Lifting the Veil: In Conversation With ‘The Ghosts in Our Machine’ Director Liz Marshall, Photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur
The philosophy behind The Ghosts in Our Machine is simple: Humans are animals; they are as animal in nature as “non-human” animals inhabiting the planet; therefore, non-human animals, possessing a similar sentience and emotional capacity to humans, are deserving of rights, not abuse and exploitation.
In her newest film, veteran documentarian Liz Marshall seeks to expose the extreme degree to which humans aren’t honoring these rights by trailing activist and celebrated photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur for over a year as she travels from locale to locale, documenting injustices and poor conditions at sprawling fur farms, assembly-line-type slaughterhouses, and even seemingly benign spots like aquariums.
“Photography has become the tool for activism,” she explains, and snaps away like a pictorial prophet using her lens to advocate for the liberation of the unseen “ghosts” grinding through the gears of our industrial society for food, clothing, entertainment and research.
McArthur has been in the business of “trying to save the world,” to borrow her words, through animal photography for over a decade, and has earned accolades like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Top 50 Champions of Change and HuffPost Women’s “Top 10 Women Trying to Change the World” for her endeavors. Marshall, through The Ghosts in Our Machine, gives us a portal into life in the front-line trenches; a practiced social and environmental justice filmmaker, she stitches together a compelling narrative for this wholly absorbing and humbling subject matter.
The film premiered this past spring at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, North America’s largest documentary film festival, where it was a Top 10 Audience Favorite, and is in the midst of its U.S. theater blitz — it opened in New York last week and premieres in Los Angeles on November 15th, with more cities to follow. GALO was able to catch up with both the director and her protagonist via phone one recent evening to discuss their partnership on this cinematic project, the broader animal liberation movement and the difficulty of pulling these ghosts out from behind the veil.
Editorial note: Portions of this interview have been edited and shortened.
GALO: Liz, the majority of your documentaries focus on human rights issues — sweatshop labor and war-affected children, for example. Can you explain how and why you decided on the subject of animal rights for this film?
Liz Marshall: It sort of completes the circle. I’ve been really focused on global issues and social justice issues for a long time. My last film [Water on the Table, 2010] focused on the environment, and I think this was the most natural next step. For me, it really expanded my worldview to include animals as part of seeking a more just world. It’s part of my own evolution as a filmmaker and as a human being to have arrived at this subject.
I knew early on, back in 2010, that this would be a big challenge, because so many people are either blind, willfully ignorant or even don’t want to care, or don’t care.
GALO: How did you decide on Jo-Anne as the focal character of the film?
Marshall: I’ve known Jo for a long time. When I started toying with the ideas and trying to figure out a concept for the film, I was thinking it would integrate Jo-Anne’s images and not so much her as a protagonist. When I really started figuring out the angle and the story, I found out really quickly that it needed a human protagonist to ground these big issues. Jo was like this anchor but also a perfect entry point, literally through her camera but also figuratively through her vision of the world and through her relationship to animals. Basically, through her lens and compassion, we meet a cast of animal subjects throughout the movie and that for me was a great narrative device as a way of telling a big, complicated story.
GALO: Jo-Anne, in the film you describe yourself as a “war journalist.” Can you explain your reasoning for this designation?
Jo-Anne McArthur: It’s a different way of thinking about our relationship with animals around the globe. It’s about perspective; it’s quite eye-opening. Hopefully, when people hear that, they’ll think “what do you mean war photographer? You’re an animal photographer.” But that’s exactly my point. There’s a lot going on with animals behind closed doors and behind windowless walls that we don’t know about.
And quite literally, I’m also in the trenches, and I’m going to factory farms and fur farms, which are often dirty and vile places where your eyes are burning from the ammonia, and sometimes I’m wading through all sorts of nasty things in order to get what I need to photograph. There are a lot of links there. Hopefully, seeing the work, people realize, “Wow, this is like a war on animals. It’s like the Holocaust.”
GALO: Obviously some of the footage the both of you capture — Liz, through your film and Jo-Anne though your photography — is unsettling, what with the poor conditions and hardship the animals must endure. Is it hard to remain emotionally removed and objective when you document animals in these environments?
McArthur: When I go into these places, there’s a limited amount of time to do very important work and it is work that we have been organizing for a while. We have people involved doing security, people who’ve traveled, people who’ve done reconnaissance ahead of time, so when it actually comes down to it, you might only have a few hours to get the best possible footage, video and film, so we have to go in and be very professional. That’s not to say I close off all my emotions — I have to close my emotional self off to an extent to work really well, and professionally and quickly and safely. It’s really awful to be in these places, but there’s no time for crying. I think a lot of us that go into these places deal with those emotions later. The main point is we’ve gone this far but we have to do a good job and get good footage and photos to show the rest of the world.
Marshall: I echo a lot of what Jo-Anne just said. We’re fellow documentarians; it’s just a different medium we’re working with. There are a lot of logistics involved. For me, when I‘m directing in the field, I’m also producing and I’m also shooting. The camera forces you to be extremely present in the moment as the moment unfolds to capture that story and the individuals. I would say as much as I am very fully present, I’m also extremely busy. It doesn’t really allow for a fully emotional response in the moment, although you feel the gravity and the weight of what you’re doing. The emotions kick in later.
Part of what I find very therapeutic is the editing process, which lasts many months, because I’m visiting those scenes over and over and over again. In total, there were 180 hours of footage and then it’s a process of sifting through that material and making sense of it, trying to shape the story. There are many layers and phases to your own personal connection to what you’re doing.
(Interview continued on next page)