“In the pit of my stomach, I’ve come to realize, the moment of betrayal is far worse for the humanely raised individual than those raised on a factory farm”

By on October 6, 2015

Six-time Emmy winner Allison Argo has made animal- and nature-themed films (including Parrot Confidential) for more than 20 years, for PBS, National Geographic, and other broadcast outlets. Her work has won more than 100 awards internationally, and exposed worldwide audiences to the plight of endangered and abused animals from exploited apes to displaced elephants.

In the upcoming documentary The Last Pig, Allison joins cinematographer and producer Joseph Brunette, whose credits include CNN, National Geographic, PBS, Discovery, and the History Channel. Together, they follow farmer Bob Comis’ last year of raising pigs for slaughter. The film is currently crowdfunding on IndieGoGo.

I first heard of Bob Comis in February 2014 through a story in Modern Farmer, “I Raise Livestock and I Think It May Be Wrong.” Here is BV (Before Vegan) Bob talking:

In a way, livestock farmers lie to their animals. We’re kind to them and take good care of them for months, even years. They grow comfortable with our presence, and even begin to like us. But in the end, we take advantage of the animals, using their trust to dupe them into being led to their own deaths.

For more than ten years, Bob was kind to his pigs, took good care of them, and might possibly have been liked by them. Still, he was haunted by the ghosts of his past: the ghosts of 2000 pigs. This is not a man who takes subjects like life, death, and the gray areas in between lightly.

Today, the pig farmer is an ethical vegan, but how he got there, and what it meant for the pigs he still had on the farm, forms the basis of The Last Pig. The documentary promises an entirely new view of small-scale livestock farming, which is so often glorified as the answer to factory farms, and will raise crucial questions about the ethics of eating in the mainstream.

We spoke with Allison about The Last Pig, her connection to the material, and the making of the film.

Why The Last Pig? Why Bob Comis?

I read Bob’s piece “Happy Pigs Make Happy Meat?” on Huffington Post and was absolutely knocked out. I read a few more of his pieces and was so moved I could hardly breathe. I got up the nerve to send Bob an email and we set up a phone call. We talked for an incredible hour. I asked if he’d allow my cinematographer friend, Joe Brunette, and me to drive the five hours to meet him—no obligation. He said yes. Here we are, 18 months later, with the film nearly in the can.

I’ve always wanted to make a film about the ethics of farming and eating animals, but I hadn’t found an approach or story that felt new and intimate. When I read Bob Comis’ prose—and learned that he was starting a transition from pigs to vegetable farming—I knew this was the story I’d been looking for! I feel incredibly blessed that Bob has entrusted his personal story to us, and that my colleague Joe Brunette was willing to partner up with me in making The Last Pig.

Did you eat pigs, or any other animals, before starting this film?

When I started this film, I hadn’t eaten pigs for more than 40 years, but I did eat a few bites of fish every few months, and I was a cappuccino junkie.

While we were shooting The Last Pig, I became aware of just how inhumane the dairy industry is. And then one day, while we were waiting for the sun to come out, Bob told me about the egg industry. I’d been buying cage-free eggs for years, but I had no idea that male chicks are killed—and that cage-free doesn’t necessarily mean the hens are in humane conditions. That was it! I immediately cut eggs out of my diet, and I’ve learned to love cashew milk.

When people ask me why I’ve become a vegan, I answer, “because I know too much.” I can’t make the films I make and cause animals to suffer. That would be utterly hypocritical.

What do you hope to achieve with The Last Pig? What do you want audiences to feel?

My hope is that each viewer will join Bob Comis on his journey, basking in the camaraderie of the pigs and the beauty of the farm as the seasons change, experiencing Bob’s battle of conscience as he takes his friends to slaughter, his struggles for truth, and the strength he finally conjures up to change his life. I hope that people will be inspired to find their own truth, face their own contradictions, and find the courage to change.

AAJB-705x397I hope that The Last Pig will open eyes and hearts—not just to the wonderfulness of pigs, but to the wonder of all life. My greatest hope is that The Last Pig will bring us closer to a compassionate society, where every individual has the right to live, whether two legged, four legged, finned or winged.

