How I Released My Controversial SXSW Short Online

Credit: Amanda Treyz

“There hasn’t been an edgy book, like American Psycho, for decades. People don’t want to be associated with something politically incorrect because the backlash is so immediate online. They play safer because of that.” 

– Chuck Palahniuk, The Guardian, November 2014

This quote saddens me; are we supposed to stop making provocative work out of fear of an online backlash? Is that not a form of self-censorship? How can we make bold, challenging work and not be afraid to bring it to the greater public?

I have a personal stake in these questions. My UCLA MFA Thesis Film The Slaughter deals with the controversial practice of slaughtering animals for food. It premiered at the 2013 SXSW film festival and was a finalist for the Student Academy Awards. It also made a jury member quit my hometown East Lansing Film Festival, where it went on to win the prize for Best Student Short Film.

The film is an unflinching look at a damaged father/son relationship that finally comes to a head during the humane slaughter of a pig. It had a very healthy yearlong festival run that included Locarno, BFI London, and Ann Arbor, but when it came time to release it online, I was hesitant; could I really handle the unbridled craziness of the Internet?

My personal philosophy is that fear is a compass; the more afraid you are to perform an action, the more essential that action is to your development as a human being.

So last October I overcame my fears and released The Slaughter online: it was featured on Short of the Week, Filmmaker, Indiewire’s The Playlist, selected as a Vimeo Staff Pick and viewed over 90,000 times.

Check out my film below. (Warning: Contains graphic violence)

It also, as anticipated, generated some backlash. Fortunately, I was prepared. Here’s how I did it.

The Filmmaking Process

Do Your Homework

If you want to make a controversial film, there should be a good reason. Mine arose out of my experiences with humane slaughter on my family’s pig farm. As I went through the process myself, I realized that it had become hidden; people used to raise their own livestock, which meant they were aware of the sheer effort involved in raising and slaughtering an animal for food. This in turn limited the amount of meat they consumed.

Food animals are now almost entirely raised on factory farms, which has had profound consequences for animal rights, human health and the environment. After much research and contemplation, I decided to take a risk and make a film about it.

But first I did my homework. I read every book on food and animal welfare I could find and watched several documentaries on factory farms and anything else related to the subject.

Clearly Communicate Your Intentions to Potential Collaborators

This research served me well as I put together my presentation packet for the film, which went to all potential actors and crew members. It included a director’s statement and answered questions about the actual slaughter (a version of this document). It also made my initial cinematographer, a muscled male carnivore, uncomfortable enough to quit the film.

The packet was a way to help people understand who I was, what I stood for, and that the entire process would be safe and humane. This was an essential part of getting this film made; it inspired trust in my collaborators, and made them feel like they were part of something larger than a student thesis film.

To complete the experience, at the end of the film the cast and crew came together to eat the animal portrayed in the film. For almost everyone involved, it was the first time they’d ever eaten an animal they’d personally known.

Be Responsible and Safe

The slaughter portrayed in the film was done by professionals in the actors' wardrobe. The film was cleared by SAG, and filmed with a third camera for legal purposes.

After a grueling post-production period, I was thrilled with the film’s response on the festival circuit. But as the festival run continued, I was a bit puzzled that there was no backlash, aside from one critic who called it an “after school special.”

There are many reasons for this, but I think one of them is that festival audiences are looking for challenging, different material. They also went to an actual movie theater, where they sat and watched the whole film. Finally, I was also in attendance for Q&As at many of these screenings; it takes more courage to criticize someone in person, as opposed to the Internet, where there’s the shelter of anonymity. 

I had to wait until the online release to really feel the heat.

The Online Release

My preparation for the launch felt like that of a presidential candidate. I wrote about my intentions for Filmmaker Magazine, wrote and rewrote the body copy on my Vimeo page, reached out to various media, and reread books like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. I wanted to be ready for whatever might come. Finally, on Monday, October 20th, 2014, I launched.

Here’s what I learned:

Go Vimeo

Vimeo has built a passionate base of viewers eager to find challenging, well made content. They have also built a respectful community, unlike YouTube, where all human hatred and ugliness lurks. The potential to get Staff Picked (which, especially with this content, was far from assured), was the second major consideration in deciding to release exclusively on Vimeo.

Create Context

I wanted my Vimeo page to have all relevant information about the film. First and foremost was my director’s statement and notes on the actual slaughter of the pig. This was easily accessible for anyone with a shred on interest in the film’s background. In doing so, I tried my best to recreate the context that a festival screening might have, where I could answer any immediate questions.  

