Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of meeting Kohl Harrington, the director and writer of the documentary Pet Fooled. The meeting was unplanned and the venue wasn’t right for me to ask a bunch of questions even though I wanted to. Luckily, Kohl was happy to do an interview for the blog at a later time.
The following is our exclusive Q&A with Kohl Harrington.
1. Why did you become a documentary filmmaker?
I’m an empathetic person who is fascinated by why culture, how things work, and why things are considered “normal”. I love all types of film and I love the documentary branch of film because it allows me to understand other people’s lives in a way meeting someone or talking to someone can’t do. It’s a brilliant experience to be able to understand other people’s struggles, worries, and hardships in life.
2. Have you always had pets?
I grew up in the Florida panhandle right below the Alabama boarder. I grew up on hundreds of acres and it’s what you would call the “middle of the woods”. We always had pets growing up and all I ever knew growing up was that you get “pet food” in a bag from the store but my cats and dogs growing up always caught and killed their own prey. By the time I got into the midst of researching the film and the concept of “species appropriate” came into the conversation, a lot of people were against the idea of raw foods and I’m like wait…I remember the mice and rats my cat would kill and the birds or rabbits my dogs would eat right in front of me.
3. What sparked your interest in the pet food industry?
The producer of the film, Michael Fossat, approached me about directing the film. It was my first feature film that I directed. He had an issue with his animal and it was suggested by a groomer that he look into the foods because it was likely the grains that were causing the rash issue his dog was dealing with.
4. How long did it take to make Pet Fooled?
From start to finish, 6 years.
5. How did you choose your experts for the film?
I probably went through thousands of potential people and some of them were accidents. In reading about the industry, I would come across things like the 2007 pet food recall so I would cypher through all the news articles to find the lawyer and the woman who filed the original lawsuit. Dr. Royal I found through an audio only file of an “animal law week” that took place at the University of Chicago. Dr. Becker I saw on YouTube reading labels on pet food packages and I wanted to re-create that scene for the film. Luckily she turned out to have a much more prominent role in the film. So a lot of who participated in the film were just results of Michael Fossat and I researching and trying to see if people would talk to us.
6. During the period of making this film, has your goal for the documentary changed over the time?
Well I went through different stages. When I first started the goal was to figure out if “corn and wheat” weren’t appropriate for dogs and cats to eat, then what was? So figuring out what was species appropriate was a large undertaking. There’s so much vested interest from companies selling dry foods as the ultimate solution so I had to sort through a ton of material. The funny thing is if you do actually spend thousands of hours looking at all the industry marketing, all the…I hate to say this word but bullshit starts to become apparent. I started to notice that all the dry food companies had pages against raw but if you REALLY read them, they all have very clever wording techniques like “potential” and it’s like…yes there’s potential for anything in the world. I could potentially die by getting hit by a bus at any time while walking on the street.
7. What was the most difficult thing while making this documentary?
The most difficult thing were actually transitioning from one scene to the next. I had all of these scenes like “species appropriate” and the “2007 recall” and it was the one line transitions that were SO difficult. Don’t ask me why! I think maybe because the topic is so detailed that you can get lost in the details.
8. A lot of research goes in to making a documentary. What information shocked you the most about the pet food industry?
It’s just heartbreaking to see an industry work so hard to cast doubt instead of speak specifically about issues. You have the lobbying organization PFI just doing everything in their power to cast doubt because money is on the line for the major companies that they represent. They can’t talk about the issues of what’s going on but they can do their best to deflect and say everyone else on earth is wrong except for them! They love their pets. No actually, you love money. You’re representing companies making billions and you’re not representing pets. Lets get that straight and not twisted.
9. Was there something you wanted to include in the documentary but didn’t make it during editing?
Oh gosh yes. I could have had a 10 hour documentary. But I dialed it back to the basics because I needed to address my own confusions and what I felt in the very beginning of making the film. Specifically, I would have loved to document a Mars plant that shut down and there were allegations of the plant shutting down because workers were getting sick from handling ingredients. Mysteriously, the plant shut down and the lobbying organization gave some lame and non sensible excuse to the closing of the plant. There was a whole lawsuit taking place about it. http://www.koamtv.com/story/23541610/class-action-lawsuit-filed-against-mars-petcare
10. What do you want people to take away from watching Pet Fooled?
I want people to be aware regarding the approach to feeding. What is species appropriate for the given animal? Where are the ingredients coming from? Can you confirm that? Can you confirm the exact quality or do you just have to trust the company? That’s scary because we’re all at the mercy of being fooled by so many companies.
11. What was the most important thing you learned and will take away from this experience?
I’m more aware of how marketing works in regards to us humans desperately needing convenience and an immediate solution we don’t have to think about.
12. Can we get a peek on your next project?
I have a massive database and I’m always working on or developing a project. There’s a book called “The God Virus” that’s actually very similar to pet food marketing. I’m fascinated that we aren’t more empathic towards each other and religion is the age old thing you’re not suppose to talk about. Well, I do want to talk about it. I want to know why we humans feel the need to follow a belief system and I want to know why in certain cultures, you would follow one religion while in another area of the world you follow a different religion. Religions have lived and died throughout time but the way our brains are influenced by rules of religions are interesting to me. That’s one project I’m making so we will see if anything comes out of it!