Saturday, August 28, 2010

Moving Animals: Spectacular Animal Films (Part 1)

Eadweard Muybridge's "The Horse in Motion" (1878)
"Animals: The Most Moving Things in the World"
--Jim Mason in An Unnatural Order (2005 [1993])

“The animal look can be seen as a continuation of the photographic look... Animals appeared to merge with technological bodies that replaced them... If the animal cannot die but is nonetheless vanishing, then it must be transferred to another locus, anther continuum in which death plays no role... the cinema developed, indeed embodied, animal traits as a gesture of mourning for the disappearance of [animals]"
--Akira Lippit in Electric Animal (1998)

Moving Animals, Animal Affect, and Effective Movies
Since its inception, the animal movement has relied upon images to evoke sympathy--from William Hogarth's "The Four Stages of Cruelty" (1751) that connected cruelty to animal to cruelty to humans, to the anti-vivisectionist posters that re-figured the medical oppression of women to that of animal others, and PETA's "Holocaust on Your Plate" and "Animal Liberation" exhibits that juxtaposed images of human and nonhuman oppression. Undercover investigation footage of labs, in particular, played a crucial role in the 1980's, especially within the efficacy of the ALF and PETA (videos like Unnecessary Fuss and Inside Biosearch). However, with increased vandalism and exposure, the Animal Industrial Complex has been vigilant to guard its practices from public knowledge. Since the 1990's, these industries have installed hi-tech security systems in addition to lobbying for the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act [AETA], which gained increasing government backing post-9/11. Such footage, has been crucial to educating the public about animal welfare within the age of televisions, computers, and cinema. Over the last decade, activists have even accompanied themselves with video harnesses to literally carry the animals' voices to protests and demos.

While animal documentaries such as The Animals Film (1981) have been around since the 1980s, the popularization of documentaries came later; in regards to documentaries on food production, most have been popularly released after Eric Schlosser's monumental book, Fast Food Nation (2001). Unfortunately, the most popularly used films in the movement aren't necessarily the best: old ones have been forgotten and ones with lesser celebrity status have gone much ignored. Films such as Meet Your Meat and Earthlings have become name-stays in the movements, but their subtext and deficiencies have gone overlooked. As documentaries have taken on more advocacy intentions, the scope of the film has become increasingly violent, and reductive. Cutting out the fatty (cultural) context, voices of their opponents, differences in production practices, and deeper philosophical issues, these films seem to have become increasingly reliant upon violent images.

It is my intent in this post to explore what I believe to be the five strongest animal documentaries, explain why, and offer a critique of their potential weaknesses. I have not seen all documentaries made on animals, however, I am confident I've seen more than most and these are the best I've seen.

1. To Love or Kill: Man vs. Animal (HBO 1996, 60min)

Of all the documentaries I have seen on animals, there is not quite one like To Love or Kill: Man vs. Animal. To Love or Kill has a unique emphasis on the human-animal relationship, not only within the Western tradition, but certain Eastern ones as well (such as India and China). Different from the rest listed here and practically all others made, To Love or Kill does not abstract from historic, cultural, and geographic context. In fact, it takes an extraordinarily sensitive appreciation of the moral complexity of human-animal relations. To add some spice to the mix, the narrator's dry British wit punches front the irony and devastation of these all-but mutual relationship.

Every scene is (minimally) situated and each performs a function in the cleanest and most organized of all arcs discussed in this post. We begin at a prison where we learn about the therapeutic effect animals have on the prisoners sentenced for murder and rape. The narrator quips:

It's startling to discover that animals have the power to calm human aggression and madness. But on reflection, why should it be? when so much else on our side of that extraordinary relationship of Man and animal is sheer madness.
We shoot to a montage of choir of "innocent" children singing "Talks to the Animals" from Dr. Dolittle as the viewer is barraged with a variety of startling and odd clips of human-animal relations. The narrator emphasizes the role religious narratives, specifically Genesis' justification of human dominion, plays in the Man-animal relation in the West. He takes us to Coria, Spain where we witness the public torturing of farmed animals to celebrate the Saints--even Saint Francis Assisi, the patron saint of animals. Next, we are taken to a canned hunting ranch in east Texas and the now banned pigeon shoot in Wilhagan's, Pennsylvania, where the torture of animals to death is justified in the name of freedom, national identity, and superiority. How strange that community of killers and rapists show more respect to animal others than those who advocate freedom, equality, and fraternity.

