'The Ghosts In Our Machine': Exquisite Filmmaking, Haunting Subject

There's no question about it--"The Ghosts In Our Machine" is one of the most arresting documentaries we've seen in years. Showcasing Jo-Anne McArthur's superb and haunting photography, "Ghosts" takes us behind the curtain and shines a light on the animals industry exploits for profit.

We were thrilled to be able to chat with both Jo-Anne McArthur, featured prominently in the film, and Liz Marshall, the film's director.

First, I just have to say that "The Ghosts In Our Machine" is beautifully shot. The cinematography is gorgeous! Tell us how you were able to so stunningly capture images of animal suffering.

Liz: The lensing of the film was a collaboration. Jo-Anne's photographs are intercut with naturalistic documentary footage shot by three of Canada's finest cinematographers: John Price, Iris Ng and Nick de Pencier. I shot about 20 percent of the film. I always co-shoot films that I direct. In essence, the outcome is a seamless visual world that ebbs and flows between Jo's arresting photographs and the intimate, primarily handheld footage of her and the animals throughout the film.

I chose the cinematographers based on their abilities and my relationship to them, but also based on their innate sensibility to be able to translate Jo's eye, and importantly, to be extremely sensitive to the issues explored in the film. Audiences love the look and feel of the film; it is consistent feedback. Creating a poetic experience for people was the intent--animal sentience is at the heart of the film, and it was paramount to try to illuminate and elevate the animals through sound and picture. I believe we achieved this. Editing and sound design and music have a lot to do with this as well. I am proud to work with a stellar team, many of them for years now, and for years to come.

Jo-Anne: It's definitely a balance, making beautiful photos of cruelty and suffering, but one that is necessary to engage the viewer and keep them looking instead of turning away. A lot of animal rights photography is gruesome, necessarily and rightly so; it is simply telling the truth. But if we can get close, connect with the animals who are suffering and show their point of view, show their situation, the images become more engaging. I don't want to turn people away, I want to draw them in, enabling them to experience a fraction of what the animal experiences. If I achieve this, it's a way of tapping into people's compassion and further to that, making them look inward to their role in that suffering.

Jo-Anne, when did you decide that you were going to use your incredible talent to document the plight of animals? Was there a moment when it just clicked?

Jo-Anne: Thank you. There was a series of events that led me to follow this path as an animal rights documentary photographer. I was well on my way to becoming a documentary photographer. I love to travel, I'm ever curious about the human condition and sought to photograph different aspects of that. My mentor, Magnum photographer Larry Towell, gave me some good advice during that time. He told me to shoot what I knew, and to shoot what I loved. I loved animals. I always felt a great empathy towards them and community with them. I'd always had a concern for them.

It also slowly became apparent to me that I saw our treatment and use of animals differently than other people saw them. For example, the viewing of animals on display at zoos and aquaria seems a humiliation to both them and us. Nothing was gained except the furthering of speciesism and the objectification of nonhuman animals. I was in Ecuador in 1998 and there was a monkey tied to a window sill, trained to pick the pockets of passersby. People were taking his photos because it was cute and funny. I took the same photos because I wanted to document the shame in this.

How did you both meet and how/when did you decide to embark on this project?

Liz: Jo and I met in 2005 through my partner Lorena Elke. I had been developing a film about animal issues for a few years, and took notice of Jo's photography in 2008. The ideas were on the back burner until the fall of 2010, at which time I cleared my slate and decided to actively develop a concept, with the intention of reaching a broad audience. Jo's photos were a point of inspiration for me but I quickly realized that she would make an accessible entry point into this big issue. My previous documentary, "Water On The Table," had just made a splash in Canada, and so it was the perfect time for me to forge ahead. The epic process began, in earnest, in 2010. It has been full immersion ever since!

What parts of the documentary were the most challenging, emotionally or physically, to film?

Liz: The fur investigation, both emotionally and physically. It was difficult to bear witness to those poor creatures trapped in those cages in those industries. There's really no words to describe it, which is why, in part, the scene has very little talking. I planned that investigation for four months with "Marcus," needing not only to do a series of investigations but also a very professional shoot for the film. He was an excellent person to collaborate with. Physically it was hard because we were shooting at night and then sleeping sporadically for 2-3 hours and then up and at it again. Our sense of time was upside down and we were tired. I would say that overall, undertaking a feature-length documentary with a global focus is challenging because it becomes your every breath. It is both rewarding and exhausting!

Can you both tell us about the reaction the documentary has received from audiences?

Jo-Anne: Overall, the positive feedback and buzz has been wonderful. People want to see this film and are excited to share it as well. This mass of excitement is created by individuals, and many of them write to me, talking about how the film has changed them or their consumer habits, how they plan on showing it to others. I see the change played out over and over again. Some of the people who've seen the film are now attending Toronto Pig Save vigils. Others have gone vegan, and write to me to tell me all about it! It's pretty amazing. The film is timely. I think people are ready for it.

Liz: The reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. The film is hitting its mark in that it is attracting a diverse audience; we are reaching beyond the choir. People are very impacted and moved to see animals differently, to examine their consumer choices and to make changes. This is the goal of the film. It's also challenging because the film is not "entertainment"; it is a tough subject, one that many people would rather not confront. That said, the feedback is amazing. People are thanking us for making a film about the animal issue that is not filled with graphic violence. It has many peaks and valleys: joy, levity and beauty is intercut with haunting, eye-opening scenes. It is not just an "issue" film; it's a story with a beginning, middle and end.

Where can people see 'The Ghosts In Our Machine'? Are there plans for a theatrical release?

Liz: We have been making our way across Canada since April. Our next stop is the U.S.! Yeah!

We are now focused on bringing "Ghosts" to you in the U.S. this fall! Our social media metrics tell us that the U.S. is our #1 fan, so we are that much more determined and excited to bring the film to a diverse U.S. audience. People can help us out by donating to our U.S. Release Campaign. We will conduct an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release this fall and we need financial support to make this a reality. You can watch a very brief video of me telling you all about it on our Indiegogo fundraising page.

What I know to be true: There is an undeniable wave of consciousness emerging about the animal question, and about the horrors and insanity of the industrialized system, which has reduced billions of animals annually to bits and parts--tools for production. "The Ghosts In Our Machine" is part of this zeitgeist.

For the ghosts.