How do we convince more people to care about animals – including pigs – in the food system?

It’s really critical that we reach children so that they can make choices, rather than adapting to our nonsensical and unsustainable societal mores. It’s often the children who change their parents.

Also, we must approach it from as many fronts as possible. The Last Pig is a new and unique voice that might reach a different audience than other films, books or magazine articles. Every voice is another twig on the fire.

What challenges and obstacles have there been in making The Last Pig?

Lack of funding has been a biggie. We haven’t had the luxury of hiring a sound recordist, second camera, jib or drone operator. This has put a lot more weight onto Joe’s and my shoulders (literally). It’s pretty much been the two of us on all eight shoots, carrying the gear, setting up the jib, transferring the footage, coordinating with Bob and the pigs.

During the summer, when the days last from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., we were only able to grab a few hours of sleep each night. That, on top of the summer heat and arduous physical work, made for some exhausting weeks. But being on the farm and working around the pigs was magical. It is a good kind of tired when your head finally hits the pillow.

Another kind of challenge was Bob’s mental health. He suffers from severe depression and warned us before we started filming that he might not be able to get out of bed some days. He got through the shoots brilliantly, but there was always that shadow looming in the background. We recently scheduled some pick-ups, and he had to call the shoot off at the last moment due to a particularly bad bout of depression. He’s a remarkable person and speaks very openly about his issues with mental health.

Taking the pigs to the slaughterhouse was the greatest challenge for me emotionally. I still feel I betrayed the pigs whom I’d come to know. I feel sick when I think of it. In the pit of my stomach, I’ve come to realize, the moment of betrayal is far worse for the humanely raised individual than those raised on a factory farm. Neither is acceptable.

What equipment did you use to shoot the film? In an era of digital filmmaking, how important are strong visuals?

Joe shot with the Canon C300. It’s a great camera, very versatile—and Joe is masterful with it. His footage is stunning. I wish we’d been able to shoot 4K, but that was beyond our reach financially. Movies are stories conveyed through images, so visuals have always been paramount—even before the era of digital filmmaking, perhaps even more so now. I became a filmmaker when we were still shooting on 16mm, and I’ve always cared deeply about the quality of the imagery. There’s magic in beautiful images.

Many documentaries today use experts and “talking heads” to deliver varying perspectives. Did you choose a different style intentionally, or was it simply unnecessary to bring other voices into the film?

I was really excited to find a film where talking heads are unnecessary. I wanted to make a film on the subject of animal farming, but I wanted to make a very intimate, personal film—as opposed to one that features an array of experts. I felt that this genre might attract a new and different audience—and might be a film that would resonate with children.

The Last Pig is Bob’s personal story, so it makes sense for him to tell it himself. The fact that Bob is so eloquent is another reason for his to be the sole voice in the film. He is truly a poet and philosopher.

How is making a feature documentary different than your previous work for National Geographic and PBS?

The bad news is: funding is tight. The good news is: we have complete and total freedom!! I’ve loved working with PBS and Nat Geo, but at the end of the day, my films had to conform to their programming needs. The Last Pig can evolve organically into the most compelling, eloquent film possible, without having to hit any marks or fit into a mold. It’s exhilarating to have this much creative freedom.

What are your plans for bringing The Last Pig to the public?

Through our IndieGoGo campaign, we plan to raise funds to carry us through the edit. Once a fine cut is complete in Spring 2016, we will begin to reach out to film festivals and broadcasters like PBS. At the same time, we’ll continue to shape our grassroots campaign to get the film into schools and communities. We plan to create a shorter, more child-friendly version of the film along with a teacher’s guide. Green Planet Films, a nonprofit distributor of nature and environmental documentaries, is partnering with us to get The Last Pig to schools, universities and libraries. We also plan to translate the film into as many languages as our budget will allow, in order to send the film out internationally.

In addition, the film will be available through our website; we’ll be offering DVDs, digital downloads, and community screening kits.

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