The film then shifts to a discussion of Man's closeness to animal others, evolutionarily and emotionally. We are taken into the home of a paraplegic with a monkey servant and, afterward, a woman with multiple sclerosis with a dog care taker. Both acknowledge their dependence on these animals and express deep affection. Still the narrator asks whether they've ever reflected on if they have the right to use such animals and what the animals thoughts are. Later, we are shown a Washington Memorial day ceremony for animals killed in battle during World War I and then a New York City pet cemetery. Again more emotional and physical dependence on these animals. Later, a couple entrepreneurs express they are fulfilling a "need" by designing luxurious pet clothing and see hospitals in which dying cats are given surgeries and MRIs while 1/5 of the city population is left without healthcare. (There is a must see interview with a sham animal healer)!

If the frivolous spending on companion animals by the rich while the poor fall ill to disease was not unsettling enough, we are taken to a city in southern China--in the film's darkest moment. (If you are to watch any section of this film, this is it!). Several minutes of footage of the weighing and dismemberment of animals "as if they were vegetables" later, we see a child picking out his next meal, a cat, who is subsequently beaten out of his cage, smashed over the skull, snared to a kitchen and submerged alive and conscious into a scalding tank of water, his skin removed and he thrown into a standby tank. We see the cat's limbs squirming, his jaw shutting and closing as if her is trying to whisper something. Back in the USA, Rabbi Dan Cohen-Sherbock explains:

The Chinese who eat cats and goats are logical. If they are going to eat cows and goats and sheep, then why not cats and dogs… the Chinese are consistent, it is we who are inconsistent
After some footage of factory farming and the absent referent/subject of "meat," we are treated to footage of those who witness livestock transport, implementing direct action to stop the trucks. A couple women scream about the cruelty, drawing on the Holocaust by analogy (the second reference in the film). And so too does the Rabbi draw connections between the German's attitudes during WWII and people's attidudes in regards to their "meat" today: "our desire to not really reflect on what is happening." And so we see a growing movement of tens of thousands in Washington, participating in the 1996 March for Animals.

Next, we are taken to a pharmaceutical laboratory in the United States where veterinarian James Mahooney directs the care of the apes being used for research of vaccines against HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis . (The laboratory is one of only a handful that is open to the public). Mahooney is brutally aware and dreadfully remorseful about his work, with a sincerity that draws sympathy from all but the most dogmatic animal activists:

our intention is not to humanize them, they must remain chimpanzees. But we do have a strong intention to bridge the gap between us, so that when we do do the research, they don’t resent us, they don’t hate us, they don’t distrust us; and even if we do something unpleasant to them, they’ll foregive us, that is our intention... I happen to believe that animals have rights and I don’t think we as human beings have a right to use the animals. My only way of coming to terms with it is that we have a need to use them, but I don’t think we have a right.
The third irony, (the first being the kindness of murderers vs status quo and the second, the treatment of pets vs the treatment of "food" animals) is that those who are physiologically closer to humans bear no great benefit, but an endless amount of suffering. This is clearly hinted at again in the final scene of the film of a pharm in the Midwest owned by DNX, a corporation dealing in trangenic pigs, "horizontal humans." The CEO laments society's losses:

the sad thing is that not only we are losing hundreds of thousands of lives, but we losing the opportunity to save money. And we have this marvelous animal, the pig, that can save hundreds of thousands of lives and save billions of dollars.
Here is the second time in the film that the fiscal interest in animal exploitation is highlighted; however, this is in the context of many ideological and psychological reasons for the phenomenon so that animal torture and death is not reduced solely as a consequent of capitalism and greed.

Our narrator notes the fourth irony: the objection that more "necessary" deaths of a few animals is excessive, while the banal excess of animals slaughtered for food is less aesthetically outrageous.

