It's Veganuary – so what better time to remember Wesley Omar, the guy who broke into farms to steal pigs, saving them from being slaughtered?
How to Steal Pigs and Influence People, a new documentary from Channel 4, follows Wes and other prominent vegan activists and influencers as they attempt to save animals, while collecting social media followers and making money along the way. Over the course of a year the documentary follows vegan activists as they set up demonstrations across the country; from orchestrating mass farm break-ins to large scale animal funerals, where protesters mourn dead farm animals.
The latter half of the documentary focuses on the Raw Carnivores, a splinter cell group of anti-vegan activists, headed up by ex-vegan, Prem. Cameras follow as Prem and his friends attend animal rights protests, eating pig heads and arguing with vegans.
After watching Prem eat the raw innards of a deer, along with a few strawberries (palette cleanser?), I had a few questions. So I caught up with How to Steal Pigs and Influence People's director, Tom Costello, to talk about the rise of the vegan influencer and what it's like to watch someone eat animal organs, in the flesh.
VICE: Hi, Tom. So what's it like to watch someone eat bloody organs with their hands in a park?
Tom Costello: I'd been tracking the rise of the vegan influencer for probably a year by that point, and more and more, we started seeing these carnivores popping up at events doing provocative stunts like eating raw meat. At first, I thought they were just trolls, just a few irrelevant idiots who have found a way of trolling vegans who they hate for some reason. But they’ve actually built a real following of their own by doing that.
It's quite hard to know when you're watching something like that whether this is something they’re doing in their private life. But his dad turns up and eats the raw meat too, and he had some friends there who aren't on social media who were chomping down on the deer too.
So they're definitely on a raw meat diet for themselves and not just for followers?
Yeah, I couldn't deny the sincerity of what they were doing – it seemed genuine for them. But having said that, they clearly are getting very positive feedback, because YouTube and the other platforms they're putting their content out on rewards extreme activities. Prem has become a leader of sorts, a celebrity of sorts, so it's quite hard to identify the line between performance and sincerity.
There's been some criticism that the documentary glamorises stealing pigs.
Well, [the activists] already do have a gigantic platform, but this film is a critical platform. Both Wes and Prem are reaching hundreds of thousands of people, and potentially millions if [a post] goes viral. Those numbers are incomparable to what this film will get.
The difference is that documentaries like this are approaching people critically, so you can ask the difficult questions and see what's really driving these extreme acts, and whether there's bits that actually they would prefer to keep off camera that you can explore. The point is that the platform they have at the moment is entirely self-controlled and only showing what they want to show. I don’t think it's in any way glamorising the actions of either of them.
Spoiler alert – at the end of the documentary we find out that Wesley has pivoted to property development. How hard do you think it is to stay true to your more noble intentions in the age of the Instagram influencer?
It's a very cutthroat world, and it's not enough to have your one viral hit because people can copy you really quickly, and that's what happened with Wes. He found it hard to turn his platform into sustainable living, but some people have succeeded in doing that. The fact is you have to be relentless. You constantly have to be producing more content and raising the bar. Some people are very good at that, but what I saw is that you have to be constantly thinking about your audience, and for some people that comes naturally. For Wes, we can see that it wasn't a good thing for him, and it led him to make decisions he otherwise wouldn't have made.
So it's more a case of personality?
Exactly. At the end, Wes sounded exhausted with meeting these constant demands. It's a question of personality, and the reason why Prem is successful is that he's more suited to it. He's someone who thrives on producing that content and enjoys every bit of attention that comes with it. Wes sort of shied away more and more. The more he felt his audience, the more he felt the burden and ended up retreating away from them.
Was there any shortage of people willing to be in the documentary?
No, but there was a challenge in making sure that we weren't just filming the things they wanted us to film, and focusing on exactly what was going on. Obviously, influencers who are in front of the camera anyway are quite conscious of their image. But these people are just the tip of a huge iceberg. There are a lot of people out there. Wes was certainly the first one to go to a farm and steal a pig and film it openly. But he certainly isn't the last. It's certainly a phenomenon which isn't going away anytime soon.
There are clips of the influencers rapping. Why are they doing that?
Within that influencer community on YouTube, the vegans and the anti-vegans thrive off each other and they pick up the same habits. If the vegans do a "What I Eat in a Day" video, the anti-vegans will copy it – and the rap was one of those. There were lots of vegan raps going around, and the nature of YouTube is response videos, so there's constantly a dialogue with one another, which I think is what pushes them to extremes. There's no middle ground in that world and they're constantly thinking of what the next video will be while watching each other's videos. .
Did you ever find out what happened to Wes for sure?
No, I left it at that, actually. But that was the sort of high point of Wes' social media activism, and also the end of it.
'How to Steal Pigs and Influence People' airs on Tuesday the 14th of January at 10PM on Channel 4.