Cinema for social change is a proven force. Animal advocates should be taking advantage of film to enhance the message.
“Coffee Wars,” a new movie starring singer, actor, and vegan activist Kate Nash hit streaming services last month, to the delight of certain plant-based corners of the internet.
The story follows a down-on-her-luck vegan café owner (Nash) as she enters a global barista competition — despite the competition’s rules strictly requiring the use of dairy milk. The fiery protagonist and her team of colleagues approach their mission as a “revolution,” an upheaval necessary to protect the planet and end animal exploitation. The vegan ethos goes beyond the script. Only non-dairy milk was used on set, and wardrobe, makeup, and hair styling products were chosen ethically as well, with sustainability as a priority. Perhaps most significantly, the filmmakers have pledged to donate all profits from the film to related charities.
It’s little wonder that animal activists have been excited for the movie’s release. The landscape of films made with social change in mind has grown to include more and more stories with themes relating to climate change (i.e, “Don’t Look Up,” “mother!,” and the “Jurassic World Dominion”). Still, almost none of them deal directly with factory farming and the way our food systems exploit animals. It’s exciting to see a movie written and produced with those issues at the forefront, and the filmmakers’ efforts are certainly commendable. However, that “Coffee Wars” unfortunately falls into the use of unflattering vegan stereotypes and fails to engage more deeply with the subject matter at hand.
Cinema for social change is a proven force. For example, throughout the late 90s and early 00s, films and TV shows like “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Ellen” introduced queer identities to audiences with humanizing, touching, and often hilarious narratives and performances. One study that analyzed attitudes around homosexuality found that “For those viewers with the fewest direct gay contacts, exposure to Will & Grace appears to have the strongest potential influence on reducing sexual prejudice.” As Katharine Gammon writes in The Atlantic, “Screenwriters have reason to believe that even passing mentions… can transform public attitudes. Americans watch an average of three hours of television every day, meaning that they spend almost a fifth of their waking lives in the worlds it creates. History shows that issues raised on television can lead to real-world change…” Indeed, narrative works (like movies, TV, and even other media like books and video games), have done a lot to educate and inspire empathy for marginalized people in a way that facts and figures alone have not.
Animal rights activists could use narrative media in similar ways, to expose viewers to real societal problems through approachable stories that appeal to not just their intellect, but to their emotions and senses of humor, too. Before, “Coffee Wars,” Bong Joon-ho’s 2017 film “Okja” for Netflix was the best (and possibly the only) example of a contemporary film that addresses animal exploitation under capitalism. But of course, one movie does not a revolution make. It’s encouraging that more filmmakers are adding to the conversation with new works like “Coffee Wars.” Factory farming is a high-stakes issue. As Nash’s character informs a customer, the cows are “milked and milked and milked until their bones are so brittle they can’t even stand.” As such, the industry deserves to be explored on the biggest of screens.
The best change-inspiring cinematic works all have a few things in common: they’re compelling and clever, they go beyond headlines, and they delve deep into worlds that the average person would otherwise never see. Sadly, this is where “Coffee Wars” falls short. While the script does manage to squeeze in some informative tidbits like the above, it offers little that people don’t already know. Protagonist Jo and her team, despite strong performances from the actors, largely reflect unflattering stereotypes of vegans: angry, combative, irrational, and single-minded. One early scene in the film depicts Jo screaming at the customer for requesting dairy milk in her coffee.
Flashbacks show that the origin of Jo’s convictions is her upbringing on a pastoral dairy farm in the English countryside. Portraying such a farm was a strange choice from the writers, as it’s misleadingly pleasant and nothing like the reality of the industrial farms that produce the vast majority of our food supply. If you’re not someone who already sees yourself in Jo, you’re likely to interpret her as the classic caricature of a vegan — unreasonable, grating, self-righteous, and disproportionate in their response to the world around them. Since the film depicts a nearly idyllic representation of dairy farming, viewers aren’t given a compelling reason to side with Jo if they didn’t already share her perspective. The movie focuses more on the social status of vegans and plant-based milks, rather than the actual issues. It’s a movie by and for vegans, but sadly not one that’s likely to challenge non-vegans’ views of industrial animal agriculture.
Hopefully, the areas where “Coffee Wars” falls short will be taken as opportunities for filmmakers to make a greater impact going forward. There’s so much room for stories that depict the ugly realities of factory farming, or those that inspire a deeper appreciation for the planet and the other animals with which we share it. There’s a vacancy for stories about undocumented people working dangerous, exploitative jobs on factory farms; about communities gravely affected by agricultural runoff; about people making breakthroughs in the fields of plant-based and cell-cultured meat or running animal sanctuaries. A movie could inspire social change without focusing on veganism at all — after all, industrial animal agriculture is an issue that affects the entire world. You don’t need to be a green-haired barista to care about it.
Storytelling is a powerful tool to inspire empathy, education, passion, and change. Hopefully, the future of film will bring us stories that inform audiences about real-life issues, earn an emotional response, and inspire us to imagine a future starkly different from our present. “Coffee Wars” is setting a stunning example by donating its profits and making material choices to pursue sustainability in a field that’s often incredibly wasteful. I would love to see that dedication behind all sorts of stories and storytelling techniques. Hollywood, this is your cue.
Original source: https://www.forbes.com