What are animals?
Are they sentient beings, who feel pain, pleasure, and attachment?
Or are they property – used solely for food and for clothing, medical research, breeding, and entertainment?
Film-maker Liz Marshall’s 2013 documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine argues that, while all animals deserve to be treated with respect, the majority of which are cruelly used as commodities or entertainment for humans.
The film follows photographer Jo-Anne McArthur over the course of one year, as she travels abroad to capture animal abuse through her lens. The audience witnesses McArthur’s triumphs in capturing rare, significant pictures of animals in fur and factory farms, as well as her exhaustion and sorrow of bearing witness to such cruelty.
Marshall has been making films since 1995 and uses her craft as a vehicle to communicate pressing issues, such as social justice, human rights, and environmental awareness. But The Ghosts in Our Machine is her first film focusing entirely on animal rights, an issue that’s been close to her heart for years.
“I’ve always been sympathetic to the plight of animals,” said Marshall over the phone from Toronto. “I’ve been a vegetarian since the age of 18, so I’m very sensitive to the topic and I wanted to try to the best of my ability to create a film that would reach a broad audience.”
Marshall knew the subject matter wasn’t typical for a mainstream audience. The Ghosts in Our Machine follows McArthur as she documents animals in abusive living situations – animals confined to tiny cages that cut up their paws and mouths, held in captivity before being slaughtered for fur.
Why, then, create a film that would be inherently hard to swallow?
“I was drawn to the challenge of it,” said Marshall. “I’m very aware that animal rights as an issue is a tough one for a lot of people to grasp or validate.
“Most people will say they care about animals, and yet a lot of those people don’t know about the issues that are explored in the film,” she said. “And they don’t necessarily want to know.”
Marshall said that although the use of animals is ingrained within our society, she believes this attitude is shifting, and that more and more people are becoming aware of animal rights and making ethical decisions as consumers.
“The Ghosts in Our Machine is part of that zeitgeist that’s starting to emerge,” she said, of this growing support for animal rights.
A driving motivation for Marshall in creating the film was achieving balance between the more difficult scenes, with just as many “happy animal” stories.
“The film is not a graphic, violent film, and that was very deliberate. It doesn’t need to be – it still has integrity, but it didn’t need to show all of the graphic, violent details of what goes on.”
Indeed, there are just as many happy stories as there are sad in The Ghosts in Our Machine. It’s hard to watch as McArthur sneaks into European fur farms to photograph foxes and minks, their eyes large and hopeless and sunken in matted fur. But before we get too swept up in tragedy, Marshall’s narrative takes us to the Farm Sanctuary rescue shelter in upstate New York, where over 500 rescued farm animals are provided with the space, food, veterinary care, and love they deserve.
“It was important to illustrate the kind of reprieve for Jo-Anne, that she needed to recover from the field work, visiting Farm Sanctuary and being with happy animals. And in creating that sense of sanctuary for her in the movie, it also creates sanctuary for the audience,” said Marshall. “It’s an opportunity for the audience to catch their breath, to laugh, to feel good again.”
McArthur, who was diagnosed with PTSD in 2011 after extensive field work in documenting this abuse, thinks it’s important to use her talents and craft to expose larger issues.
“I realised I saw our relationship with animals in a different way than most people did,” said McArthur, also over the phone from Toronto. “I always had an empathy with their experience and I always had a great concern for animals.”
Though McArthur has been behind the lens as a professional photographer for 15 years, she had no problem stepping in front of the camera for this film.
“I decided long ago that I would put my face, my name and my words to the work that I do. There are a lot of good reasons why other activists don’t do that – safety reasons,” she said. But McArthur knows that her knowledge and experience make her a good spokesperson, and was more than willing to be the face of the message in this film.
The Ghosts in Our Machine has earned rave reviews, with many critics praising it both for its important message and beautiful cinematography. Marshall and McArthur are thrilled to be gaining more recognition for the plight of animals, even though it’s not an easy message to make accessible.
“To question the use of animals is very personal for people,” said McArthur. “To confront animal rights is to confront ourselves and our complicity in animals. And we all do, it’s really hard to avoid.”
The Ghosts in Our Machine premieres on the Documentary Channel this November, and will also be available on DVD in spring of 2014. For more information on the film and how you can help animals in your community and around the world, please visit theghostsinourmachine.com.