Theater of Cruelty

Animal welfare meets human welfare under Docville

Eating Animals / The Judge
Two of the films featured at this year's Belgian DocVille Festival remind us of the constant violations of laws and regulations, and the injustice that affects both animals and humans.


Two films shown during the Conscience program at the Belgian documentary film festival Docville this year were The Judge, on the first female judge of the Palestinian Sharia courts, and Eating Animals, which deals with the meat industry in the United States and the global impact of production. 

The Judge: On the edge of Sharia

The Judge (2018) tells the story of Palestinian Kholoud Al-Faqih. She is convinced that there are no provisions in Islam that prohibit women from becoming judges. Kholoud argues this above the one who is suing the highest judicial office, Sheikh Tayseer Al-Tamimi, graduating and being appointed as the first female judge in a Islamic court in the Islamic world.

The Sharia courts deal with family matters, especially divorces, and are meant to find quick and practical solutions that both parties can live with. The courts are anything but progressive in themselves; they rely on the Qur'an and the Sunnah – the deeds and continued traditions of the Prophet Muhammad – to determine what is just and right. However, Kholoud refuses to limit his assessments to ideas and worldviews from the 10th century, and works for women's interests in their generality: equality before the law, and women's involvement in the judiciary. 

Kholoud refuses to limit his assessments to ideas and worldviews from the 10th century.

The film alternates between her work and her private life, and where they intersect when she visits other women and attends meetings. She is also the daughter, wife and mother of four, and appears as a member of a large family. The family as the cornerstone of society is never challenged in the film. 

Two steps forward, one back

Although Kholoud lives in a system that is very foreign to secular, progressive women in the West, one can only admire her as she and her colleagues try to change the system from within – slowly, and sometimes against all odds. One of the counter-forces is Dr. Husam al-Deen Afanah, a professor of Sharia law. He orders a fatwa against Al-Tamimi because he believes it is wrong to appoint a female judge. The reason: There has never been a female judge in the history of Islam. The result is that Al-Tamimi is replaced by a more conservative chief justice, Yousef al-Dais, who is reorganizing the courts. He turns out to be temporarily corrupt, and in turn is replaced by yet another new chief judge, Dr Mahmoud Al-Habbash.

The film is mainly based on interviews and observations, laced with a little vox populi and text posters, and tells the long and slow story of change – two steps forward and one back. Still, Kholoud's strategy is probably more successful in the long run, because it allows opponents to slowly change their belief that change is fruitful and for the better. 

Eating Animals: Implications for Animal Welfare

Another area where changes are happening slowly (although there is a great need for them) is meat production and consumption patterns associated with meat. Based on the book of the same name by Safran Foer, investigate Eating Animals (2017) the implications for animal welfare, the environment and people. Mens Virpi Suutaris movie Entrepreneur (2018) discusses the consequences of industrially produced
meat substitute, trades Eating Animals on the consequences of clean meat – and to a lesser extent – consumption of dairy products based on how they are produced.

The main problem raised in the film is the concentrated feeding of animals: heavy farms with thousands of animals being fed to reach a certain size in a matter of weeks, and then transported to "processing facilities" – also known as slaughterhouses.

Antibiotics and the other drugs with which the animals are fed eventually end up in the flesh and water. 

The film opens powerfully by pointing out that animals neither remember their past nor imagine a future. It follows that in industrialized agriculture, the suffering of animals constitutes their total existence.

If we ignore Natalie Portman's narrative voice, the film is mostly centered around some middle-aged men who are the main characters in the film. It is Frank Reese, owner of The Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, Larry Baldwin, of the Waterkeeper Alliance, Bill Niman, farmer and owner of BN Ranches, Craig Watts, who runs contract-based agricultural production, and Jim Keen – veterinarian and professor of animal epidemiology – who has now become an activist. 

Financial interests at the expense of the consumer

Rhetorically, the film traditionally links small-scale agriculture to US history, democracy and family values. In this way, director Christoffer Quinn shows that he is aware of the sympathies of the more conservative part of the population.

Still, slow changes from the inside also suggest: Reese is starting an institute to preserve and teach traditional farming; Watts cancels its contracts and withdraws from the poultry industry.

The film brings nothing new: what today's meat production and consumption requires is no longer justifiable. Not just because of the way animals are treated – the whole industry is anything but transparent or health-giving to humans. Antibiotics and the other drugs that the animals are taking end up in the flesh and water, and animal droppings escape into the water supply systems. Tremendous interests are involved – economic and political – at the expense of the consumer and thus the general public. This makes changes difficult. 

But animal rights cannot be separated from human rights. Uninformed citizens are unable to make informed decisions, and uninformed decisions are not only wrong, they are also unethical.
Sanders is a critic, living in Rotterdam.

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