There’s a good joke about vegans — there are many good jokes about vegans — that goes: how do you know if someone’s a vegan? Answer: Don’t worry, they’ll tell you. Veganism has become more popular as both an ethical and lifestyle choice, with a 360% rise in the number of vegans in the UK over the last 10 years, and with it has come a whole new host of stereotypes. Gone is the vegan we knew in the ’90s, the anemic, cult-like character who lived mostly off alfalfa and wore homespun tan weaves.
The new vegan is a Hip Young Person, on the edges of counter-culture, with a nose piercing and a couple of stick n’ poke tattoos. They come in groups, swapping hummus recipes and fighting over who makes the best dahl. And yes: they tend to announce themselves. There is an air of undeniable self-satisfaction that accompanies the modern vegan, a Holier Than Thou mentality which has made jokes like the one above such an easy target that vegan Reddit groups create threads strategizing how to counter them.
Obviously, again, these are all stereotypes — but they have a glint of truth to them. And as an ex-vegan and friend of several vegans (“But my best friend is—”), it falls on me to say with a heavy heart that yes, as a group, we tend to be annoying. The tricky thing about such jokes and stereotypes is that they become an easy mask for the ethical, ideological side of the situation, where in a world of intensified factory farming, inhumane treatment of animals and workers, and an ongoing disconnect between our food and the way it’s produced, veganism is fast becoming one of only a handful of ethical eating options. We’re just often too busy making jokes about annoying vegans to notice it.
But two recent films — South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s acclaimed, not-quite-science fiction Okja and British comedian Simon Amstell’s BBC mockumentary Carnage — have at last successfully melded the two. Vegans are hilarious, both films acknowledge, rolling gleefully around as stereotypes of privileged, slightly soft teenagers easily moved to tears. It’s just that they’re also probably right.
For two films with remarkably similar tactics and themes, Okja and Carnage are about as different as you can get. Okja, with its massive critical buzz and equally loud debate over the role of Netflix in the film industry, builds traditional movie tropes around a sharp criticism of neoliberalism and the gross environmental impact of capitalism. It has a host of frequently comedic characters — Jake Gyllenhaal’s erratic TV zoologist, Tilda Swinton’s bizarre twins, and of course the annoyingly loveable Animal Liberation Front gang — and the beautiful, serious relationship at its center between Okja the superpig and Mija, the young girl who has raised her, ends on an ultimately hopeful note. But the overall tone of the film is undeniable pessimism.
Meanwhile, Carnage is a gleeful mockumentary exploring Britain in the year 2067, where everyone is not just vegan, but aghast at the idea that once the world might not have been. “My gran said that back then, the soil was just like – really dry, so you couldn’t, like, grow any vegetables,” one earnest, scarf-clad young man says at the beginning, before faltering. “Is that right?” There are occasional nods to a science-fiction-like future, with beaded devices on everyone’s temples and a game of holographic ping-pong, but for the most part Amstell is interested in exploring how a society could shift to complete veganism, while also being very, very funny.
In an interview discussing the film, Amstell said, “It just had to be funny, otherwise the whole thing would stink… because the problem with everything you ever hear [about veganism] is that it’s kind of preachy and annoying and there’s a superiority to it… [It had to be] funny enough that you didn’t mind when a new bit of information was presented. That you wouldn’t mind too much when we told you that male chicks get gassed or shredded.”
Carnage succeeds. Functioning first as a historical look back at the rise of veganism with a delightfully skewed approach (“When we think of 1944,” Amstell-as-narrator remarks cheerfully near the beginning of the film, “we tend to think of the establishment of the world’s first vegan society”), it veers into an imagined future of vegan activist heroes, while also dealing with a group of traumatized older people trying to come to terms with the fact that they once ate meat. In one scene they stand around solemnly pronouncing the names of cheeses they have eaten. “Camembert,” a gentle old man says, staring at the floor. “Parmesan,” another says, his voice a husky rasp. One woman breaks down into sobs. It’s all very, very funny.
