Sunday, August 29, 2010

Moving Animals: Spectacular Animal Films (Part 2)

3. The Animals Film (Beyond the Frame 1981, 137min)

To my knowledge, The Animals Film was the first documentary to me made on the animal protection movement and the first to be aired on public television--an amazing feat given that it was released just 6 years after the publication of Animal Liberation, 1 year after Henry Spira's ad campaign against Revlon, 2 years before The Case for Animal Rights, and 3 years before Unnecessary Fuss. Filmed in the United States by an Israeli and released in England, TAF had been the most comprehensive film on animal welfare up until the release of Earthlings 16 years later. Yet, despite its age, sadly, little has changed since its release except that industry practices and problems have increased in magnitude and extended into other countries. (In 1980, about 5 billion animals were slaughtered in America annually compared to nearly 9 billion by 2000). In fact, it is my opinion that despite the praise for Earthlings and the absence of knowledge about this film, TAF is better. (Whether it is more effective at recruiting vegans--Earthlings supposedly is nicknamed "the Vegan maker"--, that is for empirical studies to determine).

So what makes TAF stand out from the latest (and often thought greatest) animal films? After all, the film has practically the same narrative arc as Earthlings--moving from companion animals to farmed animals to wild animals to lab animals--but it lacks the philosophical lecture at the beginning and end. Perhaps that's its first strength. TAF may explicitly be an advocacy film--it opens with the David Byrne's lyrics "I need something to change your mind"--, however, it does not take on an authoritarian structure like other films, such as Earthlings. Instead, a significant amount of the film is interviewing advocates, vegetarians, students, farmers, hunters, and vivisectors, allowing them a voice and juxtaposing their words with the truth of image.

A second (and more significant) strength is its sociological analysis of animal exploitation. Probably more than any other film on animals, a constant theme throughout TAF is the political economy of animal exploitation, what Barbara Noske famously called later in 1987, the Animal Industrial Complex. We are repeatedly shown advertisements for specific breeds of animals, feeds, and growth hormones promising to increase profits, in addition to Ray Kroc discussing this branding of McDonald's and his company's targeting of children with fictitious narratives about "harvesting the hamburgers from the hamburger patch." As Lord Houghton expresses, the "agriculture, scientific, pharmaceutical , and chemical industry" have major investments in the mass production and exploitation of animals. Even "science is big business," explains one professor: many medical scientists train within, receive funding for, and careers almost depend upon their exploitation of animals. The original film ends with a scene (which was fought to be kept in, but which the director omitted from the 25th anniversary release) in which a member of a cell of the ALF says "We understand Socialist groups," people "can't achieve anything under the present capitalist system," so they must resort to non-legal means. (This view has been expressed within films like Your Mommy Kills Animals and Behind the Mask, however, not with an explicit reference to socialism and capitalism).

Third, TAF draws intersections between the oppression of human and nonhuman animals, not only more thoughtfully, but somewhat uniquely--surprising given that the film is over 25 years old! Though it may be common in films from To Love or Kill to Earthlings to even Peaceable Kingdom to draw parallels between the conceptual oppression of humans and animals, TAF focuses on the material, institutional, and rhetorical intersections. (Keeping in mind, parallel lines don't ever intersect or touch; they are not constitutive of one another, they are, while related, independent). This again, is done by explicitly calling out the capitalist system and socio-political instutions (documenting legal battles) as well as the rhetoric of humanism and accusations of sentimentality.

