Thursday, August 22, 2013

BLACKFISH: A FILM THAT CUTS DEEP

KIDNAPPINGS. VIOLENCE. DECEPTION. COVER-UPS. The plot of an action-packed Hollywood thriller? Not quite. It’s just business as usual at SeaWorld, the world’s most prominent (and profitable) animal theme park, where 45 orcas-or “killer whales”- currently live in captivity at its various locations. The billion dollar industry started seeing cracks in its carefully-crafted facade of “good wholesome family fun” in February of 2010, when one of SeaWorld’s top trainers Dawn Brancheau was suddenly, and with seemingly no explanation, killed by the one of the park’s orcas — Tilikum. Why would an animal who shows no aggression towards humans in the wild lash out with so much violence at a human while in captivity? And why would SeaWorld place the blame on an experienced trainer? Filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite sought to find the answer, and the result of her quest is the powerful documentary Blackfish. The gut-socking film investigates the notorious incident, and ultimately becomes much more— a statement on animal consciousness, providing irrefutable visual and audible evidence that orcas are highly emotional beings. They show acute anguish and distress when taken by force from the wild and separated from their families, as Tilikum was when he was a 2-year-old calf. They yearn for expansive space. They fail to function normally in confined spaces. They suffer. They go mad. And this has consequences. “I hope “animals for entertainment” becomes a relic, a circus, something from another century that we evolved out of,” Gabriela told us when we spoke to her about Blackfish recently. Here, the director shares more of her thoughts on her film, and on animals.

The vegan community has really embraced Blackfish, many reacting with statements like, “this is why I’m vegan.” How does that make you feel?
It’s an honor. I understand, better than I ever have, what it means to share this planet. I think [journalist] Nicholas Kristof said it best, “we haven’t agreed on where the line should be drawn, but we all agree there is a line.” I think that’s progress.

The tagline of the film is “Never capture what you can’t control.” What are your thoughts on other animals in captivity who might be described as easier to control than Orcas?
I think the film makes a case against animals for entertainment, but I do believe it calls into question so much more. I hope the film encourages us to revisit the “cringe factor” we all experience when we see an animals being used as commodities. We’ve all felt this cringe-factor at some level and I think it’s a great instinct because it comes from empathy. But over time it can be drummed out of us if we let it.

Institutions that profit off of animals used for entertainment notoriously engage in corruption. But were you especially shocked at the level of deception going on at SeaWorld? What was the biggest revelation for you?
I couldn’t possibly name just one. Learning about [orcas] shortened life-spans in captivity was a revelation. Learning about the number of aggressive incidents between killer whales and trainers was shocking, but learning about the aggression between killer whales and the constant social strife was jaw-dropping for me. I guess I always wanted to think that at the very least, these animals bond with each other. And that’s just not the case.

You accomplished a remarkable thing in giving the viewer an experience where they imagined themselves in the orcas’ place, which is one of the reasons people react so strongly to the film. Was there anything in particular you employed in terms of sound, editing, cinematography to achieve this “first person feel?”
I was hoping to “show, not tell” the audience a story. I was hoping that if I pulled back the curtain and allowed the audience to hear the fact-driven story, they would have authentic reactions that they discovered on their own, not because the film was telling them how to feel or what to do.

But the facts about killer whales are so relatable. They have strong family bonds, they seem to experience grief, they are highly intelligent – these are things that remind us of ourselves and allow us to understand and empathize in a powerful way.

Can you talk a bit about the journey of this film—the challenges and triumphs of bringing a film that deals with the controversial topic of the human/animal relationship to the big screen and a wide release?
Blood, sweat and tears! It took us 2 years to complete the film. We went from looking for funding, to gathering willing interviewees, to hearing about whale trauma, human trauma, and of course knowing we better get everything right because the big guns might come after us..it was very stressful. The first triumph was finishing the film. The second, and most memorable, was getting accepted into Sundance. The third was just mind-boggling: getting bought by Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films. I cried from happiness, from exhaustion, and from the realization that people might see this film, and that we had a shot at helping tighten something up that has come unraveled in the world.

Since making this film, do you feel a deeper bond with the orcas?
I feel awe inspired, I’m fascinated, but what I feel the most is respect. What I learned about what these animals are capable of defies imagination. There’s no way we can ever give them what they need to thrive or survive in captivity.

 

Postscript: Since the film’s release, SeaWorld has been reporting a drop in attendance. And Pixar Studios reportedly made significant changes to the script for “Finding Dory,” its sequel to “Finding Nemo,” after viewing “Blackfish.”

Blackfish is in theaters nationally. For information on current and upcoming screenings, visit the film’s site.

Intro and interview by Julie Gueraseva. Photograph courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A CLOSER LOOK: THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE

“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.

Jo-Anne McArthur during a fox fur farm investigation, Europe. Photo by Liz Marshall.

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

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

THE SECOND ISSUE HAS ARRIVED!

LOVELY READERS, WE ARE SO THRILLED TO SHARE OUR Second Issue: Summer Abundance Issue! Brimming with vibrant content, bursting with color— this is the place where creativity and compassion converge. We have compelling profiles on future luminaries like our amazing cover star Clara Polito, who at only sixteen years old is already leaving an indelible mark on the world with her vegan bakery Clara Cakes and her passionate activism. Style and substance come together in our first-of-its kind stunning 8 page feature on vegan and ethical fashion, styled by Joshua Katcher. And we continue to showcase the most brilliant discoveries in everything from food to beauty. Of course, as always, we dig deeper with uncompromising features on animals. Like the photo essay and exclusive narrative from groundbreaking photographer Jo-Anne McArthur— for the first time in print, including never-before-seen images from her archives. Contributors like renown author James McWilliams return with spectacularly thought-provoking essays.

Clara Polito Clara Cakes Laika

We get invited into the homes and lives of paradigm-shifting trailblazers like triathlete and Vega founder Brendan Brazier, who shares his lifelong expert knowledge on wellness; and Chef and restaurateur Makini Howell of the celebrated Plum Bistro who gives us an inside look into her signature cuisine. We travel around the country to bring you the most fascinating stories from activists, some who are raising their kids vegan, and others who are declaring their compassion in the form of tattoos.

And that’s just the beginning! With nearly 20 pages more content than the Premier Issue, we have the most innovative and exciting subject matter in the vegan community covered. Made with love, from the heart, this issue is a bold declaration of the limitless possibilities of compassionate living and the abundance of sensory enjoyment that it holds for everyone.

We hope you love our Second Issue: Summer Abundance Issue as much as we loved making it! It will be arriving to our subscribers in the first week of July and hitting newsstands soon after that, and is now available to order on our site! Stay tuned for extras, outtakes, and behind-the-scenes videos. We’re so thrilled and grateful to have you along for this ride!

Cover photographed by Sylvia Elzafon

Clara Polito feature “Girl Wonder” photographed by Joel Barhamand

Fashion feature “Summer Fling” photographed by Balarama Heller

“Philly Flavor” photographed by Hannah Kaminsky