People living in eastern North Carolina are experiencing severe mistreatment. This is the blunt but accurate way to describe the serious 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 natural world.
The movie documents the harmful pig waste generated by large animal farms in North Carolina. This waste is sprayed onto fields near residential areas, causing a foul and debilitating odor that has serious health consequences. Despite facing harassment, intimidation, and other efforts to silence them, long-time residents Elsie Herring and Rene Miller bravely continue to speak out against this issue. This is particularly challenging in a state where many people are employed by the same industry.
The primary offender in the movie is Smithfield Foods, the manufacturer of pork products such as Nathan’s Famous hotdogs and Healthy Ones cold cuts. The company’s motto promotes “Quality food. Responsible practices.” As stated in The Smell of Money, Smithfield Foods bears much of the responsibility for the housing of 10 million pigs in cramped North Carolina farms. This results in over 10 billion gallons of waste being deposited into lagoons that emit greenhouse gases (filled with animal waste). These lagoons also contribute to severe environmental damage when they overflow during natural disasters like floods and hurricanes.
Bannon expresses disbelief and frustration over the dire situation faced by the predominantly Black community, whose forebears have resided on this land since the era of slavery. The community is being slowly suffocated by pig waste, while the majority of the United States remains indifferent to the issue.
During a Zoom conversation with Bannon, executive producer Travon Free expressed frustration with the film’s lack of attention to detail. He stated that the issue could have been easily resolved if people had paid closer attention.
We are discussing the ongoing presence and growth of this issue over several decades, which has caused harm to both people and the environment. Free mentions the “boiling frog” myth, often used to explain our lack of action towards civil liberties and the climate crisis. The saying suggests that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will immediately jump out, but if placed in lukewarm water and the temperature is gradually increased, it will allow itself to be boiled alive. Although not scientifically proven, the analogy highlights the lack of response from the public and politicians towards destructive factory farming methods and other important issues.
According to him, the issue is not blatant or constantly brought to our attention through the media. It is often overlooked and easy to ignore. Environmental injustice affects black people in various parts of the country, but only those who are directly impacted seem to care about it. This is similar to how people approach larger issues like climate change – only focusing on what affects them immediately. This is a flaw in human nature.
Both Bannon and Free are currently participating in the call from their residences in Los Angeles. Bannon is venturing into the feature film world with his debut, The Smell of Money, following his previous work documenting the effects of factory farming and creating experimental shorts, as well as behind-the-scenes documentaries for David Lowery’s films, including A Ghost Story and The Green Knight. Free, a writer and comedian with credentials from The Daily Show and an Academy Award for the short film Two Distant Strangers, is assisting in promoting Bannon’s film after being recommended by activist DeRay McKesson.
I am intrigued by the visual contrast between the two collaborators and their surroundings. Bannon, a native of Ohio, has his collection of movies displayed behind him, along with a matching sea-foam green Rivendell bike, a contemporary lounge chair, and a wall-mounted expressionist painting that he created. Free, who hails from Compton, is wearing a baseball cap with the phrase “Art is dangerous” and is seated in front of a stacked bookshelf. On either side of the bookshelf are clear plastic shelves containing hundreds of Nike sneakers, mostly Jordans.
Bannon and Free seem to come from different worlds, but that’s just a testament to how this movie brings together a wide range of people. Big names like Joan Jett, Joaquin Phoenix, and his partner Rooney Mara (who is also the sister of executive producer Kate Mara) have all hosted screenings of The Smell Of Money in the past week to promote the film’s message. Bannon jokes that the team working on the film is made up of a lot of “antisocial” individuals.
The various perspectives supporting the movie also reflect the combination of activism – for the environment, animal rights, and human rights – that The Smell of Money addresses. Despite a narrative that appeals to different groups and donors with similar causes, Bannon faced challenges in securing financial backing to tell his story properly. In this regard, he encountered a lot of alliances that were based on transactions: “They all wanted their own message to be prioritized.”
Bannon explains that he declined to work with individuals who believed they had a right to control the narrative and dictate how it should be presented. He admits, “I had to bluntly tell some people to leave me alone because their approach was too forceful. I know I shouldn’t reveal this in an interview, but I am feeling quite energized at the moment.”
He praises his producers for supporting his efforts to safeguard the story entrusted to him by Elsie and Renee, who had taken great risks to share it. He refused to compromise their words, avoid falling into the trap of the industry that would diminish their importance and portray the lawyers and organizations aiding them as white saviors. He also would not let wealthy donors turn the matter into a personal project, as charity often tends to be, according to Free.
According to Free, these charity events in New York or Los Angeles often focus on showcasing the donors rather than actually benefiting those in need. He criticizes the excessive amounts of wealth spent on these events, with minimal impact on those who are truly in need.
He supports the idea of direct injection and envisions the potential impact it could have if one of America’s 700+ billionaires were to address issues directly, such as providing $100,000 to help with Rene Miller’s medical expenses as she manages her asthma using a nebulizer.
Free contemplates his options, thinking, “I could easily use a small percentage of my wealth to greatly impact their lives.” Alternatively, he could offer advice to Shawn on how to create his film.
The film “The Smell of Money” is currently showing in select theaters in Los Angeles and will be released in New York on October 20th. A release date for the UK has yet to be announced.