Most unique, however,--something I recall only vaguely, perhaps unintentionally, being found in A Cow at My Table--, is the relationship between animal experimentation, the military, and human suffering. This is first done through the schizoid depiction of animal behaviorist, Roger Urlich, a man who is seen gently calling and caressing baby farmed animals while the film cuts back to video footage from his Naval funded video entitled, "Control of Human Behavior." Throughout his film, he uses militaristic and violent metaphors such as "mercenary" and "capital punishment" to describe the behavior of monkeys and rats induced into aggression by electrical shocks. The information from his studies, he says over the images of police brutality against race rioters, "must reach those in control." Based on his findings, that stress and punishment from attacking one enemy will be redirected elsewhere, he suggests punishment is inappropriate for dealing in international conflict--a conclusion the Navy didn't like (it dropped its name from this biology training video). When asked why such an obvious conclusion needed to be tested, he explained we do not know how that applies to albini rats in labs with electricity, and that his research, like that of philosophers and writers on peace through out history, has been a "magnificent" contribution to humanity. Asked whether he sees any connection between his own work and the contemporary political situation of the Vietnam War, civil rights movement, and the US training Chileans to torture prisoners, Ulrich responds that everyone is connected to that through world trade in communication, technology, and capital.

Shortly after, we see American military training videos about the training of dogs to attack Vietcong--"a soldiers best friend is his dog"--, the anesthetization of animals who have been deliberately attacked by the US military for its doctors to train for trauma care, and finally the testing of nuclear radiation on animal health. In all the films and PSA's I have seen on animal welfare/cruelty, this was the first time I had seen footage from government videos of atomic bombs being dropped upon chained up pigs, dogs, and goats on what is known as The Atomic Arc. This test was not performed before the military knew the effect such weapons have upon people, but after two bombs had already been dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Even 29 years after one for the greatest crimes against to humanity, the US Department of Energy exposes donkeys to radiation, to learn (the obvious) that they develop ulcers, bleed form the mouth, develop lethargy, collapse, and die. And so to are monkeys subjected to such testing to see the effect prolonged small exposure to radiation has upon work efficacy. The video's narrator proudly states, “one gets the impression that the chimpanzee is proud of his contribution," despite the "worker' being an actual capuchin, not a chimpanzee. (I wonder if these are the types of experiments Haraway approves of--cyborg working monkeys).

All these experiments are replicated within the capitalist privileging of efficiency, production, and competition when information on the effect radiation has on humans either already exists or is a political hypothetical. TAF's narrator notes that "expensive new treatments are favored over preventative health care… dominated by the internationally powerful chemical-pharmaceutical companies”. Does such research really alleviate human suffering, she asks, “or does it perhaps pave the way for it?"

My praise for TAF is high, but there are (as always) several major issues with the film. First, like most films on animal issues, it presents the most violent practices. Visually and argumentatively, the focus then become about animal welfare more so than animal abolition, especially during the juxtaposition of factory farming to animals in pastures, though the film definitely takes an "animal liberation" stance. Of course, this might be relevant today, but the split between animal utilitarianism and animal rights (and especially animal welfare and animal abolition) was not so clearly articulated during the making of this film as it became by 1996 with Francione's landmark Rain Without Thunder. Debatably, TAF takes a more radical stance against animal use (as opposed to cruel treatment) than Earthlings--killing healthy dogs in shelters is called "humane" and an ambivalent/absent position on "family farms"--, which has little excuse given its release after the popularization of Francione's critique. Despite being the oldest, TAF takes the most radical and comprehensive political stance of other animal films. It's even the most racially diverse and has two interviews with black male vegetarians (verses depicting people of color as the homogeneous enemy Other).

4. Behind the Mask (Uncaged Films, ARME 2006, 72min)

Behind the Mask exceeds my expectations each time I watch it. BM is a solid documentary in all respects with impressive production value contra what I imagine was a relatively small budget. Most importantly it accomplishes quite the task of making some of the most misunderstood activists in the country completely relatable (and "human"). BM provides a compelling look at the underground and grassroots animal activism in a collection of documentaries that focus all too often on the non-profits or not often enough on human-animal societal relations themselves; and it does so with a certain chutzpah other films won't touch, or at least not without demonizing as does the 2008 HBO documentary, I am an Animal, which presents a terrifying, distorted picture of the ALF not so different from the way far right groups depict Muslims. 

