Saturday, October 05, 2013

The Ghosts in Our Machine

Photographer Jo-Anne McArthur and a rescued beagle.
Image taken from
Some time ago while trolling around on facebook, I came across an image that shocked and upset me. It showed a wire cage being loaded onto a ship, in which were piled a dozen live dogs like laundry in a tub, legs sticking out of the cage and clearly in a state of terrible physical agony and fear. The caption explained that these dogs were on their way from one part of South Asia to another where they would become meat for humans. The picture was intended to have immediate impact and it worked: as someone who shares her life with a dog (after whom this blog is named), my consciousness was raised to this horrendous practice.

"A lone male mink" is the caption to this image
found on, an advocacy website of
Toronto 'war photographer' Jo-Anne McArthur
There is an important difference, however, between this random photograph I found and the soulful, compassionate photographs of Toronto photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, whose work as an animal rights witness and advocate is the subject of Liz Marshall's carefully considered, deeply felt film
The Ghosts in Our Machine. McArthur's work does not just observe and document injustice done to animals, it inhabits that injustice, it dwells inside its pain and suffering and compels us into its space. McArthur's photography is an unorthodox form of protest because its witness is one of accompaniment as much as activism. The photographer is not there to free the animals, but to be present to them, to stand alongside them and to show them love, while also documenting their suffering. Her extraordinary archive of photographs, representing more than a decade of work, are portraits of the living, not records of those long gone. She does it to "change the world" in her own words, to help motivate people to make change. But in the moment of the work itself, she is offering companionship to creatures in deepest suffering.

Filmmaker Liz Marshall seems to both intuitively and emotionally understand this. She pushes at the boundaries of documentary form by never letting us rest comfortably in ways to watch the film. Though there are story sequences, the film is largely non-narrative. Though we hear McArthur's voice, there is a clearly chosen absence of 'talking heads' on the issues. These are the movie's strengths, not its weaknesses. It is important that the photographer is the only voice we hear because the film occupies the space of her experience and documentation. This is not a film that debates animal rights. It is a film about one woman's passionate commitment to documenting the abuses of those rights. The view of the filmmaker and the photographer are not up for debate: this is a war they are involved in.

Marshall's choices are so right for her subject, and also deeply respectful and loving. I appreciated that the camera walks with McArthur as she journeys to these places of suffering and abuse. Marshall seems to intuitively understand that watching her subject prepare to go out will be as emotionally affecting to the audience as what she sees. This kind of filmmaking bravely defies the expectations of cinema convention, especially in North America, where viewers might be waiting for a vigilanteism, or reality-tv style rescue. Marshall and McArthur are not making entertainment. They want us to live this. They want us to occupy the quiet moments of animals living within their abusive environments. The film is not the story of animal rights activism or a profile of its intellectual rationale. It is about what it means to abide in the courage of commitment. It is not just raising our awareness to the implicit cruelty of how animals live in in fur farms, factory farms, zoos and aquariums, it is asking us to see the sentient creatures involved. 

One of the "beautiful faces" at Farm Sanctuary,
in New York state. Image by Jo-Anne McArthur 
And yet there is rescue, there is redemption, hope and even forgiveness. These words populate the conversation of the artists in a post-screening Q and A that I attended. McArthur tells anecdotes of how she has personally experienced forgiveness from animals through her interactions with them. My own way of hearing her stories is to believe that the animal recognizes in McArthur a compassionate presence and in so doing is able to locate within their scarred souls and bodies a similar sentiment. It is to Marshall's credit that she allows time in the film to dwell in that recovery and restoration, as much as in the hardship. The film's harder sequences are interrupted by several visits to a farm sanctuary in New York state, where McArthur goes to retreat and renew herself. The stories of individual animals who were saved and taken to such a place are also given to us, as well as the relentless grace-filled energy of the people who staff such places. We feel a relief as McArthur is greeted with open-armed hugs and as she lies down in grassy fields with some of the animals she has helped see delivered out of misery. Her joy is transfixing: we feel that sense of creation righting itself just a bit, the ship not totally sunk yet. 

But be clear, the eye of both cameras, McArthur's and Marshall's, stays unwaveringly on suffering. In doing so, it is a tremendous credit to Marshall's maturity of style that she knows how to observe and keep the audience deeply engaged, while also slowly increasing our investment in the plight of these creatures. The camera avoids the intense close-up because Marshall knows that McArthur's work will do that for us. Instead, the camera stays at a respectful distance, but not too far. Our intimacy is with the photographer, and it is the photographer's work that gives us the intimacy with her non-human animal subjects.

"A lonely existence" is the caption given to this image
by Jo-Anne McArthur from
The film does not deal in harsh, uncompromising photographs of atrocities, but through McArthur's work, offers an emotionally "graphic" quality that is wholly appropriate, but which may be much more challenging for some than shocking images of factory farms. The brilliance of this film is that it seems to know how easily we can be desensitized to such pictures. Taking her cue from McArthur's own work, Marshall shows us enough for us to understand how horrific the larger picture is. But allowing ourselves to become desensitized is not possible within McArthur's deeply penetrating gaze at her subjects. We cannot look away. When footage is ultimately given to us of a factory farm row of cows in slim pens allowing no movement, heads sticking out of openings barely big enough for them, it is no longer just the fact of it we see, but the sentient beings, the
faces in those stalls.

Pig arriving at a slaughterhouse. Image by
Jo-Anne McArthur, as found on
There is a moment in the film where McArthur and friends are standing with placards outside a factory-farm meat processing plant in Toronto, peacefully showing their signs to drivers on a busy boulevard. At one point, a tractor-trailer filled with pigs slows down to turn into the plant. McArthur immediately drops her placard and picking up her camera, walks alongside the truck shooting into its interior, putting her fingers and hands on the protruding snouts. Although motivated by a desire to expose the horrors she sees, the seamlessness of this transition from activist to accompanying-witness companion made me cry. McArthur's ability to be present, to be in the
now with non-human animals, models for us the deep possibilities of compassion in humankind. And it is out of compassion that protest, and ultimately change, occurs. The Ghosts in Our Machine is about both cruelty and kindness.

Filmmaker Liz Marshall with Fanny, a rescued dairy cow.
In this age of the image-saturated internet, when images we don't like can be clicked away quickly, when the burger or the sausage on our table can be eaten without thinking of the suffering that produced it, when signing online petitions can be easier than standing on a street-corner with a placard (and I am guilty of all of the above), McArthur and Marshall are prophets of conscience. We see with their eyes, and our eyes and our hearts are opened.

Take some time with the photographs of Jo-Anne McArthur, and the highly engaging interactive features on the website for The Ghosts in Our Machine


Unknown said...

Thank you for such a sensitive and insightful review of this film. It is very meaningful to read a reviewer who genuinely understands the circle of compassion that this film portrays.

Sherry Coman said...

Thank you, Diane. So good to hear.