Liz Marshall received a long standing ovation when The Ghosts in Our Machine screened at the 700-seater Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto last week. The film has also been trashed in a handful of reviews, but Marshall was expecting that. The subject matter—if not the treatment it’s given by the filmmaker—is exceedingly raw. Marshall calls it “primal.”
The Ghosts in Our Machine is about the work of Jo-Anne McArthur, a photographer who’s spent the last decade documenting the lives of animals victimized by human industry. Labs, factory farms, slaughterhouses—wherever suffering is supplanted by profit, she’s there.
“She’s this very radiant and hopeful free spirit. A really great human on the planet,” Marshall tells the Straight in a call from Toronto, adding that McArthur was right beside her when the audience in Toronto rose to its feet. “Animal rights activists have a really bad rap, and I thought she’d be very accessible. I thought that trying to weave a narrative through her lens could work. From there we could explore these big moral questions.”
The “big moral questions” are efficiently captured by scientist Jonathan Balcombe during a collage of voices Marshall uses to open her almost hypnotically artful film. "The question of morality as it relates to the human-animal relationship is a huge question. It's the next big hurdle of social moral development that humans need to cross. I say next because it's already underway,” says Balcombe. McArthur’s heart-wrenching pictures make an unassailable emotional case, capturing the life behind the eyes of anything from a chicken to a cow to a white fox that has spent her entire life alone in a cage, producing successive broods that are promptly taken and skinned.
In an early sequence which Marshall says took four months to plan, McArthur conducts an undercover investigation of a fur farm. “It was heavy,” Marshall sighs. “We didn’t get caught. These places, they’re like fortresses. They don’t want you to see. And they have huge marketing armies that tell us everything’s fine and everything’s humane, and whatever that means, it’s just all good.” She adds that the Vancouver Aquarium declined to be interviewed for the film.
There are some exceedingly painful moments in The Ghosts in Our Machine, but the film also visits rescue farms and sanctuaries, captured with a placid glow by Marshall’s camera. “It’s a sanctuary for Jo-Anne but it’s also a sanctuary for the audience,” she says. “And certainly it was for me and my crew, because those places are just so otherworldly and heavenly.” More to the point, Marshall wanted to show what was possible in terms of “human-animal society.”
“It’s like Charlotte’s Web,” she says with a soft chuckle. “It’s kind of what these farm sanctuaries remind me of. The animals are friends. They’re people, too.” And in the same way that McArthur doesn’t liberate the animals she depicts—her job is to “bear witness”, and she faithfully adheres to it—Marshall was determined to never hector her audience, even as she was confronted with “concentrated, exploitative animal abuse.”
“It was very important that we weren’t pointing fingers at farmers or certain corporations,” she explains.” The whole message of Machine is that we are the machine. It’s not an abstract notion. It’s not someone outside of us. We’re all responsible for this system because we feed it. And I really believe we can vote with our dollar, and as consumers we can make a difference for animals. I don’t know if we’ll ever shut it down, I don’t know if it will ever end, but certainly I think we can make an impact if we become more conscious.”