Interview: Liz Marshall (Director – ‘The Ghosts in Our Machine’)

Slowly but surely, blinders are being removed to reveal one of the most haunting moral dilemmas of our modern world, courtesy of one of the most important documentaries of the year.  In much the same way FOOD INC. opened audiences’ eyes to the bleak realities of the food manufacturing industry, THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE piques our awareness to a dramatic reality that is largely hidden from our view; animals used for food, clothing, entertainment and biomedical research.

Award-winning filmmaker Liz Marshall directs ‘THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE’ through the heart and lens of acclaimed animal photographer Jo-Anne McArthur. Haunting and heart-warming, audiences experience a diverse cast of animal subjects rescued from and living within the machine of our modern world. Over the course of a year, Marshall shadows McArthur as she photographs several animal stories in parts of the U.S., Canada and Europe, with each photograph and story serving as a window into global animal industries. This visually arresting one-of-a-kind documentary shines a cinematic light on the animals we don’t easily acknowledge, the “ghosts” who are the animals trapped within the cogs of our voracious consumer world. McArthur’s epic photo project We Animals is comprised of thousands of photographs taken around the world, documenting animals with heart-breaking empathic vividness. THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE charts McArthur’s efforts to bring wider attention to a topic most of humankind strives hard to avoid.

We spoke with the films Director Liz Marshall about the economically based justifications behind animal cruelty, raising awareness at the grassroots level and much more.  The film opens in New York City on Friday, November 8, 2013 at Village East Cinema.

Find Tickets to ‘The Ghosts in Our Machine’ @ Village East Cinema – HERE

What are the origins of your own interest in the subject of animal rights? How long had you kicked the idea around of producing ‘The Ghosts in Our Machine’?
Over twenty years ago I read Diet For a New America by John Robbins, it influenced my worldview and dramatically changed my dietary choices. The book makes a strong and convincing link between human-environmental-animal rights. Over the last 15-years I have traveled the world as a documentary filmmaker to focus on human rights issues and the environment but it wasn’t until my partner of ten years, Lorena Elke (a longtime animal rights activist), challenged me to make a documentary about animals that I decided to delve deeply into the animal rights ethos. There was a lot to learn, like any subject, research and development becomes an exercise in full immersion. I would say that my ‘passive’ development process began almost a decade ago, and the ‘active’ development process began in 2010. Perhaps more than other ‘issue’ I have taken on as a filmmaker, this one has demanded a deeper (or different) degree of self reflection; thinking through my personal, and our collective societal, relationship to nonhuman animals, it’s been a journey of discovery into what is a haunting social dilemma, one that is largely hidden from our view.

Ghosts in Our MachineWhat was your initial introduction to Jo-Anne McArthur?  Why did you feel her photojournalism made her a strong protagonist for the story you wanted to tell?
I met Jo through Lorena about 8 years ago. Her photos caught my attention, especially the subtle (yet dramatic) ones that do not require much in the way of information to contextualize them. Initially, I approached Jo about her photos with the idea of integrating them into the fabric of a feature length documentary film – without yet knowing the story — and then in getting to know her better I quickly realized that she would make for a perfect entry-point into the haunting social dilemma I describe above. She is hopeful and accessible and her images speak volumes, I was drawn to the dichotomy of a haunting subject matter with a hopeful protagonist at its centre. Jo’s quest to have her work seen on a wider scale is a story trajectory that I chose to focus on because her challenges in the film parallel challenges in society.

Describe the necessity of an Interactive component to the film?  Was this always part of your plan or did you gain awareness on the possibilities of TransMedia through the process of production?  In your own mind, what does the Interactive component bring to the table that a 100% film-based production could not?
My first encounter with transmedia was in 1999 when I directed my first broadcast hour documentary (Musicians in the WarZone), and there was a compelling interactive companion (War2Music). Since the explosion of social media, digital media has hugely diversified. I knew that I wanted THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE to be a multi-platform endeavor, to tap into the web, and to build an audience through social media over time. Early on, THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE became an unfolding narrative:  transparent, interactive, fostering a direct relationship with a global community. My producer colleague (Nina Beveridge) and I built an ever expanding website early on, and have continuously upgraded it to include several activities and features. We offer an online interactive story from our website (directed by interactive directors The Goggles). It’s a unique extension of the film and an opportunity for people to go further into Jo-Anne’s bookmaking process, as featured in the film, and to get to know her differently as the films’ protagonist. The film and the interactive work together. We offer different ways for the viewer / audience / user to experience content, to share and engage with it. It’s an ecosystem.

Ghosts in Our MachineI find the “property” argument against animal rights to be one rooted in the ultimate unsustainability (and downright falsity) of our own capitalist economic system.  This argument has been used to justify acts such as slavery, as well as modern injustices relating to corporate ownership, its resulting inequality and many more issues, which are much more morally robust than a simple “I bought it therefore I own it (and can do with it as I want)” style argument.  Do you think that there can ever be a truly equal/fair/just playing field when existing within a market-based paradigm?  Meaning, if we live in a system that allows animal exploitation simply based (and justified) on the material gains produced, will all the awareness ever truly change anything?
I think this is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, question of our day (capitalist economic system) and the crux of so many forms of injustice. We need a big paradigm shift. It’s happening already, mostly at the grassroots, but also at the corporate level. Personally, I believe in change and am committed to it through my work. But change is very slow. The film is book-ended by the moral question: Are nonhuman animals property to be owned and used, or are they sentient beings deserving of rights? This is meant to get people thinking. The science is in, as Dr. Lori Marino and Jonathan Balcombe say at the beginning of the film, all animals are sentient. Most people would agree that animals are not things and that they deserve to be protected and treated with dignity, yet state law around the world defines animals as property. It’s been super inspiring to tap into such an intelligent, forward-thinking and compassionate community working to advance the issue of animal rights worldwide.

Aside from the personal choices associated with dietary adjustments (and similar actions), what are some of the best ways ordinary people can build awareness and engage others on this subject?
The first step is to remove our blinders. In fact, this is the purpose of the film, to remove our blinders. When we can ‘see’ that around the world each year, billions of nonhuman animals are bred, used and reduced as tools for production, then we can start viewing the system and all of its many many products differently. Many people strive to be good to one another, to not support corrupt systems which violate human rights, we try to be stewards for the planet, to think ‘green”, well, we can also reduce our animal footprint, to be conscious stewards for the billions of animals (ghosts) caught within the machine of modern world. It starts with awareness, and then action follows.

Ghosts in Our Machine


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