Editor’s Notes: The Ghosts in Our Machine screened at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema July 2nd-4th.
First, let me say that watching Liz Marshall’s documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine (2013) is about 1,000 times more heart wrenching than one of those Sara McLachlan adopt-a-pet commercials, and it sets out to do what may well be nearly impossible: make people care about animals that aren’t particularly cute. That’s not altogether true, since there are scenes involving fox fur farming, and foxes are cute because they look like dogs. The film centers on animal rights photographer Jo-Anne McArthur while she breaks into fur farms to expose the brutal conditions the animals are forced to live in before being murdered for their pelts for rich people to wear. It also features sanctuary farms that are designed to keep abused animals alive and healthy for the entire duration of their natural lives, rescuing them from abuse and allowing them to be free from harm. It also gives us facts about the meat industry and the cruel conditions that animals are in, not only on factory farms but organic ones as well.
The film centers on animal rights photographer Jo-Anne McArthur while she breaks into fur farms to expose the brutal conditions the animals are forced to live in before being murdered for their pelts for rich people to wear.
I initially was resistant to the thesis of the film, which states that all animals are individuals and should be treated equal to humans. I suppose I was resistant because that’s not how people are taught to feel. We have been taught for centuries, millennia even, that we are the top of the food chain and we have earned dominion over all other creatures, big and small. I also took issue with McArthur’s work in general because she goes to these places, feels bad about the animals (to the point of developing PTSD) takes pictures and leaves all under the assumption that freeing them won’t change anything. She’s right, of course, that freeing the animals from one fur farm won’t change the system and that the owners will just get more to continue working, but it feels like action through inaction and it took a while for me to come partially around to her viewpoint.
Her main goal is education of the conditions. She wants to take these damning picture and get them out to the world so things can be changed on a large scale, not just on one farm for a short time. The pictures she takes and the stories she tells about animals she’s met and made deep connections with are touching and sad. There are also moments that I felt show that she may have a myopic view of the situation. I am with her in the idea that pictures do far more to illustrate harsh conditions against the voiceless than simply freeing them because animals cannot tell their own stories, but aside from stopping fur farming and animal testing I can’t say I believe she’s looked at all the angles.
I can say that Marshall achieves one of the most incisive looks at the meat industry since Upton Sinclair, showing the treatment of animals bred for slaughter and the conditions on those farms. The images of the animals in the abattoirs are unsettling and disturbing for anyone, especially omnivores such as me. While I never seriously considered going vegan, this film put the notion in my head more than anything else I’ve ever seen, which is a great compliment to Marshall. I like few things more than a good bacon cheeseburger and she got me to consider never getting or making one again. The main quibble I have about the inclusion of this topic with the others is that the meat industry deserves its own documentary, not as a part of a broader issue of animals and animal rights.
While I never seriously considered going vegan, this film put the notion in my head more than anything else I’ve ever seen, which is a great compliment to Marshall.
Animal Rights is another topic discussed in the film that it really doesn’t have any answers for. It acknowledges that no one really knows what animal rights would be if they were spelled out in a law or what any of it would mean for animals or people. Many of the soundbites are of people advocating for the cessation of cruelty while simultaneously stating that they do not know what their ultimate goal is. In some ways, that makes the fight a little empty because they don’t know what they are fighting for. Most movements or calls to action have a set goal like ending a war or preventing hunger or poverty. This movement is ethereal and imprecise. If McArthur is ultimately successful, what would it mean? She would think it means that animals would be treated as individuals and not harmed anymore, but what about the thousands of people employed by the meat industry? The animals would be fine, but those families would starve because they would have no money for food, which could possibly be more expensive because of not having meat and putting more of a demand on vegetables and meat alternatives (which are already expensive). So in an effort to improve the lives of animals, people would suffer.
The economic stance is quite possibly as myopic as the ‘all animals are individuals so don’t hurt, kill or eat them’. The truth is that no one knows how to approach the issue for a positive conclusion is achieved by all. I don’t have a good solution either. Maybe there isn’t one that doesn’t cause some problem for someone or something. If there is a solution, some things aren’t going to be good for a time, but it would probably only be a relatively short time (in the grand scheme of things).
Ultimately, The Ghosts in Our Machine doesn’t answer any questions, but I don’t think it was designed to. I think it succeeds in raising the questions that people don’t often ask themselves and that is the point of the film. Once the questions are asked, the debate over the answers begins and that will most likely lead somewhere. There must be an answer that takes all interested and affected people into account; we just haven’t gotten to it yet and there is no way to know how long it will take before we do. With The Ghosts in Our Machine, Marshall presents the questions, now it’s up to all of us to debate the answers.
[notification type=”star”]85/100 ~ GREAT. With The Ghosts in Our Machine, Marshall presents the questions, now it’s up to all of us to debate the answers.[/notification]