Residents of eastern North Carolina are facing mistreatment. This is the blunt, yet accurate description of the serious and ongoing injustice depicted in The Smell of Money, a maddening documentary by Shawn Bannon that exposes the damage caused by factory farming to people, animals, and the planet.
The movie documents the on-camera depiction of the harmful hog waste generated by confined animal feeding operations in North Carolina. This waste is then sprayed onto fields close to residential areas, emitting a putrid and harmful odor that has significant health consequences. Despite facing opposition and harassment from authorities, long-time residents such as Elsie Herring and Rene Miller (who were featured in a Guardian investigation on the same topic) persistently stand up for their rights and resist these practices. This is especially courageous in a state where many citizens are employed in the same industry.
The primary offender in the movie is Smithfield Foods, the company responsible for producing Nathan’s Famous hotdogs and Healthy Ones cold cuts. Their slogan promotes “Quality food. Responsible practices.” However, in The Smell of Money, it is revealed that Smithfield Foods is a major contributor to the overcrowding of 10 million hogs in feeding farms in North Carolina. This results in the production of over 10 billion gallons of waste, which is then deposited into lagoons that emit greenhouse gases and cause significant environmental damage when they overflow during natural disasters like floods or hurricanes.
Bannon expresses shock and disbelief at the situation where predominantly Black individuals, whose forefathers have inhabited the same land since the era of slavery, are gradually being harmed by pig waste, while the majority of the United States turns a blind eye to the issue.
Travon Free, executive producer, expresses that this issue is easily solvable if individuals simply pay attention during a Zoom meeting with Bannon. He finds it frustrating to watch the film for the first time because the solution is not complicated.
We are currently discussing the prolonged existence and growth of this issue, which has been causing harm to both people and the environment for many years. Free mentions the commonly used boiling frog myth, which is often used to illustrate our lack of action on issues such as civil rights and the climate emergency. The saying goes that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will immediately jump out. However, if it is placed in lukewarm water and the temperature is gradually increased, it will allow itself to be boiled to death. While this analogy may not be scientifically accurate, it still highlights the lack of response from the public and politicians when it comes to destructive factory farming practices and other important issues.
He explains that the issue is not constantly in your awareness or being heavily publicized, making it easy to overlook. Environmental injustice is a widespread problem for black individuals in the United States, but unfortunately, it only receives attention from those who are affected by it. This is similar to the larger issue of climate change, as people often prioritize their own immediate struggles.
Bannon and Free, both located in Los Angeles, are currently participating in a call from their respective homes. Bannon, who has previously worked on documentaries about factory farming and has also created experimental short films, is now making his directorial debut with The Smell of Money. He has also been involved in behind-the-scenes projects for David Lowery’s films A Ghost Story and The Green Knight. Free, a writer and comedian with experience on The Daily Show, recently won an Oscar for his short film Two Distant Strangers. He was encouraged to watch Bannon’s film by activist DeRay McKesson and is now helping promote it.
I am struck by the striking differences between the two collaborators and their surroundings. Bannon, originally from Ohio, has a collection of movies behind him, along with a sea-foam green Rivendell bike that complements the modern lounge chair and a wall-mounted expressionist painting that he created. Free, a native of Compton, is wearing a baseball cap with the phrase “Art is dangerous” and is seated in front of a stacked bookshelf. The bookshelf is surrounded by hundreds of Nike sneakers (mostly Jordans) displayed in clear plastic shelving.
Bannon and Free appear worlds apart. That just speaks to how this film tends to bring together a diverse array of bedfellows. Joan Jett and Joaquin Phoenix and his partner, Rooney Mara (sister to executive producer Kate Mara), are among the big names who hosted The Smell Of Money screenings over the past week to get the message out. “It’s a lot of very antisocial people,” says Bannon, having a laugh at the makeup of the team corralled around him.
The various individuals supporting the film also reflects the coming together of activism – for the environment, animal rights, and human rights – that The Smell of Money addresses. However, despite a storyline that appeals to various groups and donors with similar causes, Bannon faced challenges in securing funding to tell his story as intended. In this aspect, he discovered that many alliances were based on transactional interests: “They all wanted their message to be the priority.”
Bannon stated that he declined to work with certain individuals who believed they deserved the narrative and attempted to dictate how it should be presented. He expressed frustration with their aggressive behavior and admitted to bluntly telling them to leave him alone. He acknowledged that his current state of being pumped up may have influenced his language in the interview.
He acknowledges his producers for supporting his efforts to defend the story entrusted to him by Elsie and Renee, who took great risks in sharing it. He stood firm in not altering their words, succumbing to the industry’s tactics that would marginalize them and portray the lawyers and organizations helping them as white saviors, or allowing wealthy donors to turn the issue into a personal pursuit, as is often the case with charitable endeavors, according to Free.
Free expresses disapproval of the trend of showcasing donations to charities in cities like New York and Los Angeles, noting that the actual beneficiaries often receive minimal support.
He strongly supports the idea of direct injection and envisions the impact it could have if one of the United States’ 700+ billionaires simply solved the issue by donating $100,000 to help cover Rene Miller’s medical expenses as she uses a nebulizer machine to manage her asthma.
Free contemplated her options, thinking, “I could easily use a small fraction of my wealth to positively impact their lives.” However, she also considered advising Shawn on how to produce his film.
The movie “The Smell of Money” is currently playing in select theaters in Los Angeles and will be coming to New York on October 20th. A release date for the UK has yet to be announced.