It’s such a gorgeous day at the start of Hot Docs that it only felt appropriate to interview filmmaker and social justice advocate Liz Marshall outside. It’s the afternoon before her latest film, The Ghosts in Our Machine (opening this week at the Carlton for two shows a day at 2pm and 7pm, with Q&As following the Friday and Saturday evening shows), is set to debut to a sold out audience, and it’s both a clear labour of love and something she feels positively invigorated to talk about.
The Water on the Table filmmaker – who has known and vocal fans in the form of actors Woody Harrelson and Jason Priestly – takes a look at the perpetual cycle of animal use and abuse within our highly mechanized and hectic world through an incredibly human perspective. Following around close friend, colleague, and fellow photographer Jo-Anne McArthur (creator of the long running We Animals project), Marshall pays witness to not only the plight of the animals, but the toll such witnessing takes on an artist and activist who constantly has trouble getting her message heard. Using McArthur as a guide, heroine, and almost tragic figure at the same time, Marshall makes the viewer question the world around them and the place of animals within it.
Marshall sat down with Dork Shelf beneath a cherry blossom tree on the U of T campus to talk about her relationship to Jo-Anne, the parallels between the plight of the subject and the filmmaker, crafting a human narrative about touchy subjects, and why you don’t have to be a vegan to make a difference in the lives of animals.
Dork Shelf: It must be hard to make a film where your main focal point is a documentarian who is both an artist and an activist since those are two professions where people don’t generally like others hanging over their shoulder and documenting every move they make. What did it take to get Jo-Anne on board and how did you first become aware of her work?
Liz Marshall: I had known Jo-Anne for a number of years. I had met her through some mutual friends, and over time I was taking notice of her work. She spends up to six months a year in the field and on the front lines photographing animals all over the world. She would often send images and say “What do you think?”
When I started studying film and media at Ryerson I did a split major in stills, so I had a real love and passion for still photography. I believe that the power of a single image when it can tell a story and almost be an essay can make you wonder and make you think. I care so much about composition, as well. All of that convinced me that she was a strong photographer and that she is photographing something that is so overlooked and mostly hidden from our view. So I was compelled by the fact that she has dedicated her life to photographing animals that are hidden primarily within the shadows of our highly mechanized world, and that’s the tag line for our film. That’s really the concept for me in developing this film.
Her images inspired my approach, because I don’t want to be preachy about social issues that I explore, and especially with this social issue because it’s so very personal for people that it poses a moral conundrum for people. It’s complex. Jo-Anne for me made me quickly realize that her images were a good entry point, and so was she as a human being. She’s just such a radiant, hopeful, young heroine. That’s how I see her, and I wanted to ground a social issue film in a human narrative to attract people to the subject.
It’s not an easy task. The whole animal question is so loaded for people, but it is an emerging consciousness, I think in terms of mainstream media culture, celebrity culture; at least in the Western Northern Hemisphere it’s something people are considering more and more as consumers.
DS: There are two really interesting parallels that I wanted to talk about between Jo-Anne and the film itself. First, one of the things you show in the film is just how hard of a time Jo-Anne has trying to sell her work to outlets that would routinely run photos of human and wartime atrocities in the goriest fashion without thinking twice, but they would almost never run photos of an animal being abused or in pain. Did you have similar problems trying to land funding just to make a film about someone who sometimes has a hard time getting their work shown in the first place?
LM: That’s a great question because Jo-Anne’s challenges in the film parallel the challenges that exist for any form of media to be made about this subject. It’s almost like a mirror image, in a way: documenting the documentarian.
