Mindful Metropolis — June 2010
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A Peaceable Invitation

Documentary producer James LaVeck discusses why he’s excited to share his film, “Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home,” what went into making it and inspiring moments he’s experienced at screenings.

Documentary producer James LaVeck comes to Chicago to meet Mindful Metropolis readers at a special MindfulLive! event featuring a screening of his new documentary, “Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home,” at the Irish American Heritage Center on Thursday, June 24th. Currently on the festival circuit, the film has won several awards including the Grand Jury Prize at the Canada International Film Festival, the Audience Award at the Environmental Film Festival at Yale and a Best Feature Documentary Award from Chicago’s own Peace on Earth Film Festival. We asked him to talk about why he’s excited to share his film, what went into making it and some inspiring moments he’s experienced at screenings.

When Mindful Metropolis publisher Richard McGinnis contacted me about the possibility of holding a screening of “Peaceable Kingdom: Th e Journey Home,” I was intrigued by the opportunity to share my work with a community of people who share many of the concerns and aspirations that define my life.

As individuals, and as a society, we are waking up to the fact that our way of being in the world is unsustainable. Along with growing worries about our own future comes the painful realization that the food and consumer goods we enjoy are often produced at a terrible cost to others. How did we get to this point, and can we find a happier, healthier way of life that doesn’t involve the exploitation of others? These questions are faced head on by the seven individuals featured in “Peaceable Kingdom: Th e Journey Home,” most of whom grew up on multi-generational farms. Th rough their remarkable experiences with the animals under their care, they each have come to challenge some of the basic assumptions of their inherited way of life.

My partner Jenny Stein and I devoted many years of our lives to making this film. Perhaps the best way to understand what inspired us is to consider the fact that some of the most credible, and enlightening, statements about peace have been made by those who have taken up arms and gone to war. When a combat veteran returns home and becomes an advocate for nonviolence, most of us understand that a remarkable transformation has occurred. Such an individual has had to find the moral courage to face overwhelming tragedies witnessed and participated in, and sometimes even more difficult, the courage to speak of these things in public. Such taboos are broken at a heavy personal cost, as the silence of those who have experienced the behind-the-scenes reality is a necessary requirement for maintaining the status quo.

When such silences are broken for reasons of conscience, the dialogue that follows, with all its challenges and troubling implications, has the potential to awaken our better selves.

As it turns out, just as the military has a kind of code of silence, so does animal farming. Growing up on a farm means entering a world in which connecting too closely with the animals under your care brings wrenching conflict when the time comes to send those same animals to market; it means learning to compartmentalize, to wall off certain feelings that would make it impossible to follow the dictates of economics and tradition.

Harold Brown, a fifth-generation beef farmer from Michigan, explains, “It was okay to feel bad about killing animals for food, my mom taught me that. But don’t let it show. You keep it inside. The last thing you ever want to be is weak. Weak farmers don’t survive.” Taking the disconnect to its logical extreme, fellow subject Howard Lyman used his ag school education to transform his family’s small-scale Montana ranch into a huge agribusiness empire. Struck by a paralyzing spinal tumor at the height of his success, he was forced to face the consequences of his choices.

He realized that by violently bending nature to his will through the use of toxic chemicals, and by controlling every aspect of the lives of thousands upon thousands of animals, he was destroying everything that made his life worth living. This epiphany inspired him to leave agribusiness behind and devote the next three decades of his life to sharing with others the hard lessons he had learned, advocating for a more compassionate and environmentally sustainable way of life. For all who’ve felt the pull of the American dream writ large, Howard’s story offers potent food for thought.

And for those who have followed the writings of Michael Pollen and seen films like “Food, Inc.,” which suggest that resolution of the ethical dilemmas posed by animal farming might be achieved by keeping the scale of farms small enough to maintain a real connection to individual animals, “Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home” offers the story of small-scale dairy farmers Cheri Ezell and Jim VanderSluis. Cheri and Jim named each of their animals, kept family groups together, and made every effort to provide the best quality of care. But the more they connected to the individual animals, the greater the inner conflict became when it was time to send them to their deaths. For Cheri and Jim, that conflict eventually became so excruciating they were compelled to close down their dairy operation.

Happily, a few years later they found a way to continue the part of the work they had always loved—caring for the animals—by starting a non-profit sanctuary for animals rescued from abuse, neglect, and slaughter.

Nearly every time I’ve presented this film to an audience, I’ve been approached afterwards by at least one person who grew up on a farm who quietly thanked me for making it. Many of them have shared the story of an individual animal with whom they developed such a strong connection that they experienced a lasting paradigm shift in their relationship to all animals.

And this brings me to one of the most rewarding aspects of screening this film, the opportunity to experience the reaction of audience members to rarely seen footage documenting the familial bonds and emotional lives of farm animals. As Jenny has stated, her goal as a director was to let the animals tell their own stories in a language we all understand, the universal language of behavior.

For example, the film depicts a dramatic rescue carried out by sanctuary founders Jason Tracy and Cayce Mell of dozens of animals locked for years in a dark, dirty basement.

When released in a beautiful green field, some of these animals leap with unmistakable joy. I can almost sense the hearts of many audience members leaping with them.

Similarly, when young lambs who were lost during the course of the rescue are reunited with their mothers after days of separation, the way the animals cry out and run toward one another expresses their deep and compelling need for familial connection. As filmmakers, Jenny and I treasure sharing such remarkable footage, because it makes the awakening of the farmers so understandable.

Many people who have seen “Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home” have commented that these sequences helped them see farm animals as individuals with personalities and a remarkable capacity to relate to others, and that this realization gives them a sense of discovery and joy. I experienced this many times myself in the making of the film.

I remember the time Cheri showed us how a mother hen would pick up choice morsels of corn and, instead of eating them herself, would give them to her baby chick. I had never in my life given a thought to the idea of a chicken being a parent, but there it was, happening before my eyes. I wondered then, as I do now, why so few of us are taught this basic truth, and how our way of life might change for the better if it were known by all.

So I hope you’ll consider joining me at the screening event, and that viewing the film will offer you the same gifts of new awareness and inspiration that making it has given me. The people and animals of “Peaceable Kingdom” have taught me that justice, compassion and sustainability are not final destinations, but worthy directions in which to move, step by step, on an ever-unfolding journey home.

For more info on the MindfuLive! Showing of Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home, visit mindfulmetropolis.com/peaceablekingdom.