From short undercover videos exposing cruel practices inside slaughterhouses to award-winning, feature-length documentaries like The Cove and Vegucated, it’s clear that images have enormous power to motivate the public and create change. Recently, I watched an exceptionally well-made film on animal research, Maximum Tolerated Dose (MTD), produced and directed by longtime activist Karol Orzechowski. Told from the perspective of both humans and non-humans who have experienced animal testing firsthand, MTD is the first full-length documentary focusing on vivisection. Karol has been screening the film up and down the west coast of North America, but he took some time to talk about this remarkable project.

For readers who may not be familiar with the term, can you explain how the title of your documentary applies to animal research – and to the lab workers?

A “Maximum Tolerated Dose” test is an experiment where they are trying to find the highest dose of a particular chemical or medicine at which point it becomes persistently toxic. As you can imagine, it is quite harmful to the animal subjects, as it is meant to find a threshold of toxicity before death, and so it is damaging by design.

That is the official definition of the term, but I also use it as a title for the film as a kind of metaphor for the former lab workers who are featured in the film: in the same way that the animals they work with have a line between toxicity and death, many lab workers have an ethical line that they walk like a tightrope every day. In that sense, it is a chilling use of language by the industry, and a perfect title for the film.

Director Karol Orzechowski (photo courtesy the director).

It’s great to see a film dealing with vivisection. What is it about this form of exploitation that makes you particularly inspired to campaign against it?

The main motivation for the film came from two conversations I had with former lab workers, as well as a chance that I had to meet a few former lab animals. Both the humans and non-humans had stories of profound and terrible trauma, and that was the initial motivation for the film. Some folks have mentioned that they are glad that MTD is coming out because there is a lack of media about vivisection in the AR community, but I wasn’t really responding to a perceived lack; I just saw an incredible opportunity to bring some very important stories to light, and I took it. I have been making films for almost as long as I’ve been into animal rights, so working on an AR film came very naturally to me.

What was the most challenging aspect of making MTD for you personally?

There were many challenging aspects about making the film. Shooting the film involved doing a bunch of investigative work, which was very challenging emotionally. I won’t get into the specifics of the investigative work we did, but each part of that involved a great deal of stress. I was personally involved in some of the major work we did, and it was quite rough on me. Investigation always involves a certain amount of subterfuge with people, which I really dislike, as well as often leaving the animals behind once you’ve obtained documentation. I am often very much “cool” during the investigative process, but tend to face down the emotional aspects of it once some time has passed.

The editing of the film was also an extremely intensive and emotionally exhausting process, and it will take me a long time to recover. I essentially edited the rough cut of the film alone, and then brought in a second editor to help me whittle it down to a final cut. We worked very, very long hours to come to something that we’re proud of.

I’m not surprised that this project was so emotionally draining. What do you do to unwind and keep from getting burned out?

One of the biggest ways that I unwind — and I know this is going to sound counterintuitive — is by working with the material from the investigations and putting it together into something that will go public. Knowing that people will see it is therapeutic, and so working towards that goal helps me emotionally.

Other than that, though, I play a lot of music in various projects. I listen to a lot of stand-up comedy. I watch ridiculous Hollywood comedy films. I read apocalyptic science fiction. I hang out with friends and do things that have nothing to do with animal rights.

Has making MTD changed you in any way?

Definitely. I mean, it’s been two years in the making, so it has been a long road, and it would have been impossible to go through it and not be changed. That being said, I still haven’t really had a chance to take stock of the whole experience, so I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about it all. I’ve begun showing the film in community screenings as part of the Open the Cages tour, and the response has been very, very positive. But when I get home this month, I’ll begin processing all of that and start figuring out what I want to do next. I’ll definitely be taking a break from any kind of filmmaking to promote this film properly and recharge my batteries. But I definitely need to step out of being a “public” person to work further on my craft, and on investigative work when this is all settled.

Your film features former experimenters and former lab workers who have had a change of heart. What were some of the reasons they gave for this change?

The reasons vary, of course. The common thread is that all of them — with the exception of the one interview I did with a former investigator — really wanted to believe that what they were doing was right. It’s not just that they did the work for a couple of weeks and found it to be wrong and quit. They all stuck it out for years before reaching their breaking point and deciding to leave. They may have reached that breaking point for different reasons — ethical implications, personal trauma, a particular experience with a lab animal that affected them deeply — but the common thread is that they all really gave it their “best shot” before leaving the industry. They came to their decisions after a lot of thought, and a lot of careful consideration and pain.

What literature can you recommend that other activists should read on the subject of vivisection?

So glad you asked about that! We have an ever-growing list of resources on the film’s official website. You will notice that, as part of that list, we have included some “pro-testing” resources. I believe very strongly that too many activists spend too much time reading things that they already agree with. It does nothing to sharpen their skills or expand their breadth of understanding. I think we — myself included — need to spend more time critically engaging with industry resources and scientific publications that we disagree with. It will help us in countless ways, not only to strengthen our resolve as we learn more, but also by getting used to engaging with common pro-testing propaganda.

I imagine a lot of animal advocates who view this film will feel a renewed desire to do something about vivisection. What do you believe are the most effective strategies activists can use to combat this particular exploitation?

I’d like to avoid making any sort of pronouncements about strategy. I think strategy always depends on context, and what works in Spain, for example, might not work here. Those kinds of questions should be posed and answered with brutal honesty by every local community that needs to ask them. That being said, I think we have a lot to learn from the history of past campaigns. From above- and below-ground investigative work done by all kinds of groups from PETA to the ALF, to all kinds of concerted campaigns from Fermare Green Hill happening right now in Italy to the SHAC campaign, there is a lot of experience and history to draw upon to decide what’s effective and how we can best move forward.

With MTD, I wanted to offer the possibility of building bridges between animal activists and current and former lab workers and researchers struggling with the ethical implications of their work. I think when people see these stories, they will see it as a potential extra strategic avenue for campaigning.

Film is a powerful form of activism, and you’re clearly comfortable with it. What other models of campaigning do you find rewarding?

I have been involved with filmmaking for a number of years, but I’ve also been involved with a fair bit of investigative work relating to animal issues in the past couple of years. I find investigative / documenting work very difficult but very rewarding, and that’s generally what I’m most involved with, and I’ve also been helping other AR groups with film editing off and on for a year. I find it personally rewarding, and it’s also a skill that I feel like I can offer to the movement that is somewhat hard to come by. I’m not terribly comfortable as a “leader”, so I’m not involved in doing a lot of organizing of campaigns, but I try be involved in supporting different local and international campaigns whenever I can be.

How can people see MTD?

Currently, the only way to see MTD is to join us on the Open the Cages Tour, or see it at the upcoming AR 2012 conference in DC. We have submitted the film to some key documentary festivals with the hopes of getting theatrical distribution, and we will continue to book community screenings in the meantime. Folks can keep an eye on our screening page, which will always be up to date with the latest information. We are hoping to have special edition DVDs available late this year, and we are planning to make the film available as a low-cost QuickTime download as well.

Note: If you’ll be at the Animal Rights 2012 Conference this week, you can see MTD at 2:00 pm Sunday, August 5, in Room V. Check out the trailer below.