No, Matthew Galkin’s first solo directing effort is not a sequel to “The Elephant Man,” but rather does a concise and evenhanded job of presenting the good, bad, ugly and near-delusional about the animal right movement and one of its most visible architects, PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk. Invariably, reaction will be filtered through each person’s ideological prism, but “I Am an Animal” deftly highlights why the movement is so hard to take seriously, exhibiting a kind of messianic zeal, narrow perspective and shrill moral superiority that borders on narcissism.
Along the way, we learn a few intriguing tidbits about Newkirk, who co-founded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in 1980 and cites her goal as being “total animal liberation,” reminding the world that “all animals feel — not just the cute ones with the big eyes.” She’s an atheist who lives alone and, notably, doesn’t keep any pets.
PETA’s undercover operations do yield grotesque footage of animals being abused in, say, a slaughterhouse for turkeys before Thanksgiving. Yet even some fellow animal activists, such as Priscilla Feral (a great last name for this line of work), shake their heads over PETA’s tactics for having “trivialized animal rights” through such attention-getting stunts as defacing furriers’ windows and equating eating animals to the Holocaust.
Newkirk clearly feels she is on a crusade, and her supporters (among them board member Bill Maher, who’s among those interviewed) defend even her hyperbolic tendencies, stressing that it’s in the service of a good cause. Still, when Newkirk expresses solidarity with the more militant Animal Liberation Front — which recently vandalized a UCLA researcher’s home and is shown here in homevideos destroying labs and setting fires — sympathy shrivels and a thick juicy steak starts to sound pretty good.
The most powerful image that emerges from Galkin’s unblinking camera, in fact, doesn’t come from the slaughterhouses (however repellent those might be) but from the irritating sense of self-justification Newkirk and her colleagues bring to their mission. Yes, PETA has helped focus attention on the issue, but when Newkirk says that surreptitiously shot footage “has the potential to save the world” or that “Even a failure to me is still doing something,” there’s a willful myopia at work here, however well intentioned.
Fortunately for PETA, Newkirk and her group will continue to have no shortage of access to media, hungry as news divisions are for kooky straw men to knock over. Moving beyond those sound bites, “I Am an Animal” digs deeper into what makes both the group and its guiding presence tick, but — pardon this analogy — seeing how this sausage gets made doesn’t make it any more appetizing.