Discuss the Issues, Not the Filmmaking

I also decided to be present in the discussion around the film, to use my real name, and to be as cordial, calm and reasonable as possible. I always thanked people for engaging in the discussion, and did my best to craft thoughtful responses to their points. I chose to only respond to comments relating to the film’s issues, not its craft. Everyone is entitled to their opinion of whether it’s a good film. I accepted early on, as all filmmakers should, that my film isn’t for everyone.

Some of the most common criticisms and my responses:

  • If you actually killed a pig, why not kill an actor? (Because, unlike pigs, we don’t raise millions of actors a year, in terrible conditions, for food. It’s also illegal to kill actors, at least in the state of Michigan.)
  • Why not use a dummy, or CGI? (Part of making this film was to confront people with the realities behind the hidden choices they make every day. Pig dummies and animators, unfortunately, would never have brought that across as effectively.)
  • You benefited artistically from this animal’s death. (Undeniable, but the animal was slated for slaughter regardless; it was also eaten after living a good life.)  
  • There’s no such thing as a “humane slaughter.” (If there's such a thing as an inhumane slaughter, then a humane slaughter exists, if only by degree. For examples of inhumane slaughter I highly recommend the Humane Farming Association’s documentary Death on a Factory Farm.

These were the four most common issues raised, but there were many other separate discussions about the morality of eating animals, which is a big part of what the film is about.

All this served as a remarkable opportunity to have a passionate, engaged discussion with my audience, to see what kind of people the film affected, and to learn more about the issues involved. Some people hated me (including one particularly vengeful Short of the Week commenter, who cursed me to be haunted by the pig’s ghost); this was something I had to accept.

The bottom line is that if you want to create a discussion, you need people to discuss with. Ultimately, criticism can also be seen as a form of validation; like praise, all impactful work draws both.

The Internet Destroys Context

As I went along through the release, responding to relevant comments, I began to realize that some of the angriest responses were coming from people who had never even watched the film.  

The film’s Vimeo page, where there was the most context, was overwhelmingly positive. The places where people were most enraged were often Facebook posts from sites that had written about the film. If you think about it, this is the minimal possible context for a complex idea. 

The Vimeo Page -> The Site’s Article -> That Article’s Facebook Blurb

This meant that some people were often responding to a summary of a review of the film, not the film itself. This also meant that the same issue (the “killing an actor” question comes to mind) came up repeatedly, in several different contexts.

This is the joy and sorrow of the Internet :tremendously democratic, but equally ADD. I learned to appreciate the fact that sometimes people just need to skim-and-rage.

Conclusions

Through all of this, I was able to participate in a meaningful discussion about issues that are very important to me. Along the way I learned to love criticism. Yes, it was stressful, but I did get some very touching responses alongside some of the more brutal criticism. If I hadn’t released the film online, this audience and their reactions would have been lost. Each of those comments, like the ones below, were a small gift in themselves.

As a filmmaker, I want to create work that raises fundamental questions about the society we live in; these kinds of questions should receive passionate and conflicting answers. My response to the Chuck Palahniuk quote that opened this article is that, in the Internet age, we all have the option to engage in the dialogue our work creates.  

I believe that if you really try to listen to and respect people, you will find that most of them are sane, intelligent and passionate; the kind of people you can learn from. This extends beyond filmmaking; a diversity of people and opinions, as well as the discussion they create, is the foundation of a democratic society.

On the Internet, everyone has a voice. As filmmakers, we can choose to embrace that fact, to engage with our audiences, or we can ignore them. After all I’ve been through with this film I still choose the former.      

Your Comment

29 Comments

Cheers, interesting stuff

February 5, 2015 at 6:23AM

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Jack Hextall
Videographer
193

Thanks Jack!

February 5, 2015 at 8:47AM

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Jason B. Kohl
Writer/Director
170

Great stuff, thanks for posting.

February 5, 2015 at 7:52AM

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Micah Van Hove
Writer
director/producer

Thanks for all your great articles Micah!

February 5, 2015 at 8:46AM

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Jason B. Kohl
Writer/Director
170

Absolutely loved this film. Although I have a great relationship with my father, I too had to overcome the unnatural feeling of taking the life of a living thing growing up with an outdoorsman. Although slaughtering a hog is more close up than killing a deer, killing and skinning an animal is an experience so foreign to my generation. It's something everyone had to learn not too long ago. It's interesting how many social mores revolve around food. I come across so many people that will eat a hamburger in front of me, yet condemn farming or hunting.

Did I say I love this film? :)

February 5, 2015 at 8:03AM

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JC
103

Thanks so much Jared! That means a lot. Yes it's definitely a very complicated issue. For me personally there's an unavoidable moment of sorrow and respect when the animal dies. The way we've hidden that is very problematic. I also think one of the reasons we're in such environmental trouble is the fact that most people have zero relationship with their food anymore. Anyway, thanks again, I'm glad it resonated with you.