In between the laughs, though, Amstell does present his viewers with those “new bits of information”, and there’s an uneasy undercurrent to the film’s humor. These people are ridiculous, it’s clear, and Amstell wants us to find them ridiculous. But the shots of factory farming and slaughterhouses are real, and it’s only when Amstell’s narrator talks about the meat processing industry with disbelief that it occurs to us, the viewers, to disbelieve it. Slowly, incredulity dawns as you watch Carnage; not at the idea of a future all-vegan Britain, but at how blithely and unquestioningly we accept the presence of meat, and the way in which it’s produced, in our lives today.
Both contrasting and complementing Amstell’s dreamy future generation, in Okja the vegan heroes are the Animal Liberation Front. Led by a charismatic Paul Dano, the ALF help Mija in her fight to reclaim Okja the super pig and keep her from becoming part of Tilda Swinton’s company’s mass production and sale of cheap, easily produced meat. The ALF are a perfectly portrayed group of weirdos, with all the in-fighting, dramatic announcements, and strange tactics that one would expect from a group of somewhat superior young people sworn to hold all creatures dear to their heart.
In a series of fantastic action scenes, the ALF fight off Swinton’s team with childish but oddly effective non-violent actions: opening umbrellas to keep tranquilizer darts from hitting, upending bags of marbles for security thugs to trip over. When Mija coaxes Okja into releasing a stream of super excrement to take down one bad guy, Paul Dano’s character says admiringly, “It’s beautiful. And eco-friendly, you know?” Later in the film, struggling against heavily armed and violent opponents, one ALF member shouts, “Stop! Less violence!” to which Dano retorts, frustrated with his team member’s failing rhetoric even in the middle of a fight, “No! No violence!”
Okja’s ALF group are more dangerous than Amstell’s vegans; they are not (yet) in the period of history when veganism is assumed. They are much more radical, which gives their comedy a sharper edge. One fey-looking member, Silver, is constantly on the verge of collapsing. “He’s still trying to leave the smallest footprint on the planet that he can,” his boyfriend explains, trying to coax Silver into eating a tomato; Dano responds heavily, “I admire your conviction, Silver, but your pallid complexion concerns me.” Later, upon finding out that another ALF member has deliberately mistranslated Mija, Dano’s character explodes into a rage both comical and frightening: “I hold you dear to my heart, but you have dishonored the 40-year history and meaningful legacy of the Animal Liberation Front… Never mistranslate. Translation is sacred.” The character shows up again at the end of the film, now solemnly bearing a tattoo testifying to the fact.
Like Carnage, Okja relies on a heavy-handed slaughterhouse scene towards the end of the film, as graphic as a horror film and just as powerful after a movie spent identifying with a giant animal friend. But it also employs more subtle methodology. The vegans in Okja may be ridiculous, but so too are Tilda Swinton’s managerial twins and ridiculous sell out TV scientist. “You’re a fucking psychopath,” the ALF tell her at the end of the film. “You should be ashamed of yourself!” — hackneyed sentiments that fit all too well with our stereotypes of vegans as mawkish and clichéd. But Swinton’s retort is just as ludicrous and over-the-top: “Fuck off! We’re extremely proud of our achievements! We’re very hardworking business people!”
The quiet message is that Swinton’s team of meat-eating, arm-breaking, animal-mistreating capitalists are just as ridiculous as the ALF, and that hackneyed sentiment might be embarrassing, but it is rarely cruel. It’s this idea that lies at the center of both Carnage and Okja. It’s okay to laugh at something, and indeed we should laugh at people who take themselves too seriously, who are preachy and self-important and conceited, but it’s not okay to ignore truth just because it takes an occasionally embarrassing form.
“But the vegans were still ridiculous,” Amstell’s narrator says, voice grave, “and rarely allowed on television.” Okja and Carnage interrogate this ridiculousness in a way that is both highly entertaining to watch, and highly difficult to ignore. By showing vegans onscreen in all their ridiculousness, they open their films up to a vegan message that is no longer possible to ignore.
Alongside these releases, check out our list of the 50 best films arriving in 2017.
- Words: Mikaella Clements