Hot Docs Preview: Interview with Liz Marshall - Director of The Ghost in Our Machine

Interviews
by Melissa Silverstein
April 25, 2013 1:45 PM
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"The Ghost in Our Machine"

The Ghosts in Our Machine is an extremely upsetting yet moving film about how we treat animals.  It tells the story of Jo-Ann McArthur, a photographer, who has dedicated her life to showing the disturbing treatment of animals.  After watching the film, there is no way you will look or thinks about animals the same way again.

Women and Hollywood: Talk a little about the title. Where did it come from?

Liz Marshall: The title was inspired during the fall of 2010, through a talk by Canadian novelist Graeme Gibson. He eloquently spoke about the human condition, and our aggressive infringement on the natural world. Within this context he referred to nature as the ghost in the machine. This sparked a great aha moment for me - I was seeking a title, one that could embody the conceptual idea I was already developing. I then madly looked into the origins of "The Ghost in the Machine," and if you do a Google search you will see that this title has been broadly used, within every possible genre. In fact, it is has become a common phrase. I ran it by my development team, my lawyer, tossed and turned, and then locked into a variation on the phrase, one that is reflexive: THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE. The 'our' in the title is meaningful. The machine is not an abstract notion. We are the machine, and the ghosts are the billions of animals used annually, worldwide, for our consumer goods.

WaH: How did you meet Jo-Anne?

LM: I met Jo-Anne McArthur ("Jo") years ago through a mutual friend, and over time I took notice of her work. She would share images with my partner Lorena and me, asking for our thoughts. I knew she spent up to six months of each year in the field, all over the world, photographing animals at the frontlines. As a documentary filmmaker who has traveled to some very difficult places, I could relate to her. And although I didn't fully grasp the animal issue (yet), my heart was naturally attuned to Jo's photographic sensibility: It is intimate, honest and brave, and she has a wonderful eye. I felt inspired more and more by her dedication to an issue that most people choose to not see. My life partner Lorena is a dedicated animal rights activist and longtime vegan, and I owe it to her for inspiring me to tackle this big challenging subject of animal use and animal sentience, and I owe it to Jo-Anne for inspiring the approach I took. My initial inclination was to integrate her photographs into the film, but I quickly learned that she would also make an excellent protagonist. I knew I needed to anchor the animal issue in a human story, one that would bear the fruit of possibility - to engage a broad audience. It is through Jo-Anne's lens, imagery and mission that we access non-human animals in the film. When I asked Jo to participate at this level she immediately said yes, she understood.

Jo-Anne is a hopeful heroine type character in the film trying to save the animals, and we can't help but want her to succeed.

WaH: This is a very hard movie to watch. What do you hope people will get out of it?

LM: The issue of animal use and abuse can seem insurmountable, it is tragic and it is complex. We love our companion animals and we value wildlife but we are generally blind to the realities of what goes into the food we eat; the clothing we wear; the chemicals we put on our lawn, on our hair, in our medicines, and we are taught to believe that animals living behind cages and in concrete tanks are happy. The list goes on. Animals have been reduced to objects for production, and their lives are designed around our needs and desires.

But, how does one convey difficult truth in a way that people will want to watch? I worked hard to create ebb and flow between animals as living, breathing, feeling subjects in the film, with names and stories, and those who are mere numbers, destined for slaughter, caught within our machine. The result is that the film is difficult in some scenes and heartwarming in other scenes. The film doesn't focus on violence, there is enough violence around us in the world everyday. I prefer to focus on truth and on hope. Bruce Cowley, our commissioning editor at Canada's documentary channel, didn't want a violent film for the same reasons. He wanted a film that could engage a broad demographic about this morally significant subject matter. He funded THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE early on (summer of 2011), and every step of the way we wanted the same film.

THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE is a cross-platform project focused on the theme of empathy. What I hope people will get out of it is a new and/or deeper awareness that animals are not objects. As consumers we can all make a difference for them, each and every day, in a multitude of ways.

WaH: This is extremely difficult work for Jo-Anne yet her dedication is so intense. She said she even had PTSD. Did you learn at all how she continues to keep doing this work?

LM: Jo-Anne has found ways to nourish her soul and replenish her spirit, so that she can keep doing her work effectively. One of the ways she copes is to spend time at animal sanctuaries, such as Farm Sanctuary (featured in the film), which is also a sanctuary for her, and other activists in general.

WaH: Did making this documentary change you at all?

LM: Yes, it profoundly tweaked my moral compass. I see animals differently, as little universes; characters; sentient beings. And, as a consumer I am very conscious of what I buy, so that I am not contributing to the system that is using them. I was vegetarian for 20 years but I am now vegan. I don't find it limiting, I find it liberating – it's a like a whole big new way of viewing the world. I have a new lens. I have always been a human rights advocate/activist, and in a recent years an environmentalist, and now I also include animals in my world view. Maude Barlow, the subject of my last film (WATER ON THE TABLE) says: The rights of animals is the next frontier in the search for both justice and environmental sanity.

WaH: What advice do you have for women who want to make documentaries?

LM: Study the craft of filmmaking. Work tremendously hard. Be hands on, learn camera, editing, business; discover your strengths and then hone them and be who you are meant to be. Create something meaningful. Be clear about your intentions. Be confident. Make your dreams come true. It is a hard line of work, are you cut out for it? Ask yourself the hard questions.


The film will premiere April 28 at Hot Docs.
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