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Woodend’s Summer Flick Picks: Animals, Appetites and Anthony Bourdain

Our culture editor on what to watch this season. Pass the soy snacks.

Dorothy Woodend 23 Jul

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

It’s time to return to the movie theatres again! Whether you want to go full VIP or art house extraordinaire, theatres have opened their doors once more. And for those folks who would rather stay home, there’s also some cool stuff to watch online.

The Vancity Theatre in Vancouver has chosen director Viktor Kossakovsky’s film Gunda to reopen in-person screenings on July 30. It’s a logical choice. Described as pure cinema, the film is a luminous portrait of life in a barnyard. If that doesn’t sound terribly thrilling, it actually is. The stakes are high, both from an emotional and cinematic perspective. Life and death, as it were.

The animals who make up the cast of characters are as indelible as any movie star and just as dramatic, whether it’s the titular sow and her brood of kooky piglets, or the herd of cows gambolling in verdant fields.

I’ve written about Gunda before, but it never hurts to remind folk that greatness often walks on four legs, and even hops about on one, as a single-limbed rooster in the film makes clear. More than anything, the film is a stunning reminder that animals have emotional lives every bit as complex as us humans, and movies have the power to reveal this truth.

In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, the director explained the connection between cinema and empathy. “When it comes to other animals, we need to share this planet with them in fair agreement. We must give them the space to be free, give them rights to be free and to live the lives they want to live. Humans are dominating everything and without reason. This is why I still believe in cinema....”

Watch the trailer for Gunda above.

Gunda has been embraced by the vegan community, but it isn’t a polemic by any stretch; it is too beautiful and too wondrous to be hemmed in by any single agenda. Rather, it’s a portrait of life itself, in all of its pain and joy, suffering and pleasure.

If you don’t want to eat our animal friends, there are many other options as the new documentary, Meat Me Halfway, shows. Director Brian Kateman acts as his own interlocutor as he goes down the rabbit hole of animal rights activism, veganism, ethical abattoirs and lab-grown meat. Kateman is a genial fellow, but he isn’t afraid to ask the tougher questions, such as: what does it really take to get people to eat less meat?

He sets out to get answers from different factions on both sides of the meaty debate, interviewing a curious selection of folks including environmentalist Bill McKibben and author Marion Nestle. Nestle, in particular, is an enjoyable presence, a bit grouchy but calling it like she sees it. McKibben, a frequent contributor in any film having to do with the environment, explains that food systems are one area where consumers can have direct impact. Nestle is somewhat more skeptical about changing people’s habits, calling out vegans for still wanting to eat artificial meat.

Kateman is a proponent of “reducetarianism,” a movement that calls not for the abolition of all meat and animal products, just eating less of them. But as with so many things around food, the emotional component often greatly outweighs rationality. As one interviewee notes, try telling someone they can’t have the cookies that their grandma used to bake and prepare for a full-scale meltdown.

Still, even a slight reduction in consuming animal products could have enormous implications, not only for the animals getting eaten but also for climate change, pollution and arguably karma, for lack of a better term.

Advocating for a middle path is not an easy journey, as everyone has a firmly held opinion, most especially the member of the Animal Save Movement. The group organizes vigils outside slaughterhouses, and they invite Kateman to join them as they witness truckloads of animals being delivered to their death. This harrowing scene might be hard to take for even the most die-hard carnivore. The filmmaker himself is overcome by the combination of pathos (pigs sticking their snouts from the back of packed trucks for a last sip of water) and business as usual (truck after truck arriving with animals for slaughter).

In search of more humane options, Kateman visits White Oaks Pastures Farm in rural Georgia. The farm is committed to raising animals organically and butchering them in the most ethical fashion possible. It’s not cheap, but if you’re going to eat meat, it’s better for both humans and animals.

Watch the trailer for Meat Me Halfway above.

Another possible path is meat substitutes, both plant based and lab-grown products. The idea of swapping out real bacon for a soy alternative doesn’t thrill a lot of folks, and as Marion Nestle points out, it’s easy to eat a perfectly adequate diet without any kind of meat products at all (fake or real).