As we see from the beginning of the film, the suspicious, secretive people with an agenda are not the animal activists, but the multinational pharmaceutical companies and university labs who refuse to be interviewed by filmmaker Laurie Keith. At the end of an interview with one direct action activist, we see footage of a protest against animal transportation in which her daughter is run over by a truck and later dies. Another woman who worked undercover in a lab with monkeys also speaks of the loss she witnessed of her the creature she wished to save.

Surgeon Jerry Vlasak then gives one of the clearest and crispest accounts of why experimenting on animals is almost always unnecessary and irrelevant. Another scientist said he and his colleagues used to joke that animal studies were useless because it tells nothing about the effect such things would have on humans, and that it is at best "maybe a way of making a living." Essentially almost all animal testing is done to get more data and thus more publications and thus more funding in addition to protecting businesses from lawsuits when their products are ultimately tested on humans for the first times.

Yet, no actions by the ALF have ever physically harmed a human or nonhuman animal, but they are the one's listed as among the top domestic terrorist threat. After Goldfinger's Josh Feldman and wife protested outside the home of a man who was responsible for thousands of unnecessary executions of companion animals, the FBI came to his home with a search warrant to tear it apart for evidence of a graffitting a few days earlier. Reflecting on the event, Feldman says you'd expect maybe "an atrocity to warrant all these cars, and helicopters, and all this crap,” not merely a demo and an unwarranted connection to petty vandalism. Even Keith, who has no criminal record, because she represents people suspected of terrorism has the FBI breaking the laws by bugging confidential meetings she has with her clients, even stalking her and searching her trash.

One of the most compelling parts of the documentary is toward the end when Kevin Jonas sarcastically says

All we need to do is ever be ever so polite and patient and just practice politics and change will come, when that’s never happened in any other social justice movement hands-down in the history of the world.
Keith elaborates on Jonas' assertion giving examples beginning with the Boston Tea Party, the Suffragettes, the Black Panthers, and then Nelson Mandela--a person at first considered a terrorist, later to become the winner of the Nobel Prize and the South African presidency. Keith quotes John F. Kennedy:

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable.
As eventually occurred to Feldman, a major obstacle to educating the public on the magnitude and extensiveness of animal suffering is that money controls the media and politicians--how is one going to show such footage when every other commercial is owned by a multinational pharmaceutical of agroprocessing company, companies which threaten to pull their adds and thus funding if television companies show damaging footage. These illegal direct actions come down to desperation to be heard when the public sphere refuses to engage in a constructive dialogue, is unmotivated to care about others' suffering--especially those who don't vote--, and when the system itself is broken (as mentioned at the end of TAF).

From the beginning the viewer is informed the ALF and like groups are inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.'s call for (illegal) direct action. And it works! Well at least in the first anecdote told by celebrity activist Keith Mann. After months of getting nowhere by means of lawful protests, a group of 75 activists assembled to break into the farm and rescue the rabbits, and within one day the owner shut down his business. The documentary, unfortunately, ends on a much weaker note, falling back on the oppressive logic of being the voice for the voiceless and the naivety of "doing something no other movement has ever done" by selflessly helping out others--both statements missing the fact that animal activists are allies, not necessarily the oppressed (though this is debatable). There is also a problem with Mann's call for a boycott, given that this language turns veganism into a consumer movement rather than an anti-oppression one. Finally, given the amount of civil rights discussion, all the interviewed are white (minus Rod Coronado, an Amerindian)--though this may have to do with the higher stakes people of color have in breaking the law--and such parallels seem more appropriative like PETA's Animal Liberation exhibit because it equivocates emancipation and liberation, ignoring that animal others cannot liberate themselves without a class consciousness.

5. You Mommy Kills Animals (Indie Genius Productions 2007, 105min)

Your Mommy Kills Animals accomplishes perhaps what no other animal documentary has: the appearance of objectivity. Unlike most films that are unapologetic about their agenda and explicit in their aims, YMKA leaves the viewers wondering where the film makers stood on these ethical conundrums. Then again, YMKA does the taboo and seems to have more sympathy for the cells of activists than the non-profit complex epitomized by PETA and HSUS. The film is politically incorect for both mainstream and animal activists alike.