It's illogical when one considers how many hundreds of millions of pigs are reared to be eaten, but as one watches these procedures, one cannot help wondering whether we have the moral right to open up an entire new territory where human preservation requires the whole scale slaughter, of yet more pigs.
The dilemma between human and animal rights to life was previously examined in India within the practices of the Jaines, who take great caution to do no harm to nonhuman lifeforms--carrying for chronically ill animals in sanctuaries, wearing masks, sweeping before they step, and filtering their food--while millions of homeless beg in the street. Especially in the context of rats in Rajashtan who are simultaneously treated as ancestral gods and  vermin who threaten human lives with pestilence. He observes, "because there is no clear boundary sepearting human and animal…whether in Sehli or New York, it seems we are incapable of fulfilling our responsibilities to both."

There is much at stake in the politics of animal rights, something radical, beyond anything animal welfarism proposes:

[xenotrasplantation] will not be a straightforward issue that can be solved with a vegetarian diet, plastic shoes, or even common decency. This will be a straight moral choice between human life and animal life.
So he concludes, that it is unlikely the animal rights movement will disappear anytime soon. On the contrary, the movement for animal rights will continue to grow in its ferocity.

While my top pick of all the animal studies documentaries I have seen, To Love or Kill suffers from several weaknesses. First, the film explicitly operates within a dualist framework, offering a false oppositional dichotomy: "Man vs. Animal." Animals are homogenized into a single class (as well as all humans into the androcentirc class of "Man"), despite the relatively nuanced appreciation of context. The film makes it seem as though opposition between humans and animals is inevitable. Second, while neither ignoring nor demonizing other cultures (Western cultures are equally criticized), the subtext of the narration on China is orientalizing--treating it as the Other: a land of necessity and superstition. He says "we" find their attitude "incomprehensible," there split between human and animal is supposedly the most radical, "there seems to be some element of humanity missing." On the other hand, he does universalize his cirticism of this particular culture in China to all of "Man"--"Oh, what a piece of work is Man"--and he questions his moral outrage-- "is it the openness we find so disturbing?" Though this Chinese market is disturbing, it is only because they do not disavow what they are doing, they make no rationalizations, and it is they who are consistent. Finally, the film also presents an overgeneralized view of Western religion, faulting Genesis, and not its popularized interpretation, for so much animal cruelty, despite this also occurring in cultures with more benevolent mythologies as well.

2. Peaceable Kingdom (Tribe of Heart 2004, 77min)

Peaceable Kingdom deserves the number two spot on this list, not because it is the best, flashiest, nor necessarily most effective advocacy tool, but because it has the most heart. I recall showing this film to friends soon after I saw it. While it certainly has the least blood and gore of all the films listed here (I don't thin there is even any animal slaughter shown), my friends reported that this was a much more tear-wrenching video. PK wrenches tears because, like To Love or Kill, it is about human-animal relationships. yet, beyond it, PK is about transformation. As the 90% remake is called, it is a "journey home" to one's own humanity.

PK is not a film for everyone due to its slow progression, quiet folk and techno music, and bleeding heart. Overall, PK lacks an overall narrative arc. Instead, it is centered around several personal narratives: an Afro-American school instructor who affiliated with animals as a child because of her feeling of alienation from other humans; Gene and Lauri Basuton's early animal rescues, discovery of a goat they named Hilda abandoned still alive in a dead pile, and their organization of a Farm Sanctuary; Jim Mason's discovery of what happened to the family pigs and subsequent quest to expose factory farms; Howard Lyman's, the Mad Cowboy, journey from successful feedlot operator to cancer survivor, to born-again animal lover and vegan; and the most tear-jerking, Howard Brown's story of childhood emotional repression and trauma from participating in the selling and slaughtering of animals he raised and his eventual rediscovery of himself through the agency and affection of Snickers.

