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When I’m not writing whimsical posts about Vegan food around town, I am part of a team running a big documentary film festival, and I spend my time watching a lot of docs.

It’s rare that these two things are combined, and when there have been docs advocating for better treatment of animals, most of the time they’ve been preaching to the converted or just plain preachy. Even when it’s being made in the name of treating animals with justice, I just can’t accept a badly-made or boring documentary which doesn’t think about how it will take its audience on a journey. I’ve been rambling for years, wondering when the great Vegan documentary was going to come.

However, next week, a doc challenging how we treat animals is coming to the UK and this one is different – The Ghosts in Our Machine is a new documentary about the uses of animals across all sections of world society, beautifully shot and poetically reflecting the injustice meted out to animals rather than offering one-dimensional advocacy. Made by filmmaker Liz Marshall, and featuring photojournalist Jo-Anne MacArthur, it’s the best set of visual arguments for many years about how we take animals for granted. 

It’s a doc that challenges the blindness which we all have (including us Vegans I’m afraid, no matter how hard we try) about the scale of animal exploitation making the modern world go round. But it doesn’t have high-horse talking heads wagging their fingers at us, it uses a deep parade of pictures and stories – often surreal and peculiar ones – to challenge our blindness to the ‘ghosts’ behind the things we have become dependent on in everyday consumption. 

It’s a damn good film and it’s going to make a big difference, upsetting some but motivating others to try going animal-free in their consumption and, even better, consume less as a whole. Importantly, it’s aimed at a mainstream audience and not only Vegans. But no-one on screen is going to tell you to do that, you’ll just feel it because this documentary will make you feel different when the lights go up. And that is incredible documentary-making.

I’m very pleased to say that I will be moderating a discussion after the London screening next week at the Hackney Picturehouse and I hope you’ll be there too. I advance of that screening, I interviewed the director Liz Marshall. You can read it after the Fox below:

Fox in fur farm

Fox in fur farm (The Ghosts In Our Machine_We Animals © 2012)

Charlie: What were your hopes for the film at the start?

Liz Marshall: The motivation behind the project  was not to be pigeonholed or ghettoised, and the two-fold motivation I set at the start still informs us as we look to the film’s impact and engagement:

Firstly, to help usher this complex subject to the fore, and help the movement for better treatment of animals to put it more on the radar. To say that this is moral significant and it needs our attention.

I make human rights and environmental documentaries, this is my first animal rights film, but I am aware of how stigmatised this issue has been historically. But a shift is happening culturally and in terms of celebrity culture too – it’s really good that culture, consumer culture, the green movement, the social justice movement, and people generally, are recognising factory farming is a dire situation.

Whether people then make the equation that animals have moral significance, that’s more difficult – the argument can be made that there’s a long way to go in terms of widening the core audience round this issue and also in educating the public around animal sentience.

But there’s a scientific movement of evidence that people can’t ignore, and people listen to scientists so that it significant.

So the first main motivation was to create a film on this issue that could reach a wider audience.

The second motivation was to create a bridge to other movements like the environmental movement, to not have these separate islands of social justice movements – I thought we could bring it all together. I hope the film helps to make those connections.

C: Tell me more about the Impact and Engagement Project you’re doing

LM: I just got a grant by the Bertha BRITDOC Connect Fund , this is the European side to the new chapter in the film’s distribution phase, especially the community screenings that I’ve been immersed in for the last year. This fund will allow us to build online modules to measure the impact of the film on individuals over time. We’ll be announcing that this Friday.  

Working with a small team, we are creating impact and engagement tools that will be important to measure how the film touches peoples’ lives. It’s not a black and white film – not many watch it and then make radical changes, it’s not like carnivores come and see the film and then go Vegan…although that happens, it always happens, but for most people who see the film, it’s a journey!

It’s removing peoples’ blinders, that’s the first step. The blinders need to be removed so people can see the animals that are invisible, and hidden in these industries, and that we have such a pervasive use of them in our global system, and that we are all complicit – the collective ‘we’.

This isn’t a finger-wagging film, outing farmers and corporations and blaming them. It addresses the individuals in the audience, hence “In Our machine” not The Machine – it’s meant to inspire reflection in every person who see it.

We want to be able to measure how that will work in peoples’ actions, and attitudes in the long-term after they see the film. Step one is an awakening – a change in our attitudes to animals. Step two then follows in our behaviour.

C: How will you measure that?

LM: I can’t talk about it yet but we will release interesting information as we go, starting from early Autumn. We will launch a living engagement website.


Rescued Dog

Rescued Dog (The Ghosts In Our Machine_We Animals © 2012)

C: What were you trying to do that was different to other animal-based documentaries?LM: We were definitely trying to do something different to other animal rights films. In preparation for making this film, we watched everything else out there and I studied what worked from my point of view. I’m not negative about those films, but I wanted to do something different.

People shut down quickly and go into denial, they wear their blinders, they don’t want to see. People innately care about animal and most people recognise that they are innocent. They don’t want to know what’s going on behind the scenes. The film reveals this haunting chilling reality without it being grotesque and violent, though we do show animal suffering. But we don’t dwell on suffering, we dwell on empathy.

It’s the photographer Jo-Anne’s vision of the world…a 92minute journey to see the world through her eyes, and we meet a cast of animals and get close to them.

C: How will the release and impact of the film in Europe be different to North America?

LM: It’s interesting, you can gauge through the social media metrics where in the world the film is getting the most attention. Since we set up the Facebook page and started releasing Vimeo clips in 2011 our metrics on geography have been consistent  – the US is always the top fan as a country, but that’s strange, we are Canadian, and it’s a European-style movie, by which I mean it’s not a polemic, it’s not talking heads. It’s been interesting to witness how the US has championed the movie.

Now with Europe, countries there are further along on welfare and the protection of animals legally. You’re more advanced – the UK is the birthplace of animal rights, so we hope for a great response. 

Bird's head in laboratory

Bird’s head in laboratory (The Ghosts In Our Machine_We Animals © 2012)

C: Did you encounter any resistance from the industry when you first started making the film?

LM: Absolutely! The reaction was very polarised when I was making it. It was sexy to some, others wanted to distance themselves completely. It lends itself to that extreme reaction.

People look at our poster, it doesn’t matter who they are, they take a double or triple look and they can’t look away, you can see them reflecting and processing, thinking about the meaning of the image and the title, they either get defensive or shut down or they go “tell me about this”.

The film's poster

The film’s poster

It’s been fascinating to observe the reaction to the movie. We have had senior film critics who just haven’t reviewed it, they refuse, they react to the issue, they just can’t react to the film as a film!

C: So this is a good time for you to get this doc out there?

LM: The film has mostly been shown in urban settings, there’s an explosion happening in consumer movements to eat plant-based diets. People are starting to recognise they can cut down on their consumption of meat – something like Meat Free Monday is a household name.

This movement is catching on as ripple effect, there’s been a lot of momentum over the last decade, and even since we started developing the film in 2010. It’s great timing for a documentary about this issue. 

Tickets for the screening are available here