There’s been buzz within the animal rights community for some time regarding a work in progress called The Ghosts in Our Machine by Canadian filmmaker Liz Marshall. This will be a feature-length documentary, but it will also be an online immersive narrative experience, says Liz, a director who combines cinematic storytelling with social and environmental justice issues. (Her previous film, Water on the Table, documented the quest to have water declared a human right.) The Ghosts in Our Machine not only explores the hidden world of factory farming, but it introduces viewers to individual animals, focusing on their sentience, their beauty, and their pain. These animals are the ghosts in our machine. Liz is going full blast and is about halfway through with the project, but she took some time to give us a glimpse into Ghosts.
Your work has explored a number of social justice issues, from sweatshop labor in Mexico and Bangladesh and global water rights to corporate malfeasance and the rights of girls in developing countries. What brought animal exploitation to your attention?
Two people and one animal: My life partner Lorena Elke, a longtime vegan and a highly principled activist. Her outlook has impacted me, and she has made me rethink our relationship to animals. Jo-Anne McArthur’s photographs of animals pose the moral questions I think most people grapple with. Her images have inspired the approach I am taking with the film. My late dog Troy Celina Marshall (RIP: 1994-2011) was a deep friend who taught me many essential truths. She lives on in my heart.
I have always been sensitive to injustice and the suffering around us, which is why I became vegetarian in 1988 and vegan during the making of The Ghosts in Our Machine, and which is why I am drawn to exploring social issues as a filmmaker. I have primarily focused on human rights and more recently on the environment. The animal rights’ ethos is still relatively new to me. It’s a journey of discovery into what is a complex social issue — one that needs to be considered morally significant.
It’s great to hear that Jo-Anne McArthur has a central role in Ghosts. Why did you choose to tell this story through her lens?
I started with Jo’s photographs as an entry point and visual compass to anchor the film. As I zoomed out, I saw the person and realized that she would make a compelling human entry point to help tell a complicated story. As a filmmaker, I am drawn to character-driven narratives, and several individual animals are central in the film, but I also wanted a strong empathic human at the center, and that’s Jo. She is full of hope, empathy, courage, and she is a free spirit with a good sense of humor, too. She is also a woman on the precipice of breaking out into the mainstream as an important activist-photographer, and the film captures this arc as a symbolic backdrop.
In working on this film, have you encountered any animals who had a special impact on you?
Yes. In the summer of 2011 we were in development and we travelled to upstate New York to film the first story of the film: the rescue of Fanny and Sonny by Farm Sanctuary. Fanny and Sonny were “downed” factory farmed food animals destined to be sold to a rendering plant, but they now live happily at Farm Sanctuary and continue to be featured in the film. Fanny was a “spent dairy” cow and Sonny a one-day-old dying “veal” calf. Through this story, my eyes were opened to the realities of the dairy industry, and I became vegan. Cutting out dairy continues to make sense to me, and now that I have a distance from it, I can see just how collectively ignorant society is about the dairy industry. There is a myth that cows naturally produce milk for humans. I look forward to the extensive discussions and “a-ha” moments that are sparked for people.
You’ve described The Ghosts in Our Machine as a cross-platform documentary. What platforms will it incorporate?
The Ghosts in Our Machine project offers many interactive possibilities and a community building environment that is attracting a broad spectrum of animal lovers.
On June 5th we are excited to unveil a new magazine themed website: www.theghostsinourmachine.com. Join our Facebook page — it is an active and diverse space for sharing and for dialogue. Although we are just halfway through production, we have over 2000 fans from around the world.
Here are some selected examples of our online presence:
The Ghost Free Journey (GFJ) is a bimonthly online interactive blog that to date has taken place exclusively on our Facebook wall. It has been an educational, supportive and community building initiative, and now we are pleased to announce that in July of 2012 we will officially kick off the GFJ on our website, to give it more prominence and to give it a home!
A flash-based immersive story will be prominently featured on our website in 2013 created by the Webby award-winning interactive art directors The Goggles. It will provide a full-screen interactive experience that follows me and Jo-Anne McArthur on a journey of discovery through the questions and issues of animal rights. What excites me the most is that it will be a powerful vehicle to inspire our audience to go further with the subject matter.
People can also check out our Ghost Stories and Trailers on our Vimeo channel.
What do you hope to achieve with The Ghosts in Our Machine?
A lasting awareness that as individual consumers we can make a difference for the Ghosts, each and every day.
When will people get to see it?
The feature-length documentary and the online immersive story will premiere together in early 2013. A double whammy!
How can people get involved in the discussion?
Please tell your friends about us.
UPDATE: I saw this film on September 28, 2013, and found it to be incredibly beautiful and powerful.