Modern Western philosophical patriarch René Descartes is probably best known for his pithy dictum: cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) – a formulation which led him step by step to a “dualistic” vision of existence, with a radical divide between the physical body and the purely spiritual “mind”. Mid-20th century behaviorist Gilbert Ryle famously criticized this approach to the philosophy of mind for its absurd attempt to artificially parse out the parts of personhood, likening Descartes’ concept of the “soul” to a “ghost in the machine”. The terms were aptly chosen, and the 17th century French thinker probably wouldn’t even have disagreed with them, considering his willingness to describe all non-human animals as “machines”. Today, very few philosophers would accept the strong version of Descartes’ body/mind argument – but humanity at large seems more disposed than ever to treat most non-human beings as if they are merely physical objects to be exploited.
Director Liz Marshall turns this abhorrent way of thinking on its head, forcing the viewer to come to terms with the billions of ghosts churned out by the soulless machine of human industry and the robotically anthropocentric logic that keeps its processes running at full tilt. The Ghosts in Our Machine chronicles the efforts of activist and photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur to shut this seemingly unstoppable automaton down, using only her aesthetic/ethical instincts and the services of another machine – her camera. This harrowing documentary follows McArthur around the world as she documents the plight of non-human animals living in the most wretched conditions imaginable as they await their grim fates. Unable to free these beings from their bonds, she does what she can by spiriting contraband evidence of their personhood to the world that consumes them so callously. McArthur and Marshall know that their audiences have all heard the animal rights/animal liberation arguments before – to little or no avail. The film does contain some of this familiar rhetoric, but for the most part it leaves the heavy hearted lifting to the lens – and what it reveals. A visit to a massive fox fur farm sets the tone for much that comes later, as the camera captures the agony of the prison’s inmates in their eyes and horribly immured mannerisms.
The Ghosts in Our Machine also takes an unexpected detour into McArthur’s subjective experience of her seemingly Sisyphean task. She tells an editor that she is “trying to save the world” – and the relative ineffectuality of her quest to this point has obviously taken its toll. Marshall accompanies the photographer to several farm sanctuary locations (including Ontario’s own Snooter’s) that present a model of what ethical interspecies relations might look like. Here again, McArthur and Marshall do an extraordinary job of putting the emotions of non-human people on the screen (happy ones, in this case). The film never allows the viewer to rest comfortably in the notion that the evident contentment on display in these havens might somehow “balance out” the ongoing horrors occurring in the world beyond their felicitous fences, Rather, this little dose of positive imagery makes the overwhelmingly strong medicine contained in the rest of the movie even harder to swallow. Perhaps someday soon, we just won’t.
The Ghosts in Our Machine makes its world premiere at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on April 28 (6:30 pm). It will also show at the Isabel Bader Theatre on May 1 (11 am) and again at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on May 4 (11am).
Consult the complete Hot Docs Festival schedule here.