Film Review: ‘The Ghosts in Our Machine’

'The Ghosts in Our Machine' Review

A feature-length plea for 'human animals' to consider the rights of other species upsets more than it enlightens

Livestock consultant Temple Grandin had the right idea when she said, “ I feel strongly that we give animals a life worth living,” whereas animal-rights expose “The Ghosts in Our Machine” seems considerably more perplexed about its own agenda. Ostensibly an attempt to make “human animals” more empathetic toward the living creatures they might otherwise eat and wear, Liz Marshall’s incredibly difficult-to-watch docu shadows photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, whose snaps (surprisingly few of which are featured here) depict cruelty and abuse to the most cuddly finned and four-legged creatures she can find. This off-putting pic requires open minds and iron nerves.

McArthur sees herself as a war photographer working on the front lines of an “invisible” battle for animal rights — an intriguing but poorly defined term in a film that seems to confuse the reciprocal love domesticated pets provide with the fact that animals are just that: animals, many of which would eat or wear us if they could. A visit to a fox-fur farm, while exciting in its covert infiltration techniques, proves typically misleading, using the fact that the animals look unhappy in McArthur’s photos as evidence that something must be done. (Oddly, the animals look unhappy and grotesque in nearly all McArthur’s photos, including those taken at a sanctuary for liberated farm animals where she goes to unwind.)

It’s enough to make you sad, not for the animals (to whom human cruelty is nothing new), but for McArthur, this beautiful young woman who feels so deeply for those not of her kind that she carries their collective suffering around with her daily. What must it be like to experience PTSD after visiting dairy farms and facilities that supply primates for medical testing? Like poor Haley Joel Osment, who saw dead people, she sees the animal suffering that no one else witnesses.

Early in the docu, she meets with reps at Redux Pictures, an agency that specializes in helping activist photogs place unsettling yet important images in major publications. McArthur doesn’t seem to understand why no one wants to look at the scenes she’s captured, why dozens of photos of malnourished animals cowering in cages actually overloads a normal person’s capacity for empathy.

The docu, which shares an artsy quality (that is, an artificially stylized tendency to zero in on details within any given scene) with McArthur’s work, suffers from the same problem: It cares too much about the cause and forgets that the public still needs some convincing on the subject of animal rights. It’s not practical to go around adopting every abused creature the world has to offer, and yet, judging by footage of purpose-bred Beagles and a liberated mama pig’s squealing brood, that’s the film’s idea of a solution.

Both McArthur and director Marshall need a better strategy. (In the helmer’s case, one that doesn’t rely on disembodied soundbites, dramatic music and images of slow-motion suffering would be a good start.) Here’s an idea: Think more long-term than the animals in immediate danger, and stop trying to convince adults, but try to address children instead. A different cut of the film might galvanize the next generation.

Film Review: 'The Ghosts in Our Machine'

Reviewed at Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (Best of Fests), Nov. 30, 2013. (Also in HotDocs Film Festival.) Running time: 92 MIN.


(Documentary — Canada) A Ghosts Media presentation produced in association with Documentary, produced with the participation of CMF FMC, HotDocs, Shaw Media, Bell Broadcast and New Media Fund. (International sales: Films Transit Intl., Montreal.) Produced by Liz Marshall, Nina Beveridge. Executive producer, Mila Aung-Thwin.


Directed by Liz Marshall. Camera (color, HD), John Price, Iris Ng, Nick de Pencier; editors, Roland Schlimme, Roderick Deogrades; music, Bob Wiseman; music supervisor, Amy Fritz; sound, Jason Milligan; supervising sound editor, Garrett Kerr; re-recording mixer, Noah Bingham; visual effects, Dennis Mason.


Jo-Anne McArthur, Marcel Saba, Lori Reese, Perrie Wardell, Martin Rowe, Jasmin Singer, Mariann Sullivan, Susie Coston, Melanie Dion-Eadon, Mark Eadon, James Wellford, Jonathan Balcombe, Lori Marino, Temple Grandin, Theodora Capaldo, Vandana Shiva, Bruce Friedrich, Antoine F. Goetschel, Gieri Bolliger.

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  1. Kirsi says:

    There is so much that is problematic about the first sentence of this review that I had to cringe…and the rest didn’t get any more insightful. It is clear that Mr. Debruge has done little or no research on factory farming (or if he has, he must have been so determined not to upset his mental status quo that he managed to block out the profoundly abusive nature of the system). This entire review is marked by gross over-simplification and under-appreciation of a nuanced and hairy topic. Even if she is personally attached to her slaughterhouse methods, Temple Grandin admits that the realities of factory farming are horrific when workers do not treat their charges with respect (she recently decried abuse on a dairy farm Unfortunately, respect for human and non-human animals alike is in very short supply in big ag (certainly in shorter supply than Grandin is willing to believe).

