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Liz Marshall


Can Documentary Films Be Catalysts For Change?

Posted: 05/28/2013 12:22 pm

I have been making documentaries since the mid 90s, exploring international subjects and themes, from musicians to war-affected children, HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa to the Right to Water movement, and my latest film is about animal sentience. I am drawn to change-makers; people who dedicate themselves to building a better world. I'm often asked: Do you really believe in change? And while I acknowledge that it's hard to be hopeful sometimes, I do, undeniably, believe that a better world is always possible.

This is where documentaries play a significant cultural sociopolitical role. They are the narratives of our times, often about subjects that are hidden or otherwise forgotten. Collectively speaking, documentary films now make up hundreds of thousands of hours of real stories: a giant global audio-visual vault. Some are far more compelling and engaging than others, of course. There is plenty of license to explore the language of reality - to stretch the boundaries of storytelling.

Part of what is empowering about making a documentary is that docs are built-in platforms - they are catalysts for change. In my latest film, The Ghosts In Our Machine (which was voted a Top Ten Audience Favourite at the 20th annual Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival), the protagonist is Jo-Anne McArthur, a talented animal rights photographer. We learn that Jo's body of work is celebrated within animal advocacy and activist circles around the world. The film, in part, focuses on her efforts to be published by mainstream publications, so that she can further elevate the marginalized issue of animals used for food, fashion, research and teaching, and entertainment. As a result of the film, Jo-Anne's work is essentially being "pitched" to the world. There is a burgeoning groundswell consumer movement committed to better stewardship, health, compassion, and ethical responsibility. While this rise is evident, there is resistance to "seeing" the truth about our use of animals, which is why I felt inspired to focus on Jo-Anne's work, including her struggle to be published. Because Jo is such an accessible, genuine and sympathetic subject, audiences not only want her to succeed, but they want to see: Through Jo's lens, audiences are "seeing."

I am finding myself more and more obsessed with the joys and challenges of how to get films out there, to build and foster a movement around a film. There are many inspiring examples of docs that have done just that, and it's the plan for The Ghosts In Our Machine to reach audiences around the world. Distribution is multi-tiered and the more engaged filmmakers can be, the better. The more knowledgeable filmmakers are about the giant world of distribution, and about strategy, the better. We are getting many many requests for the film. 2013 is all about premieres and releases, and after we build that momentum we will launch a robust grassroots campaign of many screenings, in partnership with organizations doing the good work on the ground to create tangible change. The film is designed to facilitate a consciousness shift and to open up dialogue about a topic that has been coined the "impossible issue." As a filmmaker, my hope is that people will leave the theatre, or wherever they see the film, and actually see animals differently. Yes, change is possible, a better world is always possible, and documentaries can have a lot to do with that. See you at the theatre and beyond!

The Ghosts in Our Machine opens at The Carlton in Toronto May 31 - June 6, screening daily: 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.

Also screening:
Winnipeg Film Group, July 4, 5, 6, 7, 10 - Winnipeg
VanCity Theatre, August 2, 3, 16, 17 - Vancouver

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  • In an industrial egg-producing facility, about half of the chicks will be male and would grow up to be roosters, which do not lay eggs and therefore provide no incentive for the breeder to preserve. Most of the male chicks are usually killed shortly after being sexed.

  • A typical cage is about the size of a filing cabinet drawer and holds eight to 10 hens.

  • The young piglets stay with their mothers for two to three weeks, after which their teeth are clipped, tails cut and the males are castrated – all without anaesthetic, according to the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals. "The piglets are taken away to be fattened in nursery pens on concrete floors, then to “grower” pens, and finally to “finisher” pens until they reach slaughter weight of 250 pounds at six months old," the CCFA adds.

  • The CCFA says pigs may be legally transported in Canada without water, food or rest, for 36 hours. Photo: Pigs from Manitoba destined for Mexico died enroute in Texas after being left for days in a transport trailer without water in temperatures of over 90 degrees Farenheit.

  • The Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals estimates that 98 per cent of Canada's 26 million egg-laying hens are kept in small, crammed "battery cages." Pictured here is a feces-covered hen at an Ontario egg farm.

  • Each bird has less space than a sheet of notebook paper, according to the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.

  • Unlike free range hens pictured here, hens in cages are not able to perform natural behaviours such as nesting, perching, dust-bathing and stretching a wing or walking around.

  • Out of the 30 million pigs produced every year in Canada for slaughter, most are born to sows who are kept in two-feet-wide metal gestation crates, where they are unable to even turn around during their four-month pregnancy, says the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.

  • The European Union banned battery cages as of January 1, 2012. Photo: Former battery hens roost in the barn of their new home.

  • Early battery cages were often used for selecting hens based on performance since it is easy to track how many eggs each hen is laying if only one hen is placed in a cage. Later, this was combined with artificial insemination, giving a technique where each egg's parentage is known. This method is still used today.

  • The passage of California Proposition 2 in 2008 aimed to reduce or eliminate problems associated with battery cages. A standard for space relative to free movement and wingspan was set, rather than cage size.

  • Spatial restriction can lead to a wide range of abnormal behaviours, some of which are injurious to the hens or their cagemates.

  • Being indoors, hens in battery cages do not see sunlight. While there is no scientific evidence for this being a welfare problem, some animal advocates indicate it is a concern.

  • According to World's Poultry Science Journal, flocks are sometimes force molted, rather than being slaughtered, to reinvigorate egg-laying. This involves complete withdrawal of food (and sometimes water) for 7 to 14 days or sufficiently long to cause a body weight loss of 25 to 35%