once polished and authentic. The interviews with farmers feel refreshingly honest, and there’s vulnerability in the interactions between the married filmmakers. The eye of “Cartel Land” cinematographer Matt Porwoll beautifully captures farmland from above, as well as reflecting the lives of the individual animals featured on screen. Papola and Versaci co-founded digital ad agency Emergent Order, so it’s ultimately unsurprising to see that the film was made in partnership with both Whole Foods and the Humane Society. But the documentary balances access and likely funding with its own mission, refraining from feeling like a feature-length ad for either company.
Overall, “At the Fork” is a balanced look that doesn’t pass judgment on the choices the audiences make, nor the farmers profiled. In its post-script, which encourages viewers to take the “At the Fork Challenge,” the film specifically advocates “find[ing] your own path” toward more ethical eating. The only exception to this is the presence of Versaci, who often challenges her husband on his decisions around food and accuses him of letting hunger rule over his emotions, rather than sympathy for the animals.
Regardless of how you define your diet, “At The Fork” is effective and affecting in its offering of a variety of viewpoints. If the audience doesn’t find its mind changed in the 90-minute running time, they’re still given something to chew on. I may have even ordered tofu for lunch the day after watching the film. [B]