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Heartbreaking butchery

Published Aug 1, 2014


“I WANT people to consider animals. To see animals. Not just to look, but to really see, and to not turn away,” says photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur of her involvement with the documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine.

The film, directed by Liz Marshall, will be screened at Labia on Orange on Saturday and Sunday at 6.15pm. It deals with the plight of animals who suffer in the back-ground while the machine of our modern world keeps working. Animals are mostly invisible to us, and more tragically, ignored.

“The animals we consume are largely invisible. We call them BBQ wings, we call them bacon, leather, gelatine, veal, we call them subjects of a study, but we fail to see them for who they are – individuals, all of them, who wish to live free from harm,” she says.

Marshall agrees. “This film is an entry point for those becoming conscious of this epic and tough subject for the first time, and a tool for those who are committed to helping animals. The time is now, in tandem with the environmental movement, to open our eyes, our hearts and minds, to the billions of animals trapped within the machine of our world.”

Ghosts in Our Machine follows McArthur over the course of a year as she delves into stories of animals in Canada, the US and in Europe, going behind the scenes in food, fashion, entertainment and bio-medical research industries.

“Liz wanted to make a feature doc about animals, and asked me if she could ground the film in a narrative about my work and struggle to bring the animal issue – through my photography – to the mainstream,” she explains.

She jumped at the opportunity to take her animal work to a larger audience, and it helped that she and Marshall had the same vision as far as storytelling and aesthetic were concerned.

“Jo is radiant, accessible and empathic,” says Marshall, “which also shatters the misguided presumption that animal rights activists are simply angry and extreme.”

McArthur says that she decided long ago to put her face and words to her project We Animals, and be a spokesperson, as best she could, for animals. “The Ghosts film was a way of continuing to do that, and I am humbly doing my best to help share the important message of both the Ghosts film and We Animals.”

The film deals with some very heartbreaking themes, and one would assume forging ahead without becoming overwhelmed must have been challenging. “I didn’t actually forge ahead without becoming overwhelmed,” she says. “I do get overwhelmed, and that has to be okay, sometimes. It’s a natural reaction to what I’m seeing and doing, the situations I’m constantly putting myself in.” She tries to balance the difficult subjects she covers by taking care of herself – doing things that help to relax her, like spending time with friends and family, reading and cycling.

It’s often said that the camera can act as a “barrier”, and McArthur agrees that it does, while shooting. “In addition to that, while on site, we’re generally in a dangerous situation with a limited amount of time, and so the focus has to be on doing the best possible work in that time. I can deal with the trauma and emotions later.”

She says that it’s incredibly hard to see animals kept in such terrible conditions, but that she and her team have to remain focused. “For some war photographers, that ‘camera as a barrier’ carries on, and remains a barrier, but not for me. I have emotions to deal with in the weeks and months following investigative or undercover shoots.”

But along with the negative aspects, there are also moments she will treasure, like success stories of animals they managed to rescue. “I also enjoyed quiet time with Maggie and Abbey, two rescued beagles. It was also very special to me that Toronto Pig Save and its co-founder Anita Krajnc were part of the film. TPS is an organisation dear to my heart and is now making international waves, growing from the Save group to the Save movement, with new chapters appearing worldwide.”

She also enjoyed working with and getting to know the rest of the team Marshall assembled: John Price, Jason Milligan and Iris Ng.

Marshall says that working on the film has also changed her life. “There are many ways in which it transformed and expanded my world view. I have a deeper sense of who animals are, and respect. I have a more detailed and cohesive understanding of animal industries. As a result, during the making of the film I chose to become vegan.”

Despite the challenges of this line of work, McArthur is determined to keep going. “I know that change is happening. It’s tangible. It’s visible. This is a quickly growing movement and it’s exciting to be a part of it. People respond positively to the We Animals project every day, and all of this is what I need to keep me pushing forward. It feels good to be contributing to something so important.”

Award-winning director of Animal Voice and South African representative of the international NGO Compassion in World Farming Louise van der Merwe will be at the screening on Saturday.

l Tickets are R40. To book, call 021 424 5927. For more information, see

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