YMKA focuses more so than other animal documentaries on the animal rights movement--although it does not draw upon Gary Francione. Had PETA and HSUS not withdrawn from being interviewed (I'm guessing it was less about hiding information that by avoiding association with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty (SHAC)), the film would have reached an even higher level of balance and nuance. Both "ecoterrorists" and animal rights opponents like Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) and National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA) are interviewed; and while they couldn't disagree more on direct action and moral philosophy, they find common ground attacking the hypocrisy and deceptiveness of large non-profits.

My largest criticism is that the film, from an animal rights perspective, focuses almost exclusively on humans and socio-political affairs rather than on the suffering and exploitation of animals. In a sense, it is less about the human-animal relationship, most established by To Love or Kill, than about politics and activism.

Honorable Mention
x. Meet Your Meat (PETA 2003, 13min)

By far the most distributed and viewed documentary on animal agribusiness, Meet Your Meat, is an efficient, propaganda machine. I've written before about how viewing a proto-MYM radically transformed my life, and I've heard and seen first hand the effect viewing it has had on others. No doubt, MYM is a quick, powerful, advocacy tool that other documentaries, too long and less engrossing, cannot live up to.

However, the efficiency of MYM is also its weakness. By condensing down the treatment of animals on farms to its barest components, it extracts/abstracts the treatment from the context, human-animal relations, human culture, society, and economy. The viewer only gets glimpses of the cost-cutting practices of factory farms without much information about the culture of capitalist instrumentalism or social hierarchy and racialized and gendered privilege. In other words, we never treated to a proper narrative of the who, where, and why of factory farming--a context important to understand if we are to change the system. What are the psychological, social, and economic forces that motivate people to continue to kill, eat, and exploit animals even after viewing such horrific footage? MYM does not answer these questions and so does not stand well on its own as something other than an introduction to "the Meatrix."

Second, MYM has very narrow coverage on "meat." It (understandably) exclusively focuses on the three most exploited species in the USA, however, fails to even acknowledge other animals raised for food: dozens of fish species, crustaceans, mollusks, ducks, goats, sheep, geese, rabbits, etc. Not only are entire species and classes left behind, so to speak, but so to are those animals not raised on "factory farms." Thus, MYM also falls into the trap of focusing too much on treatment and not exploitation. As Ida writes, use of violent images may itself be oppressive or at least subtextually suggest more idyllic treatment is acceptable. There is thus a gap of logic between disapproving of a specific kind of animal exploitation and the universal disapproval of animal exploitation itself (asking the viewer to "please choose vegetarianism"). The logic of exploitation/domination is never directly challenged.

Again, these criticisms are defunct if one understands MYM as an effective, disruptive entry point into animal inquiry.

x. The Meatrix (Free Range Studios 2003, 3min)

The Meatrix may not be a documentary but it certainly deserves an honorable mention. More than any other film listed, The Meatrix has been a resounding popcultural success, a viral video that has made its way into various food studies DVDs, and accumulated 15 million views. In fact, it has even spawned two sequels (II and II1/2) leading up to the theatrical release of Fast Food Nation. If any film has dispelled the ignorance of the public on farmed animal welfare, this is it.

The Meatrix is an animated short that ingeniously bridges the "reality" of animal agribusiness with the "artifice" of the popcultural phenomenon, The Matrix. In both films, the public is completely ignorant of the exploitative practices on which its society depends for sustenance:

The Meatrix... is the story we tell ourselves about where our meat and animal products come from. This family farm is a fantasy... the lie we tell ourselves about where our food comes from
Also, the "hero" is given a choice to take the blue pill and escape from wisdom and responsibility, or take the red pill and become a witness to horror (animal cruelty, antibiotic resistant germs, massive pollution, destroyed communities) and have the agency to bring it to an end.

