Eleni Vlachos knows how to do a lot of things. The 35-year-old Durham resident can turn out a mean drum beat in her band Beloved Binge. She can spark minds and rumble tummies through her blog, Binge Café, and cook a tasty vegan pot roast for Christmas dinner. She can also document her experience as a vegan on video.
And that's exactly what she did in her film Seeing Through the Fence, a documentary about the role of food in modern society and our connection (or lack thereof) to the animals from which much of our food originates.
The film, an 84-minute-long collection of interviews, statistics and food production footage, is steeped in facts about the vegan lifestyle and animal rights. Vlachos designed the film, in part, as a visual response to an e-mail from her brother, Laki. In it, Laki listed the reasons he likes to eat meat. Vlachos' film is a retort to this list, and designed to deconstruct his reasoning (and that of most meat-eaters) through a collection of nutrition information, philosophical questions and answers about animal rights and interviews with vegans.
Vlachos confesses that she doesn't know much about filmmaking. "I've never made a film or a documentary before, so I was always second guessing myself. But I saw an opportunity in using this kind of medium to spark a conversation about veganism and activism that protesting didn't provide," says Vlachos over coffee at Durham's Blue Coffee Café.
As an animal rights activist and a vegan, Vlachos has seen and participated in many activist events over the years. Whether passing out pamphlets on animal rights or showing footage of slaughterhouses during activist events, Vlachos never felt like her message completely reached people. "Most people react with anger or fear because they feel as if you're attacking them or their lifestyle. I wanted to open up a dialogue between activists and the public in a non-threatening way. I wanted to start a conversation," she says.
That conversation is the main focus of Seeing Through the Fence. Vlachos, armed with a hand-held camera and a mind full of questions, takes to streets, dog parks and pig sanctuaries, from Seattle to North Carolina to Greece. She questions passersby, friends and family about the rights of animals and the role of meat in their daily lives. Sometimes the exchanges get heated, especially with Vlachos' father, a confirmed carnivore. "My father grew up in Greece eating meat—it's a way of life there—so it's very difficult for him to accept my lifestyle. That causes us to butt heads occasionally," says Vlachos.
It's in these conversations between family and friends that the film finds its real voice. Here, Vlachos is less of a streetwise interviewer and more of a patient philosopher. She gently picks the mind of her cousin, mother, grandmother and father about the decision to eat meat or abstain. But Vlachos balances these gentle conversations with a little visual salt, pushing emotional buttons with footage of chicken farms and slaughter houses. This strategy of personalizing the argument is similar to that of Michael Moore, and it's no coincidence. "Michael Moore's films definitely influence me," says Vlachos. "I remember watching a Moore film with my brother and realizing I'd never seen so much information but together in an entertaining and persuasive way before. I wanted to make a film at that level."
But Vlachos' film isn't about stoking controversy between meat-eaters and vegans. Instead she's trying to erase stereotypes about veganism and animal rights activists. "People get the idea that vegans can be kind of boring and bland, but they're really regular people. I wanted to not only show why activists work for what they believe in, but that they are regular people too," she says.
Eleni Vlachos' Seeing Through the Fence will screen Sunday, Jan. 6 at 7:30 p.m., at Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St. in Durham. Music will be provided by Durham's Wigg Report and Chef Shirle will serve savory vegan treats. Suggested donation is $5. For more information, visit www.manbitesdogtheater.org.