Documenting a documentarian is a tricky proposition, but when said craftsman is also an impassioned activist and exceedingly talented artist it becomes even tougher to do justice by the subject. The work done by director Liz Marshall (Water on the Table) in showcase and contextualize the work done by her friend and fellow photographer Jo-Anne McArthur in her film The Ghosts in Our Machine is nothing short of triumphant. It captures the spirit of its subject and the importance of their work in an artful way without ever being preachy. It puts a uniquely and almost painfully human face on the work being done by McArthur, who has made a career out of documenting atrocities faced by animals in forced captivity.
McArthur, the creator of the We Animals project, has devoted her life to capturing disturbing images of animals in cages. Her work is often so raw and harrowing that it comes to uneasy life despite only telling a story through motionless images. She flows secretly through animal testing facilities and fur farms with the dexterity of a cat burglar and the eye of a crime scene photographer. Marshall tags along on several of these missions and ties McArthur’s work into the greater picture of animal sentience. Both McArthur and Marshall’s images are so cutting that it’s impossible to deny the emotions these caged beings are feeling. They wear the experience of hard times on their faces and bodies like a human would.
This isn’t all gloom and doom, though. Marshall and McArthur make sure to pay homage to hopeful stories, as well. There’s a great bit with a used up dairy cow getting a second chance that exudes humanly understandable amounts of relief and the story of Maggie, a beagle used for animal testing learning to love humans again despite deep psychological scarring that will never fully heal no matter how much love is given. It’s not an easy subject overall to take in, and Marshall wants to invoke thought about the world around us without resorting to soapboxing. It’s drawing attention to the emotions that surround the creatures that we take for granted. Marshall is never telling people what to do, but imploring them to reflect on those who fall through the cracks.
Equally as emotional is watching McArthur work and fight to get her pictures to even be seen. An early meeting with her agents sets the tone early on to convey McArthur’s own disappointment. Her job and passion for animal advocacy has led to her developing PTSD, and yet news outlets that routinely run snapshots from war zones where limbs are blown off in explosions won’t touch pictures of beaten up animals living in cages huddling together rout of fear for their lives. It’s immediately sympathetic to see and further underlines just how tough of an issue animal rights is to brace from both sides.
The parallels between the rights of animals and the rights of humans will be of constant debate probably until the end of the world, but Marshall and McArthur make it known in that there are things anyone can do to help end testing and injustice. The point is to make the audience sympathize with the animals and their plight, and Marshall and McArthur make for a perfect team in this respect. It’s not a film designed to make you feel particularly good, or even necessarily that bad despite the sometimes emotionally disturbing (though rarely graphic) material. It’s one designed to ask questions of the audience to look within their own hearts and make a connection to another living creature and offer empathy and mercy. It’s equally tragic, vital, and essential viewing.