Monday, July 11, 2011

Abattoir cinematography 101

Two disclosures first. I am a carnivore – vegetarians/vegans are likely predisposed to film (and view) abattoir footage as “horror”. Carnivores the opposite, perhaps. For me, this is complicated by my second disclosure: I am as squeamish over blood and gore as it is possible to be. I can’t watch a horror film, and even the 6pm TV news can send me reeling, such as a segment last week promoting Diabetes-awareness something, which depicted a needle drawing blood, with no prior warning.

Needless to say, I did not watch the economic/political-timebomb 30 May “4 Corners” episode apparently depicting animal cruelty inside Indonesian abattoirs – but not for the reason you may think. Any abattoir footage qualifies as “horror” for me, and so in the interests of balance, it would have been appropriate, surely, for “4 Corners” to depict animal slaughter inside Australian, as well as Indonesian abattoirs. The former would be presumably merit the voice-over labels of “humane” and “best practice”. However, the supposed black/white difference between Australian and Indonesian abattoirs would, of course, be lost on me. And I suspect many other also, and for reasons other than pathological squeamishness.

This is not to deny that animal cruelty may well be more prevalent in Indonesia. But Australians need to look in our own backyard first, rather than indulge in a strange-bedfellow alliance between carnivores and vegetarians/vegans (the Indonesian abattoir footage allows Australian carnivores complacency and vegetarian/vegan activists the hollow luxury of a cheap shot).

Do a Google Image search of “abattoir” and you will get, on the first page, mostly well-lit images of neatly-hanging carcasses – a larger, shinier version of the corner butcher’s shop of my childhood (where, needless to say, the killing was not done on site). Do the same search for “Indonesian abattoir”, and the first page is a medley of doe-eyed living cows, poorly-lit killing-room scenes, and only couple of images of well-lit, neatly-hanging carcasses.

This curious dichotomy, of Western abattoirs being archetypal white cubes, and Indonesian abattoirs black boxes, is also the title of an exhibition currently on at the Arts Centre in Melbourne. Appropriately enough, one of the pieces on display is what I would label “abattoir art”: Jill Orr’s “The sleep of reason produces monsters – Goya ” (2002-03).

Funnily enough, while I find abattoir art deeply confronting, as a carnivore, I think it that it is dishonest not to look when such art is brought before one’s eyes. It can’t be considered merely gratuitous – unlike, say, TV news footage of a needle drawing blood. Albeit, I only came round to this view recently, after watching the Rainer Werner Fassbinder film In A Year With 13 Moons (1978). The five-minute or so abattoir scene near the start of the film, which makes Jill Orr’s counterpart video look like Playschool, was apparently filmed in a functioning abattoir during working hours. The dialogue between the two main characters, as they walk through the brightly lit abattoir, killing-floor and all, is as confronting as the background imagery and yet searingly beautiful.

In short, abattoir art is a particularly powerful and poignant genre. If you are making it, please spare me “4 Corners” style voice-overs and malignant lighting effects. If the animal cruelty being filmed is that extreme, surely the camera crew, at least, have a duty to stop filming (= colluding in) such snuff, and to intervene on the animals’ behalf – that is, to set up a dialogue, instead of a stupid, and quite possibly racist dichotomy.

Many thanks.
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