Liz Marshall on animal rights and “The Ghost in Our Machine”

Liz Marshall is an award-winning queer filmmaker whose latest project takes on the next big social movement, animal rights issues. The Ghost In Our Machine focuses on a wide array of animal subjects and the photographer who has spent most of her life documenting them, Jo-Anne McArthur. It is comprised of stunning and surprisingly beautiful visuals of the harsh world these animals live in, that are both compelling and inspirational. It is a must see for everyone, but especially those in the LGBT community, who know first hand how hard it is to turn the tide when it comes to social issues.

Liz took the time to speak with us about her film and her thoughts on why the animal rights movement is the next frontier.


AfterEllen: I have to admit at first I was apprehensive to watch the film, because I think we feel comfort in ignorance. Tell me why you think it is important for people to push past these feelings and confront the issues exposed in your film.

Liz Marshall: I think you bring up such important and completely relevant points, because it’s true there is such a social resistance to the subject. And I think we do see parallels in our own gay, lesbian, and queer movement, as well in history, to the social resistance. I think with the animal issue it strikes a very personal note for people because we are confronted with it every single day. When we eat, when we consume many different products that are out there from different types of clothing to household products, beauty products, food, forms of entertainment we don’t normally think about like a zoo or aquarium. So it sort of forces us to reflect in a way that can be very uncomfortable. It forces people to be out of their comfort zone.

And that’s really the purpose of The Ghost In Our Machine is to remove the blinders, because we all wear them. I think when those blinders get removed our world gets bigger and thats what happened for me when I started developing this project. My blinders started to come off and I started to see the world very differently. I started seeing the “ghosts” and the “ghosts” are the millions of animals that are often hidden from our view that have been reduced to tools for production and that are used globally for industries worldwide. I think when we start having that consciousness then it can be actually quite staggering—the statistics but also just the reality of it as consumers and what we engage in everyday.

AE: I think anyone who watches your film will be inspired. And like you said, I think they are unaware of everything that is going on. What changes can we make in our lives to help these animals?

LM: Well, I think the first step is becoming more conscious, more aware and with that hopefully we will begin to foster empathy and compassion. If we can do that then I think consumers, because we all our consumers, can make different choices. And there are many ways people can make different choices for animals. Whether it’s through making different food choices or looking at ingredients differently. The environmental revolution inspired us culturally to try to be green, try to be better stewards to the planet. We can also develop what we are referring to as an animal footprint. So we can apply that as well when we are looking at ingredients. Here is a tangible example, when you’re buying a cleaning supply most of us look at the ingredients to see if it is full of toxic poisons that is going to wreak havoc on the environment. We don’t often look to see if there is any animal byproducts or if it’s tested on animals. So thats one way we can make a difference.

AE: Why do you think people have more empathy for wildlife or domesticated animals, but not for the plight of these animals?

LM: I think that it’s a cognitive dissonance. I think we care about wolves and whales and our companion animals because we are socialized to care about them. And our companion animals are members of our family and it’s a value that all of us share that we want to save wildlife. We care about the planet, so in turn we care about whales and wolves. But I think, going back to the cognitive dissonance, the “ghosts” who represent almost every kind of species are mostly hidden from our view and are trapped within the cogs of the machine of our modern world. I think we are willfully ignorant or we don’t know about it. Many people are quite shocked, they don’t know what goes on and what the realities are. So I think it’s a combination of not wanting to see and also that people are literally not aware.

And, so, thats why I made the film because I was quite inspired by this cognitive dissonance and I wanted to try to make a film that would attract a broader audience and not just preach to the converted and that actually reaches across the divide. So that is really the alternate purpose of the film, to try and open the dialogue and get people talking and thinking about this project.

 Jo-Anne McArthur


AE: I was taken aback in the beginning of the film when Jo-Anne said she suffered from PTSD. But by the end I could see why she equated her job with that of a war photographers. What was it like working with her? How did it affect you? 

LM: First of all that scene in the beginning when she is talking to her agency in New York City is really significant, because the challenges that she faces in getting her work seen on a wider scale is sort of parallel to the resistance we talked about earlier. The mainstream media often doesn’t want to embrace or see this issue. For Jo-Anne thats her calling in life, to photograph these animals. She is very much a front line person. She is out there traveling for six months out of the year for the last twelve years. She has been all over the globe documenting the plight of these animals. She has a huge archive of images, and you can actually look at them online at and her book We Animals is being published this December.

Doing that kind of front line work definitely takes a toll. I think she does a really good job of balancing everything and  finds a way to nourish herself and continue the work she was meant to do. I think she is an inspiring person. I think because she is a very positive person, very radiant and very hopeful. I think thats what fuels her drive and her work. So I have to say I found it very inspiring as a documentarian that has been on the frontline all over the world myself but focused on human issues, I can relate to her in a way. I think doing the work actually becomes therapeutic, because you’re then giving back by presenting something meaningful to try and make a difference.

2012-07-02_044838Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

AE: When you were working with her was it hard to just document and not intervene? Especially in scenes like the fox fur farm.

LM: Yeah, definitely. There is that fine line always and she says it in the movie. She says she is not there to liberate the animals, although she would love to free them all from the cages, she is there to document them. And through the documentation I hope that it will change the heart and minds of people and it will become educational. And it is true that images speak a thousand words and her images are so arresting and powerful. I think they really do hit home for a lot of people, because their not gory or gratuitous.

For me as a filmmaker, for sure, it’s always challenging to not intervene but in the same way that Jo-Anne expressed that in the movie, I also am there to document and make this movie and get it seen. That’s my preoccupation.

