Film Review: The Ghosts in Our MachineAtmospheric doc is a tone poem for the already convinced.
Following the animal-rights mission of a photographer who hopes dramatic pictures of caged animals will help change minds about their exploitation, Liz Marshall's Ghosts in Our Machine trades didacticism for first-person atmospherics. The moodily subjective work is best suited to viewers who already share most if not all of subject Jo-Anne McArthur's values; despite its obvious aesthetic appeal, its commercial value seems limited to niche bookings and special-event screenings for the activist community.
"I feel like a war photographer," McArthur says, carrying her camera into places she certainly isn't welcome and hoping what she finds will shock viewers back home out of their complacency. She sneaks into vast farms where thousands of animals are raised for their fur, stealing images of cramped quarters and infected wounds before employees arrive for the morning shift. "I'm not here to liberate them,” she says, though she doesn't explain why; presumably, she'd be too easy to prosecute if she and her local guides opened hundreds of cages and then published photos from the site.
As the scene changes, visiting sanctuaries for abandoned farm animals, marine theme parks and other settings, voiceovers elaborate on McArthur's conviction that her subjects are sentient creatures with as many rights as humans. She clearly identifies with the vegan protesters seen here, but the thesis gets muddy late in the film, where footage of slaughterhouses is accompanied by quotes from Temple Grandin, whose work is widely viewed as a way of making humanity's killing of cows more palatable to animal advocates.
Scenes where McArthur meets with editors and photo agents suggest the challenges she has getting work in front of non-activist newspaper and magazine readers. Make the work moving but not disturbing, she's told—a big request for a woman who is so deeply pained by what she has seen.