Animal liberation at the movies

0 Posted by - November 12, 2010 - Features, Friday Film Pick, Screen

Bold Native is, dare I say, a bold film. Expending the energy constructing a feature fiction film that follows radical animal rights activists in their political quest to liberate animals is a huge gamble. The fiction film industry in the US has very little space for political fiction, much less for any that may legitimize militant political tactics. Yet Bold Native, made on a shoe string by a small group of committed artists and activists, managed to wiggle its way into existence.

The film is super slick – cinematography and editing easily matches some of the best Hollywood fare out there. A great soundtrack, a fast-paced road trip tempo, believable characters and extraordinary situations make for a very enjoyable and at times provocative cinema experience. I have some issues with the casting of the lead actor, Joaquin Pastor, who plays Charlie – his broody moody deadpan does start to wear a bit thin, but this hiccup is smoothed over by stellar performances from supporting cast members, most notably Randolph Mantooth, who plays Charlie’s conservative father in a fabulous performance.

Bold Native is a gamble not just because no one would fund a sympathetic film about militant animal rights activists, but because it’s a challenge to audiences as well. Such hard core political content is usually relegated to the documentary genre, where audiences are more accustomed to films exploring issues around oppression, activism, and various civil society political adventures. In the fiction realm, aside from a fatty diet of really awful Hollywood junk food, the indies show little promise of delivering such doc-deserving content.

The indy scene is currently stuck in some kind of navel-gazing white ironic-romance cul-de-sac, and is fast wearing out its welcome as the required breath of fresh air between the gasps of putrid Hollywood factory smoke. Of course both the indies and Hollywood produce the odd gem, but they remain odd as exceptions to the norm.

So it’s wonderful when a little film like Bold Native lands in my lap, and pries apart the iron grills of formula fiction to deliver a story you’d never expect to find outside of documentary. Save for my problems with the lead role (and I’m not sure if this is an acting or writing problem, but either way it’s a soft criticism) and a few iffy moments in the script, it’s a fine piece of political art that deserves a wide audience of activists, meat eaters, cinephiles and everyone in between.

To discuss some of these issues, I recently cornered Denis Henry Hennelly, the film’s director.

Art Threat: Why did you make this film and what’s the story behind the name?

Denis  Henry Hennelly: We first decided to make a fiction film about animal rights in 2001.  The four primary team members behind the film are all vegan and interested in the movement, so it was a way to combine our love of film with our passion for animal rights.  We rewrote the script many times over the 7 years before we started shooting, during which time the climate for activists became much worse in the U.S.  We feel like the film we ended up with is the best effort we could make at satisfying our original desire, which was to tell an entertaining story that would help educate people about the ethics and reality of the animal liberation movement.

A friend of mine told me that his grandfather would use the phrase “Bold Native” as code words for shipping within his business.  It was something he brought back from the war, I believe.  When I heard those words together I felt a natural instinct to name the cell in the story we were writing “Bold Native.”  I think animal liberation is a bold stand against oppression and that we’re all natives of this world together, humans and non-humans.

Political film can be a deal-breaker in the world of mainstream distribution and exhibition. Add “independent” to that, and the fact that this is fiction (audiences are slowly getting used to more and more political documentaries), and it seems like this film must have been very difficult to get funding for and subsequently to get distributed. Am I wrong or is this the case?

This film was not only hard to get funding for and find distribution for, it was impossible.  So we ended up deciding to make it with the little bit of money we had in the bank and distribute it ourselves.  It was made on a shoestring budget by a crew of four people (with help from hundreds along the way).  We’ve been distributing through event screenings that we’ve set up with local activists, and soon we’ll be selling the dvd internationally through our website and iTunes.

Movies that have a strong point-of-view about a political or ethical topic are very hard to get made in today’s Hollywood.

Movies that have a strong point-of-view about a political or ethical topic are very hard to get made in today’s Hollywood. However, the technology of filmmaking has advanced to a point where it is now possible to make a great-looking film with very little money. What you need is a talented, dedicated, smart team of people.  There is no way anyone in Hollywood would have financed a film like Bold Native.  We tried for seven years.  But I’m very happy we made it the way we did because we were able to clearly communicate the ideas of the story without compromise.  And we believe that over the next two years, more people will see this film than the indie movies that the establishment embraces.  We’re counting on those of you who see the film and find it awesome to pass it on to friends and family.  And a couple years from now, hopefully the film will have reached many people and changed many hearts and minds about animal liberation.

What is the state of independent cinema in the US?

Independent cinema is alive and well.  There are many films getting made outside the system that are able to reach their audience through social media and alternative hybrid distribution models.  The entire mumblecore genre is an example of the health and vitality of indie cinema.  However, many of these films end up being about white dudes in their late 20’s with relationship problems.  What we’d like to see is a melding of the mumblecore DIY ethic with the social and political rambunctiousness of 70’s filmmaking.  That’s what we were going for with Bold Native, and we hope other filmmakers will take advantage of the current technologies to tell revolutionary stories.