February 5, 2015 at 8:46AM

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Jason B. Kohl
Writer/Director
170

I have been struggling with some of the content I have a need to create. Many projects cannot get off the ground because of geography (I live in NW Arkansas which is a full blown bible belt) and the unwillingness of even the most liberal actor to help make them a reality due to the subject matter. My work would, of course, not deal with the slaughter of an animal and more with social issues such as abuse and other difficult topics.

The acceptance of this piece in the world of the film festivals makes me more hopeful but I will have to change where I live or bring in actors to get it done. I am glad that you were not excoriated by the film community for making it. It gives me hope.

February 5, 2015 at 10:07AM, Edited February 5, 10:07AM

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Paul Newton
Director
159

Thank you Paul! I'm glad it gives you hope. I think a big part of making more difficult work (aside from what I outlined in the article) is building long-term relationships with collaborators, as well as a reputation/body of work that precedes you. All this can serve as essential credibility when you ask people to take risks on more challenging material.

One option to build trust and credibility is to choose less difficult projects to begin with, successfully complete them, try to get them into festivals/solid online distribution, then move into something more controversial.

Another option, geographically speaking, would be to try to create work/find collaborators outside your home state, then return to it once you've built a body of work. Acceptance at a notable film school can also help build trust in an emerging filmmaker. I have a book coming out this year about film school and building a career as a young filmmaker that might be helpful in that regard:

http://www.tandf.net/books/details/9781138804258/

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to these questions. The best advice I can give here is to keep making things; small things at first, then bigger things as your experience grows.

I wish you the best of luck!

February 7, 2015 at 4:08PM

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Jason B. Kohl
Writer/Director
170

A film school is tough for someone like me. Bills, family and age have a lot to do with it. I was invited to apply to AFI last year but found that there was no way that I could afford it. Many grants and scholarships are just not aimed at someone like myself. I have been stuck making commercial work (I think we all are at some point) and want to strike out but find myself once again constrained.

I will keep working on succeeding! Currently I have been accepted to 8 film festivals, so things are looking up. It is not a controversial work but they like it, so there is that.

Thanks for talking with us semi-anonymous internet dwellers!

February 14, 2015 at 11:50PM

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Paul Newton
Director
159

This is a great film on a lot of levels. Anyone that has a criticism about how meat ends up on your plate should examine mass production and those slaughtering processes. That hamburger or chicken breast you're eating probably didn't get the same respect that the hog did in the film.

I agree with the comment about "zero relationship with food anymore." I think that is absolutely true...and isn't just limited to meat. I applaud Jason for having the nerve to get a conversation started around the topic, while also telling a relationship story between father and son. Great work.

February 5, 2015 at 10:58AM

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Scott Melton
Producer
74

Thanks Scott!

February 5, 2015 at 12:50PM

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Jason B. Kohl
Writer/Director
170

I want to stop hearing about this film. You, the filmmaker, are too stupid to understand that you have made an entertainment out of the death of an animal. From your synopsis, the death of the animal isn't even the point, it's somebody's Daddy issues. It wouldn't matter if you had figured out how to eat the squeal, killing a pig to make your short narrative film doesn't benefit anyone. Stop making films. You are completely lacking in moral compass. No film with you involved will ever be anything but a completely worthless piece of crap.

February 5, 2015 at 11:30AM

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Some films are not meant to entertain but to evoke change.

February 7, 2015 at 12:10PM

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Stephen Herron
Writer/Director
1966

Hi Dave,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have some follow up questions if you're interested in discussing:

1. Aside from a polemic use of the word entertainment and an ad hominem attack on me, do you have any other substantive moral arguments to contribute?

2. Can movies serve functions beyond entertainment? Can they also inform, question and criticize?

3. Can eating an animal mean more than a cheap meal and some extra global warming?

4. Is the slaughter and processing of the animal not central to the narrative? Could the film exist without it?

5. Finally, does the discussion and awareness this film created demonstrate that there was no benefit to anyone?

Thanks, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

February 7, 2015 at 3:48PM

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Jason B. Kohl
Writer/Director
170

What is posted there is an abbreviation of what I wrote. I don't think there's a point to entering a discussion that's being handled that dishonestly.

February 8, 2015 at 4:55PM

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As a companion piece there is this which provakes some serious reaction but is at the same time a fascinating subject. Gruesome to watch so be warned.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/28/mass-animal-sacrifice-nepal...

February 5, 2015 at 12:28PM, Edited February 5, 12:28PM

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Jonathon Sendall
Stories
2016

February 5, 2015 at 12:34PM

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Jonathon Sendall
Stories
2016

Brilliant and inspiring read. I have a similar itch to scratch, but rather than issues surrounding food I'd like to tackle a couple of other social 'norms' that are rarely challenged. Anyhow, bravo for making such a film. It's fantastic work and makes me want to pull my finger out and make stuff happen!

