15 July 2014

A near capacity crowd came out to the Hackney Picturehouse for the London premiere of The Ghosts in Our Machine, a new documentary currently touring the UK and doing the wider festival circuit following its theatrical release in North America.

The film is directed by Liz Marshall, who was on hand to introduce the film and whose previous features have focused on human rights and environmental issues.

The experience of making Ghosts converted her to veganism and also made it clear to her the degree to which the animal rights movement— its arguments and its supporters— had been “marginalised and misunderstood.”  This dual inspiration runs through the film: it’s not just the ghostly anonymity of the lives and deaths of exploited animals that needs to be made visible – this is the professed and obvious aim of the movie— but also the lives of the human persons who care deeply about those animals; they, too, need to be in a sense redeemed, even re-humanised— for society at large.

Ghosts brings us face to face with the animals.  It helps us meet them as individuals and tells us their names.  A series of extreme close ups of animals, particularly in the opening moments, accomplishes this with great artistry and force, while extended sections on the rescue of ‘downed’ cows Fanny and Sonny and the homing of purpose-bred lab beagles Maggie and Abbey engage us at a personal level.  But the plight of the animal subjects is inseparable from that of the human beings who strive to save them and to articulate their plight as plight, and so the undeniable center of the film comes in the form of the story of the young photographer, Jo-Anne MacArthur, who has dedicated nearly the whole of her professional life to animal liberation by means of documentary witness, rather than direct action. Her modus is to create intimate, vivid photographic portraits of animals that compellingly convey their personhood in circumstances of great suffering.  Suffering, needless to say, at the hands of the humans who exploit them for financial gain.

“I live my life noticing the emergency and living in the emergency”

We first encounter Jo-Anne in her meetings with agents and publishers— the frustrating business of trying to bring to the general public through the mainstream media a message that that public does not want to receive and that the representatives of the latter, even when sympathetic, find themselves hard-pressed to ‘sell’.  From there, we accompany her on a guerilla shoot at a fur farm and experience with her something of the trauma of what she tells us is the hardest part of her activities: the having to say goodbye to these animals once she’s done what she’d came to do— which is to capture the image of their misery in as potent a form as possible— and then to leave them, effectively abandoning them to that misery.  The pangs and helplessness that we in the audience feel must be just the dimmest and fleeting-est shadow of what she herself feels in such moments, and yet to instill that sense of responsibility and compassion is the entire aim of her work and of this documentary as well.

Jo-Anne’s means of coping with the PTSD that’s resulted from  her 10+years of photographing the abuse of innocents in zoos, transports, farms and slaughterhouses, is to spend what time she can spare being with animals in a safe place.  This is the edenic Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York, and it’s the very antidote to the caricature of animal rights extremism that’s been fostered in the public mind.  In these sections, we the viewer are granted a corresponding respite amongst rescued, recovering and contented animals as they bond with one another, with Jo-Anne and with other human carers.  Indeed, we are let off lightly— this is a long way from Earthlings.com— and Liz Marshall made it clear in response to questions from the Picturehouse audience afterwards that this was central to her project: she didn’t want to make a ‘finger-wagging’ or horror show-style picture, nor was she concerned with going after farms or corporations vituperatively, aiming instead to reach viewers emotionally.  As she pointed out, it is really only the ‘our’ in her film’s title that indicates we viewers’ complicity.  In keeping with that, the imagery is thankfully non-brutal throughout, while voice overs from Temple Grandin, Jonathan Balcombe and others are used to explore questions of animal sentience and animal rights in a non-hectoring and fairly broad-brush way.  Yes, we’re being spared, but we’re also made aware that we are being spared, and this just might be the right strategy when direct depiction simply won’t work.


Charlie Philips, Deputy Director of Sheffield Doc/Fest, facilitated a panel discussion after the screening with Ms Marshall, Laura Gough of Animal Equality who organised Ghosts’s UK tour, plus contributors from Viva and PETA, concluding with a lively Q&A with the cinema-goers.

I’d like to share with visitors to this page some of the comments from the panelists that stuck with me.

VIVA (Justin Kerswell):  when someone goes vegan, it’s usually because they’ve made the decision themselves, so a non-preachy film has a much better chance of opening minds…you can be happy and healthy without killing animals, so veganism is really about giving up the bad things in life, not the good things.

PETA (Mimi Bekhechi): we pay mercenaries to do what most of us would never do, and that’s why it’s very important to show the reality and the visceral reaction people have to the images of that reality is important…animals need everyone who cares not to be a bystander…don’t eat them: that’s the start.

ANIMAL EQUALITY (Laura Gough): now you know, so take responsibility for your choices…it’s very easy for us to change; it’s very difficult for animals if we choose not to change.

Please have a look at the excellent interactive pages at the film’s website:


Trailer for Ghosts:


Thom Bonneville.