In this Behind The Camera interview by Trinity Casimir, THE LAST PIG Director Allison Argo discusses her thoughtful portrayal of the lives of farm animals, and invites viewers to reconsider our impact on the environment, and the food we eat.
At its core, what is The Last Pig about?
At its core, The Last Pig is about consciousness, conscience, and courage. The farmer’s story represents the story within us all: the cognitive dissonance and moral disconnect most of us grapple with in one form or another. After ten years raising pigs for food, the farmer can no longer bear the disparity between his beliefs and his actions. Over the course of a year, he struggles to reinvent his life in order to find peace with his convictions.
Here is a synopsis:
This award-winning documentary chronicles the life of a farmer in crisis: after a decade of raising pigs, he can no longer bear the ultimate act of betrayal. Set against the stunning backdrop of Upstate New York, THE LAST PIG documents his final year on the farm. Deeply immersive, the film is a poetic snapshot, a contemplation on compassion, ethics, and the changing landscape of animal agriculture. In intimate detail, it captures the farmer’s personal upheaval as he questions his own morality and the value of life. Through the story’s simple intimacy, the farmer’s moral quandary quietly becomes our own.
Who do you feel would benefit from watching The Last Pig?
The Last Pig is a universal tale that really transcends culture, age and geography. The story quietly stirs the viewer to explore their own convictions and examine how closely their actions align with their beliefs. The film doesn’t judge or moralize. The film simply captures one man’s pivotal year and the universally challenging questions he asks himself.
What inspired you to advocate for animal rights?
I was first inspired to speak out for nonhuman beings 30 years ago when I began to learn about the plight of gorillas. I was concerned about the species’ survival in the wild – but as I became more aware of gorillas in captivity, I realized that individuals were suffering right in our midst. When I met a full grown gorilla named Ivan living in a low-end shopping mall in Washington State, I knew that I had to speak out. Ivan was the catalyst that moved me to make documentary films. The plight of gorillas was what first awakened me to that of other species – and the wider I opened my eyes, the more injustice I witnessed.
Why did you choose film as a medium for your advocacy?
Film is an extraordinarily effective tool in reaching people – especially in today’s digital world. Films are a vehicle to convey information and inspire change. They have the power to move and unite people behind important causes. My first film was a case in point. The Urban Gorilla fueled an international outcry against the conditions Ivan had been subjected to for nearly 3 decades. The store was picketed and quickly went bankrupt. Within a year after National Geographic premiered the film, donations made to our “Gorilla Relocation Fund” allowed Ivan to move from the shopping mall and join other gorillas at Zoo Atlanta. Once I witnessed the impact of that documentary, I understood the power of film and knew that making films is what I would do for the rest of my life.
How is The Last Pig different from other films involving animals you have directed?
In the years I’d been making films about nonhumans, I’d never made a film about those used in farming. I’ve always known that individuals raised for food are the most abused animals on earth, but it wasn’t until I learned about the pig farmer, Bob Comis, that I felt I’d found a story that would engender respect and inspire change. I think Bob’s story fills a niche that’s been missing in the debate about animal agriculture. The film is extremely intimate and universally watchable. It contains few graphic images, but it doesn’t shy away from the issues that need to be addressed.
How does creating a film that centers around animals, or subjects that don’t speak, impact the filmmaking process?
For the films I make, I almost always have to learn a new language – or at least attempt to. While nonhumans don’t share human language, they certainly do communicate. It’s my job as storyteller to help viewers understand these other beings – to transcend language and convey their stories. It’s a wonderful challenge – actually my favorite part of making films.
I always try to enter their lives with sensitivity and respect - to meet them on their own terms. Whether they’re in the wild or in a cage, that is their home and we are merely visitors. If I sense that we’re causing any kind of distress, we immediately back off. If that means not getting the story, so be it.
How do you create a narrative or communicate a message nonverbally?
Each film, every story, and every being is unique. By treating characters like Ivan the gorilla as individuals and by accentuating their individuality and sharing details of their personal stories, I think the species divide melts away. Very quickly their struggle becomes one we can identify with – and of course, then we care.
Why was it so important to include so much footage of just the pigs?
Without experiencing the pigs as Bob has for the past 10 years, I don’t think it would be possible to understand Bob’s story and his struggles. The pigs were key to Bob’s evolution. It was the pigs who taught him and inspired him to find his core being. Letting the camera linger with the pigs and filming them at their eye level was critical to the essence of the story.
How did you connect with Bob Comis?
