The Ghosts In Our Machine, directed by Liz Marshall, follows photographer and animal rights campaigner Jo-Anne McArthur as she carries out her life purpose – to tell the stories of non-human animals used and abused by humans.
Animal activists are often viewed by society as militant and unreasonable individuals void of the ability to rationalise why we ‘need’ to use non-human animals. This film features Jo-Anne as an exemplar of what it truly means to be an animal activist, breaking this societal view. Rather than painting her as a legendary hero of the animal rights battle, Marshall shows her as distinctly human, capturing not only her passion and deep love of animals but also her own struggles and grief. Jo-Anne reveals she suffers from PTSD and regular nightmares, haunted by what she has seen. Despite this, she continues to document the lives of non-human animals. This raw portrayal allows the viewer to empathise and to understand Jo-Anne as both an activist and a fellow human being.
The film explores the systemic and inherent cruelty in using non-human animals for human purposes – from laboratory animals to animals kept in fur farms and the animals humans determine are ‘okay’ to eat.
While some footage is disturbing, this is juxtaposed with stories of hope and joy, showing non-human animals that have been liberated, ensuring the viewer does not become overwhelmed by the enormity of animal suffering.
Cinematically this film is beautiful. Marshall incorporates Jo-Anne’s photography seamlessly into the film. Jo-Anne is renowned for her ability to capture the soul of the non-human animal through photography, and Marshall is able to retain this in the film. The soundtrack, performed by Radiohead, is stirring.
As an animal activist, I found the film made me to want to do more for animals. I walked away feeling inspired by Jo-Anne’s story and a desire to continue to fight the very long hard fight for animal liberation.
The Ghosts in Our Machine is a beautiful, poignant anthem to lost souls – ours and the non-human animals brutalised by global capitalism and our rush to consume without empathy or conscience. It was filmed by Jo-Anne McArthur, a Canadian photographer, who travels the world to bear witness to the callous sadism of humanity in its reduction of living beings to fur coats, body parts and play things. But unlike the underground footage exposing the horrific brutality of factory farms and abattoirs this film is easy on the eye. Relatively speaking.
Instead of shocking audiences into awareness – and hence, according to some schools of deterministic behaviourism – action, Jo-Anne has decided to focus on the humanity within us all, human and non-human, to reach out across language and categories to touch the heart of our common sentience. Her pictures of terrified foxes and mink in cages contain no violent scenes of blood and gore. The gruesome fate of these living beings is latent, banal, to use Hannah Arendt’s term, and in the mind of the beholder. We know what is in store and, like her, can do nothing.
The footage of the walking dead are interspersed with bucolic scenes from the Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York, where Jo-Anne goes to decompress from the front lines. We watch as pigs and cows and chickens and goats – as well as animals we have classified as “pets” – gambol and frolic in a bucolic Disneyland of living beings just doing their thing. The contrast to the cowed and brutalized is implicit, a ghostly palimpsest of our inhumanity to the Other.
Sitting in the Dendy Cinema in Canberra City Centre on July 20 it was hard to believe that I was watching a film about animal rights. And that the cinema, on a bright sunny Sunday, while not packed had a respectable showing. Could it be that the tide is finally turning? And that we can finally acknowledge our responsibility to protect the precious, fragile world over which, like it or not, we rule, from its worst enemy – ourselves?