'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.

Production

(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.

Crew

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.

With

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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