"A River of Waste" is more successful than other environmental documentaries that have been shown in Shanghai (and reviewed in this column) because of its tight focus on a single issue.
Whereas many others are less feature documentaries than films that require a college course to understand — the overall environmental impact of industrial practices comes to mind — this one is concerned solely with factory farming in the United States.
Its tight focus has two limiting features, though: It may feel irrelevant to those with limited or no hope of effecting change, and it treats viewers to details that can be painful to watch.
Factory farming is what happens when that great industrial solution, the factory, is applied to food production. It results in efficiency, mass production, reliance on chemicals, and a seeming emphasis on quantity rather than quality of final products.
Through the film’s narration by director Don McCorkell, we learn how these practices were first implemented during the US industrial revolution, and how horrible conditions quickly developed before they were exposed by activist writers such as the legendary Upton Sinclair in books like “The Jungle” (1906) about the meat-packing industry.
We move quickly to modern times and here’s where it gets really ugly. There’s a famous saying that you don’t want to see how sausage is made, but you see it here.
Graphic footage shows animals abused on factory farms and unsanitary conditions of meat products. Squeamish viewers will turn away.
We soon turn to the slightly more abstract but equally urgent problem of environmental damage caused by factory farming. The effects of chemical runoff into the Pacific Ocean are shown and they are devastating.
Throughout, we move from one US location to another to see politicians and activists fighting the factory farming corporations, to no avail.
This might be of little interest to viewers at the Vienna Cafe, though the liberal in me will always feel it’s important to be concerned about injustice anywhere. Just make sure you’ve had your last sandwich bite before the film starts. Prepare to see chickens viciously debeaked and declawed.
“A River of Waste” doesn’t hold back. See it if you can stomach it — or precisely because you can’t