Why We Should Care (More) About Animals

By Liz Marshall

Someone should do a survey to actually see how many queer vegetarian/vegan women are out there. I suspect a very large percentage.

Ever since I came out in the early '90s, I have noticed the trend in queer women's spaces for hummus and veggies and tofu scramble. (Thankfully the veg world has exploded in recent years and there are many many more versatile foodie options, although I still eat and love hummus and tofu scramble!) But seriously, what is this cliche about anyway? The empathy gene? We know that the majority (76 percent) of our social media followers are female; I wonder how many of them are queer? Maybe it's not important, but I am curious ... .

I am curious about the capacity for empathy. The film I directed, "The Ghosts in Our Machine," is ultimately a plea for greater empathy. Animal sentience is defined in the first act, through the disembodied voices of cutting-edge scientists: "Sentience is the capacity to feel; all animals are sentient, and humans are animals."

The film illuminates the lives of nonhuman animals (the ghosts) rescued from and living within the machine of our modern world. Through the heart and photographic lens of protagonist and photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, the audience experiences empathy for nonhuman animals. The audience also experiences the sentience of Jo-Anne McArthur, as she is the conduit into the hidden lives of the nonhuman animals featured throughout the film. Audiences are left with a new way of seeing animals as feeling and conscious beings, not merely as tools for production.

Since the world premiere of "The Ghosts in Our Machine" at the Hot Docs Film Festival in April/May of 2013, the film has garnered several international awards and nods, and has attracted a myriad of reviews, from mainstream press to countless blogs. It has been quite fascinating for me to observe not only the emotional and often visceral reaction to the film, but also the interpretation of the film. The theme of empathy comes up repeatedly in various ways.

A queer woman, a film theorist and professor, Sherry Coman, wrote one of my favorite reviews of the film. After viewing the film she unpacked it for me saying that it's not "about" empathy but rather it "dwells in" empathy, not in a saccharin sentimental way, in a heartfelt and even tragic way. Many people will comfortably inhabit that space, while others will distance themselves from it. Coman's review of the film is here: http://hanadreaming.blogspot.ca/2013/10/the-ghosts-in-our-machine.html, and a list of reviews with hyperlinks can be found here: http://www.theghostsinourmachine.com/press/ .

So what about that "empathy gene?" Do vegans and vegetarians have a larger or more honed empathy gene? My partner Lorena Elke has a super sonic one; it is about 10,000 times bigger than your average person's when it comes to her capacity to feel for animals, and to want to help them. I have always cared for the underdog, for people and for animals, and have naturally "put myself in another's shoes," to feel their pain or joy. The only fistfight I had in grade school was with a bully. But my empathy for animals has developed and grown in the making of "The Ghosts in Our Machine" because I am more aware and tuned in to "seeing" them. I wanted to make a film that would be a catalyst for people who care, but who need to care more. And there are those who will never care. When it comes to having empathy for other species, I think many people need to, and can, foster and develop this part of themselves/ourselves.

Liz Marshall is an award-winning auteur filmmaker who fuses character-driven cinematic storytelling with social and environmental justice issues. Since the '90s she has created a body of documentary projects shot all over the world which focus on a range of subjects including: animal use and animal sentience; the right to water movement; HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa; sweatshop labor; corporate-globalization; gender; censorship affecting writers and journalists, war-affected children; music icons and the written and spoken word. Liz is well versed in the craft of conceptual point-of-view storytelling as a means of exploring complex issues. Marshall's current film is "The Ghosts in Our Machine" (2013), a critically acclaimed cross-platform documentary that illuminates the lives of individual animals living within and rescued from the machine of our modern world. Through the heart and photographic lens of acclaimed animal photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, we become intimately familiar with a cast of non-human subjects. The film follows McArthur over the course of a year as she photographs several animal stories in parts of Canada, the U.S. and in Europe. Each story and photograph is a window into global animal industries: research, food, fashion and entertainment. This essay originally appeared in Windy City TImes in December 2013.

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