Who is your target audience for BOLD NATIVE? I’m guessing that as a political film you are hoping to provoke people, maybe even change some minds. Is this the case? Do you feel it will “preach to the converted” or maybe even convert the preachers? Why fiction and not documentary?

The target audience is people who are open to thinking about animal rights and animal liberation, even if they haven’t yet.  During the editing process, we had about 10 test screenings for a little over a hundred people.  Most of them were not animal rights people.  We wanted to see how the film was working with people who knew nothing about the issues.  Our modest goal was that we would make people question the idea that the Animal Liberation Front was a terrorist organization.  We ended up making a few people vegan along the way.

Our previous films were Hip Hop documentaries.  We always tried to bridge that gap between the totally uninitiated and the rabid fans.  Hopefully, we’ve done the same thing here – made a film that someone immersed in animal rights can enjoy and appreciate and that someone unaware of the issues can be both entertained and educated by.

We feel like fiction provides a unique opportunity to bypass people’s defenses.  Since we’re all culpable in animal exploitation, it can be hard for some people to open themselves to the message of animal rights.  By presenting ideas through fiction, you reach people’s hearts instead of their brains.  This allows you to plant seeds that can grow the next time they encounter a situation where they’re confronted with animal rights ideas.

What was the process like making this film? Despite being totally polished and professional, was it difficult to put together the team? How did Moby become involved?

This was a very guerilla shoot.  We had a core crew of four people – director, cinematographer, and two producers.  We approached it the way we would a documentary, often shooting out in the real world amongst real people.  We shot for 31 days over a period of eight months, taking time between each shoot to prepare for the next one.  The core team of four filmmakers was crucial to our success.  If we had lost any of the four of us, it wouldn’t have happened.  The commitment we had was a combination of our deep belief in the ideals of the film and our shared history working together over the last decade.

Moby came to see the film at the New York premiere and loved it.  He bought a couple t-shirts and took a picture with one of our cast members, Nik Tyler.  Beyond that, he had no involvement with the film.

How has the film been received?

The film was been enthusiastically received so far.  We’ve done sold out screenings across the U.S. and in Europe.  We’re excited to be releasing the DVD in November.  We hope everyone who loves the film gives it to a friend to watch and over the next couple years we’re able to reach millions of people with a message of compassionate action.

You co-wrote and directed the film – it’s safe to say it’s a personal project. Can you describe how art can be both personal, political and appealing to a wider audience?

Art is always personal in that it’s an expression of the heart.  Film is a unique artistic medium in that it is a collaborative art form.  Bold Native is not a direct expression of any one of us who made it.  A film is an entity unto itself, and a group of people come together to serve as the vehicles by which it can express itself.  This makes it a great medium for a political and ideological message because it is the expression of a group of people, and therefore and expression of our shared humanity.

As far as we’re able to guide this expression, we seek to reach as wide an audience as possible.  To do this, we rely heavily on test screenings.  We showed Bold Native to many people during the editing process.  We wanted to see how it was working with an audience, what messages and emotions were coming through.  The first five or six screenings were not good; people were not following the story, intellectually or emotionally.  Eventually, we got the cut to a place where it began to work and we continued to refine it from there.  Our goal was that people who had no awareness of animal rights or animal liberation would be entertained by the story and would also come out of the film with an understanding of why others fight so hard for these issues.

What are the plans for the film (how can people see it?)?

We’re screening the film in San Francisco November 18th.  John Robbins and Jake Conroy will be speaking.  We’re setting up college screenings with the assistance of college AR groups.  The DVD will be available through our website in late November.  We should be up on iTunes soon.  Eventually we’ll be on Netflix as well.

What was the most life-changing incident while making this movie?

The entire process of making Bold Native was challenging and inspiring.  If I had any doubts that filmmaking is what I want to spend my life doing, this project dispelled them.  I can’t wait to shoot the next project.

We’re very happy that we were able to directly save a life through the making of the film.  Jumper, the piglet who appears in the film, would have been digested as a piece of bacon long ago had it not been for the movie.  Our producers Casey Suchan and Mary Pat Bentel rescued her from a factory farm by befriending someone and convincing him to give her to them for a film shoot.  She now lives happily at a farm sanctuary where she’s one of the most popular residents.  If nothing else happens with the film, we’re glad that we had an opportunity to make a big difference in one individual’s life.

Anything you’d like to add?

Go to and visit the Take Action page.  There’s an enormous amount of things you can do right now to make the world a better place for all of us, human and non-human, by ending animal exploitation.

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