“THINK OCCASIONALLY OF THE SUFFERING OF WHICH YOU SPARE YOURSELF THE SIGHT,” philosopher Albert Schweitzer once famously said. In the new documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine, we are asked to look directly at what society routinely averts its gaze from—the lives of the animals we share this planet with. In reality, of course, as this film shows—”sharing” is inaccurate. With over 150 billion animals killed for human consumption annually, and billions more killed for fashion, in vivisection, and exploited for entertainment—”dominating” is a more fitting description of our relationship with our fellow earthlings. Nearly every global industry profits off of the bodies of animals. The film urges the viewer to consider the pain behind ubiquitous things like a pair of leather shoes; the container of milk at the supermarket; a household cleaning product; the circus tent, or the aquarium. The Ghosts in Our Machine arrives at a timely moment, when we as a society are starting to more actively address the moral conundrum and the injustice of hurting animals for our perceived benefit. The film follows renown photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, as she tirelessly documents animals in captivity and in freedom over the course of a year. Through her journey, we discover not only the gravity of animal suffering, but also the depth of animal sentience, as well as our undeniable bond with animals. Here, director Liz Marshall, who has been creating social justice-related projects for close to two decades, offers us some insights into her latest film.
One can’t say that this documentary is about animals alone, with Jo as a protagonist. It’s also about the human-animal experience. Was that the goal? To make the subject matter more relatable to those unfamiliar with the situation by showing it though the eyes of a compassionate person?
As a social-issue filmmaker I look for creative engaging ways to tell complicated stories, with the hope of elevating tough issues. Not an easy task. It is an issue film, yes, but it is also a cinematic narrative about a photographer. The sentience of animals is at the heart of the film and the sentience of Jo-Anne McArthur is the connective thread that weaves the stories of animal enslavement and liberation together. Through Jo’s heart and lens we meet a cast of nonhuman animals. My instinct to feature Jo as the films’ protagonist was the narrative device that helped me get clearer about the vision I wanted for the film. I knew I wanted the film to focus on the four main animal industries: Food; Research; Fashion and Entertainment, but was looking for a story. Anchoring the issues through an accessible human story of courage and purpose was a way for us all (including the cinematographers and editors) to illustrate ideas and values (like empathy), by showing and not telling.
By changing just one word (“the” to “our”), the title turned a common expression into something deeply reflexive and compelling. But did you ever worry that our fearful cultural associations with the word “ghosts” could misconstrue the title for anyone? Or has that word and title in fact worked to your advantage in bringing more attention to the plight of animals?
Thanks. I love the reflexivity of the title – and believe me I laboured over it – tossed and turned at night! ‘ghost in the machine’ is a common phrase, like ‘return to sender’, I made sure to get legal consultation about this title issue and then we did a professional name search as well, for insurance purposes, because the title was just too important and I wanted to lock into it with confidence during our development phase! I wanted a variation on the phrase, so that we aren’t looking outward, wagging a finger at someone or some corporate entity, but rather looking at ourselves: Oh, I am part of the machine! Aha! What can I do about that? Also, importantly, a good title inspires the filmmaking process. THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE is a conceptual title and it is always with me, informing the project. The ‘ghosts’ are the billions of animals used within the machine of our modern world; they are hidden in the shadows of our highly mechanized world.
What did you learn about animals that you didn’t know before you set off
on this path?
A lot. About their moral significance. About their sentience, as defined by the latest scientific reports. About the global magnitude of their suffering. These are things I knew about before, and had sensitivity to, but in living and breathing this project for almost 3 years now, I know it more deeply, as do other key members of our team. Also, I got to spend time with rescued animals, and form relationships with some of them. It was mind blowing to know Fanny, a former spent dairy cow featured in the film. She is remarkable, so unique and gentle. I miss her and hope to see her at Farm Sanctuary again soon!
And similarly, what did you learn about yourself?
I think I have learned a lot about myself. On a personal level I have learned that it is possible and so vital and important to embrace and connect all forms of social justice: human rights, environmental rights and animal rights. They are interconnected. I didn’t really know that was entirely possible before but do now! On a professional level, I can see that the years and years I have spent (well I am not that old, but since 1995) honing the craft and exploring the language of documentary, and traveling the world with projects, and exploring social issues, I feel that everything has come together with this project. And how that manifests is that I am at peace with the film, it is the film I wanted to make. With other films, there was always something nagging at me that I wanted to change. Don’t get me wrong, there are some details in the film that I would love to change, but I can live with them, I am at peace. Also, the experience of working within this genre and industry has given me added incentive and determination to try to do everything we possibly can to make an impact with this project.
Do you feel like you have a different purpose as a filmmaker now?
Not a different purpose no, but a more defined one. My next project won’t be a romantic comedy, let’s put it that way!
Any future plans to make more films on the subject of animals?
I can’t imagine what it could be … There are many many films about the subject of animals to be made, and they will be made. This my offering, for the ghosts.
The Ghosts in Our Machine is currently screening in Canada, and preparing for its release in the United States. The filmmakers are seeking investors to ensure the widest release possible and are also accepting donations.
Learn more about the film:
The Ghosts in Our Machine
Read our exclusive ten-page story, featuring the photography and
narrative of Jo-Anne McArthur in our new Summer 2013 Issue.
Top photo by Jo-Anne McArthur
Introduction and interview by Julie Gueraseva