The Ghosts In Our Machine as a Tool for Advocacy

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In 2012, HRC published a series of blog posts by then-HRC Graduate Intern Loredana Loy on the topic of cinema for social change. The posts explore the way in which certain representations of animals in film can generate new and meaningful ways of thinking about other animals, which can in turn affect things on the ground. Though, as the series points out, animals rarely escape anthropocentric portrayals in cinema. The Ghosts In Our Machine, however, is a film that runs counter to this trend.


Directed and co-produced by Liz Marshall, this award-winning film is constructed around photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, whose work captures the human-made dilemma in which animals find themselves. Jo-Anne is offered as the documentary's primary human character—its heroine. Ghosts follows Jo-Anne in her work as a photojournalist as well as in the process of putting together her first book. The film is a complex offering, however this review brackets much of the film’s depth for the purpose of looking at it in one light: as a tool for animal advocacy.

I see this documentary as a smart approach to advocacy for several reasons. For one, I suspect its gentleness in telling the story of humans’ use of animals makes the topic palatable to a broad audience. Though it offers very painful scenes, they do not dominate the narrative, which allows this introduction to the world of animal commodification to be accessible to those new to the topic.

The film strikes a balance that involves a delicate dance that most of us who fancy ourselves advocates have trouble achieving: relaying the emergency of what’s happening without turning people away. There are both desperate and warming scenes in the film and they are cleverly juxtaposed. A scene of transport trucks with pigs headed to slaughter that captures their screams, their sensitive gaze, and their defeat on their last day, is followed by the story of Julia—a pig burned and bruised at human hands—and her new home at Farm Sanctuary with her eight piglets. The clip of beagles struggling in labs is placed next to the rescue of Abbey, a beagle from a teaching facility who is given a new home alongside Maggie, a beagle who once shared a similar fate. And the story of the rescue of dairy cow Fanny—worn out from overuse—and her new calf Sonny is still fresh in our minds when we’re given a look into the dairy industry. This balance perfectly illuminates the difference between commodity and individual, between horror and safety—differences that are important for reaching people. Many advocates have started to appreciate the power of showing animals as individuals—stepping away from the abstraction of “billions” in favor of an inspection of a few—and this film is no stranger to this technique.

The movie's takeaway message is subtle in many ways and I suspect this allows viewers to feel inspired without feeling judged—an important combination for being a catalyst for change.

Ghosts is also novel in its storytelling: it shows us the world of animals through a human lens. It is both a movie about animals and a movie about humans, and this makes it relatable. Jo-Anne is positioned in such a way that the viewer can’t help but be on her side. She is a wise choice as the anchor for the story as well as the human face of the animal protection movement in this piece—she is a different personality than the stereotypical conception of the animal advocate.

The movie also shows promise for advocacy in that it explores a variety of animal issues including animals’ use for food, clothing, research, and entertainment. This multi-pronged approach addresses the omnipresent aspect of animal exploitation and shows audiences that animals are used just about everywhere. And rightly it explains that animals used for food account for the overwhelming majority of abused animals—an important piece of information for viewers keen to make a change.

As our blog posts on cinema for social change point out, film can be a tool for advocacy by giving visibility to animal oppression and imparting a sense of individuality, and Ghosts does this perfectly. It gives audiences an insight into an invisible world from a perspective that most are not exposed to in a typical animal protection campaign. The footage of Jo-Anne photographing animals in places such as a fox fur farm is so different from the typical grainy undercover video that the movement often relies on. Not only is there a human narrative at play, but the animals are also instantly individuals. We are given a close view of them. We can tell they’re fearful and confused, and we can feel their nervousness but also their soulfulness as Jo-Anne photographs what little there is to their life. Like Jo-Anne’s photographs, this film is both an art form and a story. Its beautiful cinematography undoubtedly has a hand in keeping viewers present—and facilitating a high engagement rate is half the battle for any social change initiative.

Word is that the film is having an impact on the ground. In a Mercy For Animals blog, Liz and Jo-Anne reveal that they regularly hear from viewers—those beyond the “choir”—who have been deeply moved by the film and have changed their consumer practices as a result. Quantifying this impact would be a useful and compelling project for one of our movement’s researchers!

Following a celebrated Canadian release, the Ghosts team is now raising funds for an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release in the U.S., a move that is being supported by a variety of animal protection organizations including Farm Sanctuary, Mercy For Animals, PETA, NEAVS, Compassion Over Killing and The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, who no doubt instantly recognized the film’s potential as a force for change in our movement.

qualitative research

I generally lean towards quantitative research, but I do see the value in qualitative research. This is an example of insightful qualitative research. I think films and documentaries, especially in an accessible and downloadable format (eg Netflix), are a powerful medium for social change.

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