Some of the most colourful characters in the film are Kateman’s own parents, who claim that they’ve never eaten an avocado in their lives. When presented with guacamole, they poke warily at it like it might bite them. Convincing his parents that eating less meat and more vegetables will offer not only health benefits but might help the planet as well proves a herculean task.

Ultimately, the film tries to do too many things, biting off more than it can really chew, but it’s an easy watch and hearing Kateman’s dad wax rhapsodic about learning to love broccoli is easily the most hopeful thing in the entire story.

At the opposite end of the vegetarian/vegan spectrum is Roadrunner, and the figure of the late, great omnivore and raconteur, Anthony Bourdain.

The devotion and deep affection that audiences and food lovers of every stripe and hue had for the famed chef Bourdain continues to ripple out, three years after his death. As a documentary portrait, Roadrunner is exhaustive, encompassing the length of Bourdain’s career.

But one aspect of the film has largely overshadowed everything else: director Morgan Neville’s decision to resurrect Bourdain’s voice through the use of AI. It started something of a firestorm about documentary ethics.

To be frank, the AI voiceover is really unnecessary and detracts from what is otherwise a nuanced investigation of a complex personality. Bourdain came to fame in the late 1990s when his book Kitchen Confidential shot to the top of the bestseller list. After years of toiling in high-end restaurants, the man had a lot to say, and he said it in a caustic, funny and personal fashion that immediately endeared him to readers everywhere.

The next step in his career arguably took him to a place that few other chefs, with the possible exception of towering figures like Julia Child, have enjoyed. The series of television programs that featured Bourdain eating, drinking and smart mouthing his way around the globe vaulted the man into stratospheric levels of fame. As the friends and family interviewed in the film explain, this notoriety took a toll.

Director Neville has an almost ridiculous abundance of footage to work with, outtakes and clips drawn from Bourdain’s shows including A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations and Parts Unknown. The film is crowded with the people who constituted his professional circle, including fellow chefs Dave Chang and Éric Frank Ripert, as well as camera people, producers, ex-wives and family members. Everyone has a Tony story, and they tell them well.

All of this is what one might expect in a competent and well-constructed documentary. Neville has made a number of films about famous people, including Mr. Rogers and Orson Welles, and he assembles a slick, easily digested narrative.

But the radioactive heart of the story is Bourdain’s decision to end his own life. As the film winds towards the inevitable conclusion, a downward, freefalling vertigo begins to happen. You know what’s coming, and it’s impossible to escape. Even in earlier and arguably happier days, Bourdain had a preoccupation with death, made clear by the number of times he talks about it on camera. This mordant bent is always leavened with a joke, an aside, a bit of sarcasm, except the near-constant return to the topic now seems grimly prescient.

The artist David Choe, a long-time friend of Bourdain, offers up one of the most insightful comments, stemming from Bourdain’s addiction to heroin when he was still working as a cook. Bourdain was one of the only people he knew who was able to quit the drug but, looking back, Choe says it’s more likely the addiction simply jumped to other things.

Instead of heroin, it was travel, work, drink, cigarettes, martial arts training or strong women. Bourdain indulged his appetites and interests without reservation. His second wife, Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, speaks frankly about her former husband and his ability to balance the demands of fatherhood and peripatetic lifestyle. Eventually maintaining both proved impossible. As she says in the film: “It always seemed like what he wanted was this idyllic picture of family and ordinary life, but then when he got it, I don’t know if he was... I don’t know. After a while maybe that wasn’t enough anymore.”

At the end of his life, in a relationship with actress Asia Argento, the nature of his addiction switched again, this time to a person. It’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for Argento, although people in Bourdain’s inner circle seem to view her as a catalyst for his later struggles. Argento is not interviewed in the film, although in a telling bit of footage featuring the couple together, she appears trapped and impatient with his neediness.

At the end, Bourdain’s friends and family are left to try and make sense of his final decision. There aren’t any good answers. Everyone who loved the man grapples with their grief and anger, trying to wrest some meaning from the void that suicide leaves behind, and only memories remain. It is beyond bittersweet.

If you are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, call the Crisis Services Canada hotline anytime at 1-833-456-4566.  [Tyee]

Read more: Food, Film

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