The Ghosts in Our Machine defends the animals on our screen

2 Posted by - March 27, 2013 - Features, Reviews, Screen

Over the last decade of programming political documentary for Cinema Politica I can say with confidence that there are two subjects that have always been decidedly divisive and caused the most vociferous backlash from audience members. One of those subjects is the ongoing illegal occupation of Palestine and the other is animal rights.

Expecting More — Or Less?

The Ghosts in Our MachineOver the years I recall audience revolts occurring where we had screened shorts and features interrogating the ugly spaces of the non-human animal world’s subjugation to the biped food chain champs, homo erectus. PETA shorts have always inspired the most passionate responses – once an audience member stormed out of “Meet your Meat” to yell at me: “You should know better! We expect more from Cinema Politica! This is totally beneath you and is totally offensive!”

At so many screenings where we have projected images of non-human animal oppression and subjugation we have been met with intense audience backlash. It’s not just strangers either. I remember bringing the film Earthlings to some family members’ home (animal-loving, canine-obsessed family members) to watch together. I gave a very thoughtful introduction to the film that included a stern warning about some of the more graphic images and sounds that we were about to experience.

Not even twenty minutes in, during a particularly disturbing sequence showing puppies being gassed at one of many “puppy mills” (this is where most pet store puppies come from), someone jumped up and said: “Why did you bring this into our house? Turn this off NOW!” Upset, they went outside for some air while I, once again, tried to reconcile the debilitating tension between an audience that seems sympathetic but when confronted with the reality of the issue, recoils and rejects the experience altogether.

Director Liz Marshall

There is something to this rejection of animal suffering in documentary, and I think it has a lot to do with the larger (capitalist) liberal framework that documentary operates in and that audiences have become accustomed to. There is a tradition associating movie-watching with entertainment and pleasure, and documentarians, likely in an attempt to move from the margins into the middle, have played into that tradition with feel-good liberal takes on serious and disturbing issues (the current reigning champ of this populist impulse is Davis Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman).

Perhaps when we see a movie we don’t want to be implicated, and when we see a documentary about the systemic oppression of our animal friends at every level (entertainment, food, clothing, etc) how can we not feel complicit? This kind of confrontation challenges our liberal frameworks that have us comfortably “loving” animals selectively: those we have in our homes, those we take our children to pet, and those covered in white fur on snow, looking innocent and picturesque.

There is a corollary to those that are loved, which is those that are excluded: the ones we wear, eat, test on, and more. The sociologist Ernest Becker once said (I’m paraphrasing with poetic license here) that beneath the lofty ascension of humankind is a mountain of animal carcasses so high it may just eclipse our view of progress.

Confronting the Ghosts

So it is perhaps understandable that I approached LIz Marshall’s (pictured above, at right) new documentary, The Ghosts in Our Machine, with trepidation and a programmer’s hint of cynicism. I’ve seen many documentaries tackling animal rights and I’ve seen many sing to the choir while repelling in droves both the apathetic and sympathetic.

Yet Ghosts is a film that offers the hope of attracting those who care and those who don’t, a documentary that will embolden the converted while likely influencing more to join the choir (or at least check out the song book). It is a documentary that refuses to preach, instead opting for a beautifully constructed homage to the rest of our kingdom, spilling over with a unique and thoughtful cordiality that is born out of unmitigable love, respect and understanding.

The documentary is a refreshing departure from its more rational-minded predecessors that throw facts and data at us while barraging audiences with violent sounds and images of slaughter and torture. Ghosts instead confronts with the unforgettable grace of animals many of us so easily shut out from our daily thoughts, as industrial capitalism distantly spins its cogs of exploitation on farms, in labs and factories and abattoirs.

These are the ghosts – the winged, the four-legged and the otherwise objectified and disgraced cousins gasping for life below us on the commodity/food chain.

Marshall doesn’t throw the sixties wrench into the cogs of the machine, screaming from a mantle of righteousness that what we are doing is morally, ethically, ecologically wrong. Instead, she introduces proximal empathy into the abysmal space between consumers and capital with a powerful effect that hits both the mind and heart with an enduring resonance.

Through the various actions and efforts of the very talented and committed photographer Jo-Anne McArthur the film quietly sneaks into the obscured and horrific spaces of mink farms and other places where animals have had their essence as sentient beings barbarically debased into commodity form, lingering just long enough to occlude forgetting.


Both the photographs and cinematography in the film are stunning, and viewing on a small screen should be avoided – Ghosts is a visual delight, despite the sometimes difficult scenes that unfold. A confident direction shines through in this skilfully shot and tightly edited doc that is also audibly adorned with an awesome score and soundscape. The beauty of the film’s artifice somehow does not aestheticize suffering, nor create Hallmark images of the animals documented – instead the richness of sound and images helps us through tough spaces, punctuating moments we might otherwise wish to shut out or alternately, not have registered as worthy of contemplation.

Yet we do not spend too much time in the most violent of animal oppression spaces, and by focusing on the beauty and individuality of the many animals (who have names and personalities) that McArthur documents, including and crucially the relationships between committed humans and the broken and discarded, Ghosts brings us in close and personal and squeezes tight.

It’s a warm and inviting embrace that the film offers, one that builds empathy for these creatures over its 90 minutes, and it doesn’t relinquish after the closing credits.

I didn’t feel yelled at or schooled, but I do feel implicated and educated. To the benefit of Marshall and others who worked on this film (and by extension, to McArthur) those feelings of implication and elucidation are wrapped in beauty, love and understanding.

If I sound warm and fuzzy it’s because this film’s compassion and sensitivity are comforting sensations that just might be the right mixture needed to deliver a documentary on animal rights that transcends the earlier discussed divide and invites everyone in without compromising its politics, while not shutting out others, in spite of its politics.

Ghosts In Our Machine premieres at Hot Docs 2013, you can find out more about that here, or buy your tickets here. Not in Toronto? Watch this space for other screenings.

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