“Who wants to sit and watch an entire film about veganism?” These are the words of fictional activist Troye King Jones (John Macmillian) in Simon Amstell’s utopian mockumentary Carnage, an entire film about veganism now available on BBC iPlayer. It’s a sly wink to the audience, but also demonstrates Amstell’s goal in miniature – King Jones is reflecting on how his overly serious and moralising approach to vegan activism in his youth was misguided. It was only when veganism became fun, he explains, in the mid-2020s, that people started to listen.
Making veganism seem fun is no easy feat – the very word conjures ideas about restriction, denial, piousness and superiority. But Carnage has a dry, wicked sense of humour that’s contagious.
The mockumentary is set in 2067, when veganism is so assumed in modern diets that there isn’t even a word for it. Instead, the illegal practice of eating “other animals” or their by-products is called “carnism”: a barbaric and incomprehensible symptom of an uncivilised society. Gorgeous polyamorous youths openly weep at the thought of their grandparents’ carnist pasts and struggle to come to terms with the violence of their ancestors, therapists encourage the older generation to free themselves from the shape of their past crimes, and academics pinpoint the moments where history changed forever.
Carnage’s success lies in its faux-historical tone that uses this utopian perspective to point out the bizarre hypocrisy of our meat-eating society from a distance. “When we think of 1944 we tend to think of the establishment of the world’s first vegan society,” Amstell’s narration explains, as he begins his history of veganism. “But 1944 was also a time of human war.”
His summary of more recent cultural history around animals is some of the funniest material in the film. “Even as animals were being slaughtered and eaten on a scale never seen before, the 1990s saw a wave of blockbuster films in which children befriended animals and saved them from death,” Amstell says seriously, over clips from Free Willy and Babe, before shots of an old McDonald’s advert showcasing free cuddly Babe toys enter the frame. “In 1995, taking your children to watch a likeable pig escape death, followed by a celebratory Happy Meal, was completely acceptable.” I snorted with laughter as clips from 1999’s Pig at the Ritz played as Amstell told how the pig was saved from the foot and mouth cull. “It was one rule for the public,” Amstell says solemnly, “And another for celebrities.”
It’s not just our hypocritical attitude to animals that Amstell pierces, but each other. His discussion of how meat-filled diets caused obesity and illness edge worryingly close to fat shaming (there are many great ethical arguments for veganism, but hey! it will help you lose some of that disgusting body fat! is probably not one of them), but he quickly backtracks with a consideration of the hysterically anti-fat TV shows of the early Noughties. “TV’s solution was to humiliate people,” he says, as programmes attempted to “help overwight people by telling them they were too stupid to do the opposite of everything society was telling them to do”.
Amstell calls out a variety of celebrity chefs, from Jamie Oliver to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and food trends. Over a clip of Nigella Lawson cracking the breastbone of a chicken and taking pleasure in the sound, Amstell quips: “What looks to us now like a documentary about a lunatic was, in fact, a hit show about cooking.” While JME is credited with first making veganism cool, Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Mondays (“which, of course, to us now sounds almost as offensive as ‘Ethnic Cleansing-Free Tuesdays’”) aren’t looked on so kindly by future generations.
But between the jokes, the realities of the meat and dairy industries – from the forced insemination of cows to the separation of calves from their mothers and the mass extermination of male chicks – are hard to ignore. While watching Carnage, I laughed more than I frowned, but the film’s flashing images of meat and dairy production are hard to swallow.
As Easter approaches, a film that describes Easter Eggs as “a chilling artefact of a culture that once stole a cow’s milk and moulded in into the shape of a chicken’s egg” might not seem like a festive way to enjoy a weekend. But Amstell might have achieved a feat like Troye King Jones’ – making veganism seem more optimistic than sanctimonious.