'What's For Dinner': A Documentary Film Review

A review by Jim Harkness, former president and current senior advisor on China, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. 

Congratulations to filmmaker Jian Yi and his partners at Brighter Green for their short documentary entitled “What’s For Dinner?

Pork production in China is growing fast, and shifting from households feeding their leftovers to a few animals to US-style industrial operations with thousands of pigs raised on a diet of commercial feed and drugs. In recent years, researchers and activists in and out of China have described an analyzed this trend on paper, but “What’s for Dinner?” shows us the process firsthand.

The film begins in a market, where we look over the shoulder of Zhou Shuzhen, a shopper who happens to also be a retired farmer. “If you want to buy pork,” she advises, “you should always buy the shoulder. Don’t buy the hindquarter. The hindquarter is where they put the injection when the pig is sick, so it often contains drugs. The meat behind the ear is no good either: don’t buy that.”

Other characters we meet along the way include a farmer (who is indeed injecting his animals with antibiotics!); an entrepreneur who gives us a tour of a facility he is building to house and fatten 3,000 pigs; and the angry neighbors of a factory farm that has polluted water they used to use for fishing and washing.

Along the way, the filmmaker and various experts provide the larger context of the small stories depicted in the film. We hear from a Chinese staffer for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and even a government spokesperson who worries aloud that “the amount of grain we use to feed animals is greater than what we use to feed people.”

But despite its sobering topic, this is not a shock film – we see a slaughterhouse, but not the actual slaughter. And director Jian Yi is careful to include the voices and stories of people working for a different type of dinner menu. After the pigs’ short trip from trough to plate, we meet environmental activists and the Buddhist proprietor of a vegan restaurant. An artist explains how easy it is to be a vegetarian in a country with such a vast variety of inexpensive fresh vegetables. (“Eating meat is more a desire of the mind than a desire of the body.”)

Filmed in just two and a half weeks, “What’s For Dinner” is a collaboration between Jian Yi and Brighter Green, a New York-based non-profit focused on explaining the many costs of industrial animal agriculture. I asked Brighter Green founder Mia MacDonald about the evolution of the film:

The film emerged from the research we did on China and the growth of factory farming. After we'd done that and distributed it, etc., we began to think about what these big trends would look like in the lives of people and animals in China and how documentary could help make the data and analysis we'd done more accessible to audiences in the U.S., Europe and China. A film producer I got to know in New York who works in China introduced me and the US-based producer, Susannah Ludwig, to Jian Yi. He didn't know much about these issues, but was willing to read the Brighter Green materials, decided he did see the value in a film on this topic, and we all worked together to develop the story lines you see in What's For Dinner? Jian Yi led an all-Chinese crew. No one from Brighter Green was there for the shoot: we conducted our discussions via skype and email. They shot for about 2.5 weeks overall.

Q: Were there any political sensitivities filming in China?

It didn't seem like this was a problem. We all wanted to be very transparent so everyone in the film was informed about the project, where the film would be seen, and signed a release form. Jian Yi's perspective was that at that time meat and farming didn't rise to the level of something the government would have concerns about people in China talking about. It may also be that since no Westerners were on the set, the interviews didn't draw much if any scrutiny from local officials. However, in the scenes in Guangdong of the village with water pollution, several people declined to be interviewed since they said they'd spoken out before and had trouble from the government. But obviously the older man with the large belly didn't have this fear!

Q: How has the film been distributed and received in China?

There's been a whole series of screenings over the past several months, which you and I had communicated about. Brighter Green associate Wanqing Zhou organized and attended just about all of the screenings and has written some things about the feedback which, as you can imagine, was varied -- but by and large very positive.

MacDonald also shared two great links, to an interview with filmmaker Jian Yi and a report on the film screenings in China from Wanqing Zhou.

But in the end, she said, it’s not about educating the Chinese:

Since it's US style systems of food production that are being globalized, including in China, we think it's important that people in the US know this, get to care about the consequences not only for a country like China but the world, and get engaged in efforts to share information about and ideas for countering this 'wave' of industrial animal ag in China. Also, of course, China is central to just about every major issue in the world today. Why should they care? Because change is happening extremely quickly and as one Chinese colleague said to me recently, 'as China goes, so goes the world.'

Brighter Green is working with Icarus Films to get the film distributed in the US at film festivals, community screenings and in classrooms.