February 5, 2015 at 1:00PM

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Liam Martin
DP, editor, part time director
1202

Thank you Liam! Go make something!

February 5, 2015 at 3:16PM

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Jason B. Kohl
Writer/Director
170

This is quite possibly the most well thought out and informed post I have ever read on this site or any other filmmaking site for that matter. I sincerely appreciate your candor and willingness to let everyone know your motivation.

February 5, 2015 at 2:53PM, Edited February 5, 2:53PM

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Wow, I'm extremely touched. Thank you for your comment!

February 5, 2015 at 3:15PM

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Jason B. Kohl
Writer/Director
170

Congrats for the short film! Outstanding!
I have to say too that congrats on how you defend and presented your film, I've been really impressed by your article. I'm sure after the third comment saying "you pig murderer" or something like that I'd have gone berserk.
Keep working and sharing it!

You've just won a fan!

February 5, 2015 at 3:48PM, Edited February 5, 3:48PM

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Alejandro
Filmmaker
160

Thank you Alejandro! I've found Marcus Aurelius's Meditations (http://amzn.to/1CzXINc) very helpful when dealing with stressful situations.

February 5, 2015 at 11:42PM

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Jason B. Kohl
Writer/Director
170

Congrats on all the success Jason. You deserve it!

February 6, 2015 at 9:36AM

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Gabe Michael
Executive Producer / Director
235

Thanks Gabe!

February 7, 2015 at 3:45AM

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Jason B. Kohl
Writer/Director
170

I have a bad habit of not watching the films about which I read and, although I don't comment on them or say that I've seen them, I make an effort these days to watch the films in the articles.

This article was a perfect example of why I come to NFS. Most likely, I would not have seen 'The Slaughter' if I was not an avid reader. I, too, have experienced controversy over films I wrote and directed but I haven't released them online. I commend you for doing so and I'm happy to have been able to see the film.

On a more personal note, I am one of the many omnivores (because carnivore is misleading) that eat meat without thought as to its origin. Additionally, I don't know if I would be able to kill an animal for my own food without extenuating circumstances.

I appreciate this film for those reasons and think it deserves all the accolades and more. Well done.

February 6, 2015 at 11:56AM

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Brandon Kelley
DIT/Director
613

Thanks for taking the time to watch and comment Brandon. I think eating meat is a difficult question that, to a certain degree, everyone has to answer for themselves. I'm glad you're taking the time to consider it. Thanks again for your kind words!

February 7, 2015 at 3:49AM

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Jason B. Kohl
Writer/Director
170

Awesome film. The choice to shoot an actual humane slaughter was the right one. I'm not sure how many responses you've gotten that begin with "Well, I'm a vegetarian..." or "Being an animal-lover...," but I'm sure they are plentiful (full disclosure: I'm a vegetarian). I came away from this questioning: Is there such a thing as "humane" slaughter? I don't know the answer. I think as people we can try, or reason our way around it, or come up with means that make the killing quick. Does quick equate to humane? Is it humane to chop of a once-living thing for financial gain? What if it was for survival? Again, I don't know the answers. But, I love the questions. On a different note, I love how it was shot, and how the sound fx of sawing through the pig felt more significant than the killing itself. Maybe because it took more time than the killing. Not sure. Either way, wonderfully done.

February 6, 2015 at 1:19PM, Edited February 6, 1:19PM

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Jeff Payne
Writer/Director
322

Thank you Jeff, that really means a lot. I think the question of whether "humane slaughter" exists is a valid and important one that a lot more people should be asking. This is part of what the film tries to show; hopefully people can make a more informed decision after watching it.

I personally think that, because of the significant costs involved, meat eating should be a much rarer pleasure than it currently is; there's simply no way to meet the massive consumer demand for cheap meat without severely abusing the animals, all the way down to their genetics.

If mainstream consumers chose to switch to a more moderate consumption habit, say only eating meat once a week, and were willing in turn to pay significantly more for that meat to make sure the animals were treated properly, I think it would have a massive impact on animal welfare, human health and the environment. I also totally agree that even if we don't have all the answers, it's important for us to wrestle with the questions.

Thanks for your thoughts on the craft as well! It's surprising how fast the actual slaughter is when compared to the process of transforming an animal into food. The sound design was a very elaborate and important process, done in collaboration with my excellent sound designer Brandon Jones at Sound Method Post (http://www.soundmethodpost.com/SoundMethodPost/Home.html).

Thanks again, all the best to you.

February 7, 2015 at 4:07AM

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Jason B. Kohl
Writer/Director
170