    I couldn’t take Debruge’s opinion of the film itself seriously because it was clear that he was flippant and dismissive to the point of not having really seen it with open eyes. I have read some say that they would have preferred more facts or human experts in the film. Many other documentaries are set up that way, and I personally enjoyed the more artistic take as something a little different. I didn’t see a comment in this review, however, that was as straightforward and pertinent an opinion as the one I just gave. Hyperbolic, snarky, sloppy, and painfully short-sighted writing all around. (And yes, Mr. Debruge, we are animals, too. Perhaps the harsh realities of the film, as you say, overloaded your capacity for empathy?)

  2. Hi Peter,
    I respect your opinions though as someone who frequents Farm Sanctuary I guarantee you the animals there are happy, of course when they first arrive they may be scared because of where they came from. I know it can be upsetting to be shown the truth. This is a beautiful film with every camera angle and shot carefully and artistically selected. I have watched countless documentaries and never has a scene stayed with me like that scene at the fox fur farm. I don’t suppose the film makers set out to end animal cruelty with this film, and its not fair to expect that they should have aimed it at children to make a difference. The animals in the film deserve their story be told, and that was surely accomplished. I recommend this film to everyone. Thank you for watching.

  3. Mike Chutich says:

    Dear Variety,

    Next time find an objective reviewer, not someone as biased and defensive as Mr. Debruge. His first sentence disqualifies him from reviewing this film. Of course livestock consultant Temple Grandin would say, “I feel strongly that we give animals a life worth living.” She is a LIVESTOCK CONSULTANT! She is a part of the machine, as is Mr. Debruge. I give his review a failing grade.

  4. Dawn Matsumoto says:

    Are you so callous and unable to step outside of your own skin for enough time to realize that the animals look sad because they have been tortured for their entire lives? That this film is upsetting because what humans do to animals is upsetting? Your “argument” against this film basically bullet points every single reason the film was made. I don’t want to go on with this much longer, lest I succumb to the temptation of a full bore, ad hominem attack; however, I feel that perhaps you should dust off your soul once in awhile and try to expand your heart space to include those not like you–whether four legged, finned or human.

  5. This film review only manages to validate just how important and vital a film like this one is, along with every type of animal rights advocacy. Peter Debruge, your chilling perspective is exactly wherein this problem lies. When did you determine your strange truth to be that only humans matter in this world? Painful to read.

  6. Karin Nelson says:

    Shame on this reviewer for his complacency and scorn for someone trying to expose the truth about what we are doing to animals. Oh yeah…that’s right…it’s an inconvenient truth so let’s rip it apart. You sir, are part of the problem!

  7. Todd Wilson says:

    The fact that the reviewer thinks the animals at the sanctuary look unhappy and grotesque really speaks volumes!

  8. Ana Wolf says:

    I am shocked at this reviewer’s interpretation. Helping people understand the atrocity of suffering that is rampant in our culture is the single most important avenue to take to further our own specie’s evolvement. We are so numb and disconnected from animals and the larger world around us that we…are no longer awake.. .and are killing our planet and damaging our own connection to truth, love and happiness. Its time to wake up.

  9. Chilling review. “… using the fact that the animals look unhappy in McArthur’s photos as evidence that something must be done.” I guess this is only true for those whose hearts aren’t made of ice.

  10. Nino says:

    This would be a great review if it wasn’t seeped in prejudice, cynicism, and complacency. The last line just cries, ‘I wish this was a comedy instead of something troublesome.’

  11. tony d says:

    I agree with this article. Animals should be and are happy to die horrible deaths. Thanks for waking me up.

  12. Michael says:

    “Like poor Haley Joel Osment, who saw dead people, she sees the animal suffering that no one else witnesses.”

    What exactly is this statement implying? That the shocking cases of animal cruelty she documents, aren’t actually shocking at all and she is overreacting?

    And the notion that these animals don’t deserve our concern because they don’t reciprocally love us like our pets is also absurd. Would you apply the same logic to the millions of deserving humans who don’t show you affection on a daily basis?

    Your opinion on the piece as a film may be valid but your attitude to it’s content is horrendous.

    • betonwelt says:

      What exactly is this statement implying? That the shocking cases of animal cruelty she documents, aren’t actually shocking at all and she is overreacting?

      pretty much. and yes, it’s digusting.
      to quote Adorno:
      “Auschwitz begins wherever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals.”

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