“I feel a tremendous sense of obligation and responsibility for this film to reach the people,” award-winning filmmaker Liz Marshall told me when we spoke on the phone recently. Even in the midst of preparing for its premiere, Marshall took time to discuss her much-buzzed-about film, The Ghosts In Our Machine.
A compelling documentary about both the ubiquity and the invisibility of animals in our world, Ghosts follows animal photographer Jo-Anne McArthur as she traverses heartbreaking and heartwarming terrain, figurative and literal alike.
“I wouldn’t say that I take photographs of animals,” McArthur says in the film. “I would say that I photograph the predicaments that animals are in because of humans.”
McArthur travels Canada, the United States and Europe, in each location documenting something (and someone—countless someones) different. From caged critters on fur farms to claustrophobic aquaria, from skittish lab beagles to formerly confined dairy cows making an escape, we become members of her critical mission: to uncover what’s at once hidden in plain sight, as well as what’s beyond the environs of our everyday encounters.
Food, fashion, entertainment and research—Ghosts explores each of these areas of exploitation, and does so with taste and tact, grace and gumption. Gorgeously shot and meticulously edited, it’s no wonder this aesthetic gem premiered at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival and, I’m told, received a standing ovation.
“This is a film designed to open the door to deeper awareness, or awareness for the first time,” explained Marshall as we concluded our call. “I hope people understand it, that’s all.”
Please read on for more from the talented auteur filmmaker. Then, peruse the interactive section of Ghosts’ site, which supplies an immersive introduction to the film. And, if you’re in Toronto, snag tickets to the theatrical release at Carlton Cinema between May 31 and June 6, as Ghosts is poised to resonate well into the future, long after the sentient beings we meet on screen are gone.
Why does this story need to be told?
Because it’s a significant social issue. I think it is being told, in various ways, by all kinds of incredible, multimedia [people] around the world: thinkers, writers, speakers, activists. I’m just adding to the way it’s being told. I’m adding a new language to tell this story, which has been around for quite some time. But, it’s all about how it’s told. The biggest challenge since I started developing it in 2010 has been trying to find the right tone. The right way to anchor the “animal question” to a story that could then be universally accessible. In terms of filmmaking, I think The Ghosts In Our Machine is [serving] a useful—and powerful—purpose at this particular juncture in history. We’re telling this story in a way that, I believe, [will be] received by a larger demographic.
How did you arrive at the title? Why “our machine” and not “the machine”?
[The latter] is all over the internet. Every possible genre has appropriated this phrase, especially science fiction. So, I decided on The Ghosts In Our Machine. The “our” in the title is very significant because, the way I see it, the “machine” is not an abstract notion outside ourselves. We are the machine. We feed the machine, as consumers, and we have the power to make a difference and change the way things are. In that regard, The Ghosts In Our Machine turns it on the viewer. It says to the audience, Well, what can you do?
Absolutely. With that said, when and why did you become vegan?
I became vegetarian when I was 18 because I read John Robbins’ amazing book, Diet for a New America. It really radicalized the way I think about animals, the environment and food production. But, I slipped occasionally. I would forget why I was vegetarian. I would sometimes eat fish or chicken. But, when I [got together with] my partner, Lorena, nine years ago, she reopened my eyes to the animal rights issue. I chose to become vegan when I started developing The Ghosts In Our Machine, about three years ago.
Onto the nitty-gritty, what was it like sneaking into a fur farm and filming?
That was my first time doing any kind of animal investigation. And it was really, really, really hard. As a social issue filmmaker, I’ve been to the frontlines of human atrocities all over the world—war-torn countries, HIV AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, poverty-stricken slums in parts of Africa and South America, things like that—but I’ve never done a documentary that focused on animals caught within this machine. It makes you wonder how we can do this to other species. I don’t understand it.
I am comparably perplexed. On a separate note, it’s incredible the pristine production, especially given the circumstances and crew size. You had, like, five people (crew included) plus security on watch outside, right? Wasn’t that tough and super risky?
We took equipment that was very conducive to doing fieldwork. Yes, we were definitely several people, but it was a tight ship, let’s put it that way. Very, very, very well-planned. [We] were planning that investigation for five months leading up to it.
I can’t even imagine. So, your film focuses on several specific things, like fur farms, lab beagles, aquaria and dairy cows. How did you determine what elements of abuse (and rescue) to incorporate, given the pool of options is so vast?
In total, there’s about 180 hours of footage. The film is 92 minutes long. I wanted there to be one investigation story. I didn’t want more than one, because I think it would be overwhelming. I definitely wanted there to be a couple of rescue stories. The film ebbs and flows between witnessing animal use and then animals living in peaceful, happy, loving environments, like Farm Sanctuary. It was important to try to create that balance. People will not want to watch this film if, from beginning to end, it’s all about animal abuse. Ultimately, I want people to walk away with a new understanding of animals, as truly unique, feeling, conscious beings. So, that’s what this film is trying to achieve.
I noticed—and appreciated—that it was equal parts uplifting and harrowing. So, what aspect of the experience making this film was most difficult for you?
The totality of it. You know when you know something intellectually and then you actually feel it? I had a deeper “ah-ha” moment when I decided to go vegan. The blinders came off 100% and I became very aware that, all around me in the urban environment, animals are everywhere. Animals have been reduced to ingredients. To bits and parts all around us. And we’re so accustomed to it. It’s “normal,” in a way. Quote-unquote, normal. But normal doesn’t mean it’s right. When you grow up with something as normal, you don’t necessarily question it. You need the veil to be lifted. You need that awakening. So, my own awareness was the impetus for me to try to create a film for people that would gently lift the veil. By the end of the film, people leave the theater with a new awareness. And that’s a big task to try to accomplish, but that truly is the goal of the film.
Anything you would go back and change if you could do it all over again? (Apart from setting every caged animal free.)
I feel at peace with the film. In the past, there was always something nagging at me. But, with this project, I feel it’s done. It’s ready to be released.
Please consider supporting Jo-Anne McArthur’s ambitious book project, We Animals, which, once published, will add yet another element to Ghosts’ potent story.
No release is scheduled yet for the U.S. Film distribution leads are warmly welcomed. Please chime in if you know how to help bring Ghosts below the border.
All photos are courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals, except for the shot of the camera photographing the sheep, which is courtesy of Liz Marshall.