Unfortunately, but not unpredictably, the film--commissioned by GRACE--does not abandon the myth of the bucolic family farm. Like The Animals Film, The Meatrix relies upon a technopbobia, a nostalgia of tradition and family values. As Moopheus says in the end,

it's you, the consumer, that has the real power. Don't support the factory farming machine; there is a world of alternatives.
The viewer is told that by "voting with one's dollars" one can purchase social change--never mind that the Meatrix can sooner be ended by abstaining from all animal exploitation. In the sequel, Moorpheus brags that

in the past two years we have freed over ten million minds from the Meatrix. People are waking up about where their food comes from and are starting to buy healthier, sustainable animal products... There are still small family farms where you can get your dairy. By supporting them, you help end the Meatrix.
Leo, Moopheus, and Leo first look on at the monitor that displays their "success" in which the dismembered bodies of their cousins are sold to humans. In the third short, Moopheus' is threatened with death in a slaughterhouse, yet laments only on the dangerous working conditions and manure in the meat, not the dozens of his cousins corpses being chopped to bits! The Meatrix, most evident in its sequels, thus is yet another instance of "happy meat," or alternatively, "suicide food," "the pigs that wants to be eaten."

General Conclusions
After the last month of watching over a dozen documentaries on animals, I've noticed several patterns that raise the issue of what makes a good documentary: craft, efficacy, depth, or balance. Depending on how you answer this question, you will have a different judgment of each of these films. Nonetheless, if the activist and educator is primarily concerned about persuasion, this leads us to the tough choice between pragmatics and idealism. That is, do we reduce, simplify, abstract, and compromise larger goals to win people over immediately or do we risk turning people off by advocating something more comprehensive, complex, and radical?

I raise these questions because of the reoccurring strategies I've seen in many an animal film. First, the privileging of the rawest and most brutal violence. Second, the appeal to human sympathy for animals "like us." Third, the prescription of individual consumer-based and armchair action. Given these issues, it may not be surprising why I picked some of the films I did: the rawest violence is not present in PK and plays a minimal role in BM and YMKA, appeal to animals like us is absent in To Love or Kill, PK, BM, and YMKA, and the prescription of individulaism is not prescribed in To Love or Kill, PK and TAF.

 Yet, would these themes not be so consistent in animal films if they were not thought to work best? Perhaps people respond most to the most egregious animal suffering if their threshold of sympathy and disgust  is to be crossed. Then again, perhaps such footage may backfire, desensitizing us in our ability to respond with compassion (personally I feel my affective response has been diminished, which is why I think more personal narratives like in PK evoke more pity than statistical narratives like in MYM); or worse, perhaps we only enjoy watching films like Earthlings because we are sado-masochists? Finally, at some level must there not be some similarity between self and others to consider their experiences equally valuable--what is equality but sameness?

Still, one must wonder whether such strategies hurt more than they help. Perhaps, this isn't the case at all--at least not for all or most people. While Francionians have rigorously attacked any and every vegetarian or reformist for being the enemy, there is no empirical evidence that suggest to me whether lacto-ovo, welfarist, liberal, and pacifist stances are superior in affect than strict vegetarianism, abolitionist, anarcho-socialist, and vandalism/arson. As Tom Regan once said, it helps to have many hands on many oars; diversity is a good thing in a movement, even though we do not, and need not, always agree. It seems both inevitable and practical that there be mainstream activists and radical ones. Together they form a coalition that puts pressure on institutions to change. But the objection is that if more people were radical vegan abolitionists they would widen the consciousness and recruit more of the same as well as more of those sympathetic to more mainstream politics. So if it is inevitable that one draw in the mainstream, then perhaps one needs to be radical. However, the other side says, if one is too radical, one will scare off others and alienate oneself. Therefore, it seems that both types are valuable. Opposition should be raised and dialogue should be had, however this should not result in making more enemies than allies.

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