Funnily and surprisingly enough, it was not hugely challenging to get mainstream market support. That’s not to say that we weren’t rejected many times. In fact, I have this folder called “Funders,” and every single funding application that producer Nina Beveridge and I put together – probably maybe about 30 of them over the course of two years to get fully funded – I think 60% percent of it was red, which mean [gives thumbs down] and then the other 40% was two thumbs up. I actually did colour coat them so when I looked at it I could say “You know, that’s not so bad.” (laughs)
It’s a great question because in a way that’s almost like the narrative backdrop or backbone to the film. I find it so hugely symbolic, and I wanted to hang my hat on a narrative backdrop: something that could illustrate without having to just be so literal about it. This is all part of the trajectory for her, and the reality for Jo-Anne is that she’s recognized and celebrated around the world within animal advocacy circles. But really, those are just little bubbles and it’s really a marginalized social community, issue, or movement. It’s so passionate and I can’t believe just how deep it is.
I really started tapping into that world when I started the project, and I’m still amazed by it. She’s very celebrated within that world, and despite my new attachment to it, I knew I didn’t want to make a film specifically for those people. Of course, it’s for them, too, because they help disseminate within any social movement.
DS: It really destigmatizes this particular movement as more than just a niche.
LM: Yeah, and also as a bunch of crazy radicals who don’t love babies and humans and they only care about animals. I mean, that sounds really extreme, but believe me when I say that even I had in my own brain these same sort of false notions that animal rights activism meant a certain thing. I’ve changed my view on that quite dramatically, and I’m hoping that through Jo you can see the face of an animal rights activist. She’s a beautiful person who has this uncanny empathy, and we can all learn from that. She’s a model and we should all learn to be empathic in this way.
DS: The next parallel that I wanted to get into was the one between human trauma and that suffered by the animals being documented. It’s very touching and heartbreaking when we first see Jo-Anne get her work turned down and she explains how her very job has given her PTSD. Were you surprised to see how those things go hand in hand and do you think that to some degree people don’t like seeing animals as individuals because they don’t want to experience that same kind of pain?
LM: It’s as though Jo-Anne views the world from an animal perspective. She’s always hooked in. It’s like there’s this symbiotic lifeline to the animals, and that struck me most. I thought about how I would express this in the film without actually saying it through her character and juxtaposition of images. If you recall, after she does that initial pitch at Redux – which is her agency in New York City – it transitions to a scene where we walk through New York and everything we see is animal-centric. We see the horse. We see the birds. We see the animal products in the windows. We see just these bits and parts that animals have been reduced to within the machine of our modern world. We’re not really fully conscious of it because these kinds of things have become so commonplace that we all partake. The machine is not outside of us. We are all a part of the machine. It’s not an abstract notion. That reflexive title, The Ghosts in OUR Machine, is intentional. It’s not outside of us. I mean, it’s that, as well, but it’s also about how we contribute to it.
That sequence following Jo’s pitch is how she views the world, and that’s how a lot of these animal rights activists see the world. They see the animals that have been reduced to tools merely for the sake of production and they know the suffering that’s behind that. They’re waving a red flag and asking people to take a look at it because it’s morally significant. It’s not right and how can we become collectively more compassionate and conscious of it.
That scene where she does the pitch and says she has PTSD was something that was very necessary and strategic to include in the editing because it shows and poses the question: “Is this invisible war that she’s documenting also morally significant?” A lot of the questions in the film are really for us to reflect on rather that just us telling people what they ought to think and believe.
DS: When you set out to follow Jo-Anne were you able to steel yourself for what you were about to see?
LM: I was always there and mostly with John Price, who is just a magician when it comes to cinematography. I would do second camera. But for instance, the fur investigation in Europe that we see was really, really hard. It was insanely difficult to witness. The scene as it’s constructed is one of bearing witness to something that’s very commonplace, global, and that we contribute to. It might be this sort of run down, rustic looking thing, but that is part of the machine. It is the machine.
If people are expecting huge access to big, industrialized spaces, go and watch Our Daily Bread. That’s an excellent film and meditation on factory farming methods with near perfect access within those spaces. This film conveys that machine in all different kinds of ways. We’re just going on the fur investigation just as one example, but it’s a powerful one.