Bob had written a handful of essays which were posted online. A friend shared a link to an essay titled: “Happy Pigs Make Happy Meat?”. I was incredibly moved and finally mustered the courage to contact Bob. We talked on the phone for an hour, and I asked if he’d consider allowing me to document his story. Despite strong reservations, he agreed to let me visit his farm in upstate NY. If he felt comfortable with me and cinematographer Joe Brunette, he’d consider letting us film. For Bob to allow us to tell his story was a huge leap of faith – and it’s a tremendous honor to share his story with the world.
Did you consider interviewing anyone else or including other voices in the film?
Bob is an extremely solitary person, and I felt that this was part of his story. He designed the farm so that he could work it alone. He’s married, but his wife leaves for work early each morning and returns after dark. Bob’s isolation from other humans really underlined that fact that his only companions were the pigs (and his beloved dog). Focusing solely on Bob also helped to distill his story to the most core elements. I guess it was an artistic choice, just as it was to exclude on-camera interviews. Bob’s voice shares his personal reflections. I think it provides an intimacy, as if he’s sharing his subconscious thoughts.
How does Bob Comis’ story fit into the larger conversation around environmentalism?
I really struggled with whether to include direct information about the environmental impact of animal agriculture. This information is so critical and yet it would not have been an authentic or cohesive part of the film. In the end, we chose to exclude narration and text. This is in large part why I feel it’s so important to have an educational component for The Last Pig. In the curricula we’ve included a great deal about the environmental impact of our everyday choices.
Interestingly, though the film doesn’t overtly tackle environmental issues, it has won top awards at numerous environmental film festivals. I think people are able to connect the dots between farming animals and environmental degradation – without the film directly spelling it out.
What often gets lost in discussions of animal advocacy that you hope the film emphasizes?
So many discussions are charged with conflict and divisiveness. How one sees oneself in the greater context of the planet is very individual – but none of us is static. We’re on a continuum, evolving as we learn and grow, and as the landscape changes around us. Being patient with ourselves and others as we evolve is important. The farmer in the film is not a perfect human – but he admits to his flaws and works to improve. I find that to be very powerful.
Will we continue to push species to extinction – or will we protect their right to exist? Will we subject individuals to miserable lives for our amusement (e.g., Ivan) or will we find less harmful ways to amuse ourselves? And do we really need to subject millions of animals to the misery of factory farming and/or early death while simultaneously harming the environment?
In our society, there’s an almost universal agreement that it’s unacceptable to mistreat dogs, cats and a few other species. But beyond those chosen few, there are so many others suffering in our midst. There’s a great deal of room for improving our level of awareness and compassion, and I feel that every conversation, every film, every book and article helps.
What does sustainability look like?
I believe that achieving sustainability will require a great deal of personal accountability and concern for things beyond our own individual needs. We will need to consider the greater good. This is why I believe films inspiring people to consider their personal values are so important right now.
What does sustainable animal agriculture look like? Is there such a thing?
Based on well-documented statistics and highly respected reports, we know that animal agriculture is unsustainable. Its destructive environmental impact is beyond dispute. Animal agriculture is also a grossly inefficient way to feed our swelling species. We have so much knowledge and so many resources to help change our patterns of food production and consumption. We’re at a very exciting turning point!
What ethical obligations do we have toward our environment? Is environmentalism purely a matter of being practical about our resources?
In an ideal world, we should be able to look at the science and the solutions – and then take the actions necessary. But our world has become so contentious and divided that even pragmatic solutions to very real issues are often perceived as an affront or attack. I’m worried about our future when there is such a degree of divisiveness – even over sound scientific evidence. I have faith that the next generation will rise above the current divide and take positive action – and I hope that others will follow!
How do you hope educators will use the film?
I hope that educators will use The Last Pig videos and curricula to inspire deep thought and dialogue with students. The story offers a great opportunity to examine individual beliefs, personal choices, and how those intersect – as well as the impact our choices have on the environment and those who share it. The screenings we’ve had with students thus far have been profound and energizing.
What can we take away from The Last Pig?
I’d be ecstatic if the film helps people cultivate a sense of personal accountability.
Anything else you want to share that I haven’t asked you?
The filming process was an interesting one. I wanted to follow Bob through his entire transition, which meant that our shooting spanned almost a year. Cinematographer Joe Brunette and I shot for nine months, one week each month, through all four seasons. During that time, we became intimately familiar with Bob, the pigs, and the farm. Because the film had no budget, in the field it was just Joe, myself, Bob and the pigs (and Monk, the dog). I believe that our skeletal crew gave us an intimacy which is reflected in the film.
Trinity Casimir is a rising sophomore at NYU studying Anthropology and Public Health. Her passion for documentary film stems from an interest in ethnography and the use of storytelling and film to advocate for, and empower, diverse communities.