With the aid of a local guide, Toronto photographer Jo-Anne McArthur climbs through the fence at a fox fur farm in an undisclosed location in the European countryside.
There, row after row of buildings cover cage after cage of frightened animals; the foxes are grey and black, beautiful -- and making unearthly cries and groans, like the sounds from a horror film. But these noises are very much part of the capitalistic, industrialized relationship between humans and animals.
McArthur lifts her camera and starts shooting, the huddled foxes frightened yet curious about her, one with a missing ear replaced by a head infection that will never see medical treatment.
The fox population at fur farms like this one explode in the spring when the cubs are born, her activist guide tells her. They are killed for the fur market in the fall of the same year, with the breeding pairs left to begin the macabre process all over again a few months later.
For McArthur, the hardest part is leaving them behind. And this she does over and over as she goes around the world to document what it means to commodify and process animals as if they are inanimate objects in food, fashion, entertainment and research.
The main overall argument is that animals are sentient beings, with characters and emotions and of intrinsic value beyond the cash register.
The Ghosts in Our Machine was shot from the summer of 2011 to the fall of 2012 as McArthur snapped animals in factory farms, abattoirs, 'amusement' facilities like zoos and aquariums, on their way to the slaughterhouse, and under very different circumstances in animal refuges. It also documents the challenges of getting these images out to the general public through the media.
In an interview, McArthur recalled the incident that got her started, watching a chained monkey in Ecuador that had been trained to pick pockets as it entertained tourists. It grew from a minimal part-time interest to almost full-time over the last 10-15 years.
"The monkey looked like a miserable animal to me. I was taking pictures of the sadness whereas others were taking photos of the fun of it. I thought, 'Wow, I really want people to see my point of view,'" she said.
Marshall said in an interview that the idea to tell a story about animal rights had been incubating for several years and came after her last film Water on the Table, featuring Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians.
"Jo-Anne has so much heart and I thought that showing her as the face of the animal rights community would be a radical thing to do," Marshall said. "I was trying to find a way into it that would help people that are really shut down or not open to it. I wanted to create something that would interest a general audience."
The film will affirm the views of people already knowledgeable and interested in the movement, but those who are not informed about the commodification of animals should understand more.
"It's a statement, a question, a meditation about our industrialized, urban, global world," Marshall said.
"Industrialization, we are the machine -- it's a reflexive title -- and so that was a significant, deliberate choice to turn the situation on ourselves so that as consumers we can reflect."
McArthur's strongest voice is as a photographer, Marshall said, and the aim was to allow the audience to take the journey with McArthur and also to be inside her actual work.
"Jo-Anne talks throughout the film. She talks to the animals, to other humans and the voiceover is something that was very carefully crafted to represent more of her interior voice… but you'll notice there's not a lot of talking because I wanted the images to be her strongest voice," Marshall said.
"She's a documentarian and I'm a documentarian. I'm documenting the documentarian and in that way there's layers to the film."
The responsibility of The Ghosts in Our Machine was for the filmmakers to give themselves (and through them the rest of us) the permission to document the way animals are treated -- permission was often not granted by the companies using animals this way. The outcome, for Marshall, is a film that she is happy with and that makes her feel at peace.
"Ultimately, we need to bear witness to see what goes on," she said. "I not only needed to bear witness to the animals and the environment that they are trapped in, but I had to also see Jo-Anne doing her work."
McArthur is not short of choices for what to cover and is aware that the images captured can have more impact on public opinion than actions supporting animal rights.
"Sometimes it has to do with who else is organized who do a lot of good work … sometimes I just follow my nose and it leads me to something at the right time and off I go. Working with some activists leads me to meeting other activists," McArthur said.
"I get emails every day that are positive. They say that my work has influenced them and they get shown to families. They say, 'It stopped me going to bullfights' or 'It stopped me eating pigs' or just a lot of encouragement. Great, positive feedback."
Indiecan is presenting The Ghosts in Our Machine at The Carlton in Toronto from May 31 to June 6, with shows at 2:00 p.m. and 7 p.m. It is being shown at the Winnipeg Film Group on July 4, 5, 6, 7 and 10, and in Vancouver on August 2, 3, 16 and 17 at Vancity Theatre. Other showings across Canada will be listed on the film's website. Requests to bring the film to your community can also be made here.
It will be shown on the Documentary Channel in the fall of 2013. An interactive flash story by The Goggles is available as an online companion at www.ghostsinthemachine.com.
Cathryn Atkinson is rabble.ca’s former Editor and was a judge at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver in 2006. She is a reporter with Pique Newsmagazine in Whistler, B.C., and will shortly begin a blog on progressive history with rabble.ca. Twitter: @cathrynatkinson.
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