AE: Speaking of the fox farm, it seems like sound was really important in your film. It really got to me as much as the visuals. Can you discuss your thoughts behind that?

LM: Yeah, definitely, I am glad you picked up on that because you just watched it on your computer. So you can imagine seeing it in a theatre with surround sound. It was really designed for that and it becomes very, very immersive. I worked with a sound team here in Toronto. I have worked with them on my other films and sound was a huge consideration. Conceptually it was about giving the animals agency because they don’t speak our language. So their breath, their movements, their cries…basically their voice was made bright within the movie. So that it is really prominently featured and that really matches the visual approach to the film. There is a scene with visual landscape between Jo-Anne’s still photographs and this very intimate handheld, naturalistic kind of photography that is really up close and personal with the interface between the animals and Jo-Anne.

The sound is so important. The music, the soundscape is very minimalist and very haunting but non-manipulative. You know, not wanting to hit people over the head but rather to take them on a journey. The Radiohead song at the end, it was amazing to get that. I had two thumbs up from the artist. Thom Yorke and the band were totally in favor of the song being used in the film. And we were able to get that with help from a friend of mine that is a producer, so that was a real bonus. So I think overall, the overall soundscape is something that I feel very strongly about as part of the language of the film.

AE: How did your partner, Lorena, influence your decision to make this film?

LM: Oh my God, she totally influenced me to make this film. We have been together almost ten years and she is a long time animal rights person and vegan activist. When we got together I definitely had an understanding about the issues and I was vegetarian, so I had a sympathetic understanding. But I didn’t get it in a really deep way like I do now. And that process for me became much deeper when I started making the film in 2010. Anyway, I was always focused on making human centered films. The Ghost In Our Machine features a human protagonist but I like to think of it as Jo-Anne and a cast of animal subjects. In the past I focused on human rights issues and environmental issues but I never focused on the animal issue. And it was really Lorena that inspired me. She basically said it’s the next frontier, it’s significant, it’s important and it’s undervalued, it’s marginalized, it’s not understood. Why don’t you challenge yourself and take this journey and make this movie?

And I am so glad that she pushed me to do that and that I decided to do that. I knew it would be a challenge. It is always a challenge making films. It’s epic and you end up living and breathing your project. Everything from pre-development, development, pitching your project, production, post production and distribution. I mean, it becomes a huge chunk of your life. You have to wholeheartedly believe in what you’re doing. And I knew when I started developing the concept for The Ghost In Our Machine that it would be really hard, but the amazing thing was that we got a broadcaster right away. I say “we” because I am referring to my producing partner, Nina Beveridge. She came on board in 2011 and we put together great materials. it hasn’t been as hard as I thought it would be.

I think the time was right. The time is now. I think it was a right, fertile time for this kind of subject. Again, of course, there is all that social resistance that we spoke about but I think there is also a groundswell of people who want to care and who do care. They are looking for something like The Ghost In Our Machine that’s not a gory, graphic kind of film. But rather a film that is actually a film posing these moral questions, that they connect with.

2011-07-14_180327AE: While you were filming, what was the most eye-opening situation for you personally?

LM: The most eye-opening situation for me was getting to know Fanny and Sonny at Farm Sanctuary. I have never sort of met a cow before. I mean maybe as a kid I have been to a farm before and I would pet the cows. I have always loved all animals, but I never really formed a relationship with a farm animal. Fanny and Sonny, as you know from the film, are rescues from the dairy industry. Susie Coston, who is featured in the movie, who is the National Shelter Director for Farm Sanctuary in Upstate New York rescues them from the dairy auction. Fanny is a thin, beaten up, ragged looking three-year-old dairy cow who is on her way to slaughter and Sonny is a one day old veal calf that is basically dying due to an infection in his umbilical cord and is totally dehydrated. She rescues them and takes them to Cornell University, which is the animal hospital that sees all of her animals, and they get assessed medically then they are released to Farm Sanctuary.

So the film kind of charts that process and I was totally riveted. I mean, I have never seen anything like that before. And part of why I thought that would make an incredible scene is because I think the vast majority of people have never seen it like that before. You usually would take a dog or a cat to an animal hospital to get them life saving medication and medical attention. But when have we ever seen a beat up looking dairy cow and a dying one-day-old calf put through these medical procedures? So, I really was riveted by that and then my crew and I went back to Farm Sanctuary a few times over the course of a year to document their rehabilitation.

What I learned is that they are really unique beings, like they have individual characters and personalities. They remembered us. They would come to us. Fanny, as an example, was a very shy and introverted cow. Every time she sees me she comes to me and she licks me and she’s happy to be with me. It was just a real eye-opener. They are beautiful creatures. I actually miss them. I went back in the summer. There was a big party there called the Hoedown. I was happy to go there and see them. They are both really happy.

AE: Is there anything else you would like to share about your film and the issues it brings to light?

LM: That there is an intersectionality between human rights issues and animal issues. What I find so interesting through this whole animal rights thing is that it really is a social movement and that it is gaining momentum. I think it is the next frontier. And it’s not that the other social movements have gotten to a place where we can become comfortable. But I think that this issue is also important and I am really glad that others are starting to understand that and are interested in that.


The Ghost In Our Machine will begin its U.S. release this November 8-14 in New York at the Village East Cinema. It will then move on to Los Angeles at Laemmle Music Hall on November 15-21. You can keep up to date on future releases in San Francisco, Boston and other cities on the film’s website,