It was painful, but I come from a background of doing a lot of human rights films. Starting back in 1999, my first real kind of social issue film was when I worked for War Child Canada as their media director, which meant I was in charge of directing their documentaries. I went to a lot of war torn countries, so I had been on the front lines and witnessed a great deal of tragedy and suffering of humans. Then there was the Stephen Lewis trilogy that I did all through sub-Saharan Africa that were infected and affected by HIV and AIDS and the valley of death that I walked through there.
Doing this one, I would say the sensation and the emotional aftermath was quite similar. It leaves you with questions. Why is it that our species can be so cruel to one another and to other living things and to other animals? How can we confine other beings and hold them in such disregard. For me it’s on the same continuum. I don’t compare them because there’s really no point in doing that and people would take it the completely wrong way. It’s on the same continuum though. That’s how I experienced it.
DS: This seems very much like a film where most of what you need to find to make your points would come across in the editing room. How hard was it to relive these images over and over again for you?
LM: There’s a couple of answers for that. I worked with some truly great editors who had a lot of emotional maturity and a great deal of patience and wisdom to go through every single frame and analyze it with me and essentially create the sequences that were most important for this film.
The other important thing is that I actually find it all very therapeutic because with any film that I’ve made that focuses on injustice I find it really useful – even on just a selfish, personal level – to work with that material and try to do something of service with it. I want to create a form of expression through that material that can help people’s hearts and minds to that subject matter and to shine a light on it. For me, I prefer to work with it rather than just walk away after an experience like that.
DS: I think when a lot of people when they hear the concept for the film might think it’s incredibly bleak and dour, but there’s actually a huge ray of hope that shines through, especially with the story of the cow and the beagle who get rescued from abusive situations. Did you feel a responsibility to put that in there to show that things can get better?
LM: Oh my God, that was so important. (laughs) When I decided that I was going to take this issue on I knew that it was going to be really hard. I was facing the risk of not getting funded. I was facing the risk of making something that would alienate a general audience, when always the intention from the get-go was to create something that could bear the fruit of hope that a general audience would want to watch. If we didn’t do that, I don’t see what the point in making this would have been. There are plenty of animal rights activists out there that are making multimedia projects on those levels already. I wanted to make something different that is for a broader audience. Most people love animals, so I would hope that would make a lot of people want to watch the film.
A question that I’ve been asked many, many times is: “Is it a violent film? I can’t handle watching graphic imagery or violence towards animals.” It was very, very, very intentinal early on to approach this subject in a way that was not like something like Earthlings, for example. I have a great amount of respect for those kinds of films, and I would never take anything away from them, but I wanted to make a gentler film that had dramatic impact but was softer for people to enter.
It’s the impossible issue in a way. It’s the greatest challenge. People’s personal defences come up when you talk about their food or their livelihood or their pets. Animals are bits and parts in so many of our consumer goods that it just brings up almost a paradigm shift. It’s so fundamental to look at the world without using animals as objects. It stirs something in people, and I’m seeing it already in reviews.
DS: It also calls to light how people can pick and choose their battles when it comes to animals. You’ll have people who eat meat, but they say they won’t buy anything tested on animals, or vice versa. Or you have like you hear in the film about how some people say that they will only have dairy products and not eat meat when the reality is that the dairy industry is in many ways worse than the meat industry.
LM: Well, that also brings up a key point, which is that you don’t have to become a vegan to make a difference in the lives of animals. There are lots and lots of ways to make a difference in the world. Honestly, I think that ebb and flow between illustrating animal use within the machine and then illustrating animal sentience within sanctuary environments was really important in terms of the narrative flow.
Honestly, who would want to watch a film all about animal use? It’s really painful to watch, and I think that people get really triggered around the issue because they feel helpless. It’s like children. Surveys and so many polls have been conducted where people say that they love animals, but in their daily lives they have no idea how they’re contributing. There just isn’t that awareness. The film is not meant to be an informational, historical, or even a big contextual examination. It’s not that kind of movie, and that was done on purpose. It was made to open doors on a conversation. It was made to create a cinematic true story to open the doors to people who wouldn’t normally consider the animal question.