The film pulls itself together in the end with two tear-jerking montages: one about the separation of cow and calf and the other, after a devastating and futile rescue of battery hens from a factory farm hit by a tornado in Iowa, a collection of scenes of non-industrial stockyard and farm animal cruelty to the powerful Moby song "Why does my heart feels so bad?". It concludes with an old man playing the banjo, singing "Amazing Grace," a song, he explains, written by English slave ship captain, John Newton, in 1779 after a life threatening tempest on the sea. Newton later became a staunch Christian and abolitionist, and his song even inspired the English to end their support of the American Confederacy during the Civil War nearly 80 years later. Lyman reflects on the historical and spiritual significance of the event:

I think about the fact that if a captain of a slave ship could change, could write that song that has touched millions and millions of people, can we not change, is there any one of us that cannot make that journey.
The school instructor follows up

no matte how hard the road gets... you have to reflect upon [previous social justice movements]... this can happen again, and there is no exact formula, but certainly one of the main ingredients is people pulling together and saying...we are not supporting... this whole thing.
With these words, we are called to response-ability, to phronesis, practical wisdom that comes from emotional and spiritual maturity that often comes early in life but it shut off like a light.

The powerful figure of the light switch to represent love, consciousness, and conscientiousness is part of Harold Brown's journey. As a child, Brown was taught that

farm animals are different.. it was okay to feel bad about… killing animals to eat, but don’t let it show, don’t let it show, you keep it inside... The last thing you ever wanted to be is weak... How do you kill an animal?.. As time went by you just realized that you just needed to keep a certain distance emotionally from the animals, so you trained yourself. It was a discipline like anything else, an emotional discipline…
To keep emotions inside is to privatize them, to categorize them as inappropriate for the public sphere, which is to be kept strictly rational (and male). It is to guard against what Emmanuel Levinas called the height of the Other's face in its most vulnerable, what Jacques Derrida calls the disavowal of one's own vulnerability to the vulnerability of Others. But one can only deny part of oneself, oneself as another (as Paul Ricoeur wrote). During a second visit to Farm Sanctuary, a cow had remembered Brown, walked over to him, and bumped him in the chest with his nossel. Snickers, Brown recalls holding back tears,

opened me up to that part of me that had been closed off... it was like he hit me right in the heart. And I knew right then that that’s exactly what I shut off ever since I was a kid. I had this image in my head . The image was this big light switch right here, and that light switch had been off.
Lyman's journey, however,  did not take a dramatic turn until his life, like John Newton's, was at its last breath. After defying the odds of surviving a giant brain tumor, Lyman returned home and looked the mirror:

[It was] the first times in my life that I actually got honest with myself. My entire life I have always claimed to love animals. I asked myself at the time, if I really loved animals, if I care about them as much as a I professed to, should I be eating them?… Is there a need for that? I saw the fear in those animals eyes, but I never allowed myself to really think about it until after I walked out of the hospital
Lyman shares with Brown the responsible response to animal others, the witnessing of life in its vulnerability and not the disavowal of our experiences of its moral demands upon us. PK, then, is more aligned with the care ethics of Carol Adams, Josephine Donovan, and other ecofeminists, as well as the work of Cora Diamond, J. M. Coetzee, and Jacques Derrida than the utilitarian, rightist, and pragmatist approaches based upon reason and calculability of ethics as advocated by Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Gary Francione, and Andrew Light, and advocated in films like Earthlings and many other films.

[NOTE: The original version of Peaceable Kingdom has been discontinued by Tribe of Heart. From my understanding, this is because of both personal and philosophic conflict that arose between filmmaker James LaVeck and Jenny Stein and the co-founders of Farm Sanctuary, the non-profit animal rights organization in upstate New York where the movie was filmed. LaVeck was troubled by questions often asked after film showing about where one could find "humane meat." These questions that seemed to miss the subtle point of the film about compassion, love, and mercy were even more worrisome in LaVeck's perception that Farm Sanctuary was not an abolitionist animal organization because of its reformist campaigns, its past support of "humane" labeling, (distorted representations of) its stance on "humane" animal products, and current coalitions with animal agribusiness to oppose factory farms. LaVeck and Stein cut 90% of the original content of the film and moved back into production on another farm animal sanctuary, Peaceful Prairie, that is much more explicit in its abolitionist stance. The trailer above is for the new film, which i have been anxiously awaiting for the last several years. It has won awards at several film festivals, but has not as of yet been released on DVD. From my impression, Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home promises to be superior to the original.]

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