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Featured Interview: The Ghosts in Our Machine

The Ghosts in Our Machine is a documentary film that I hope will do to factory farming what Blackfish is doing to SeaWorld.  The Ghosts in Our Machine a journey of discovery into what is a complex social dilemma. In essence, humans have cleverly categorized non-human animals into three parts: domesticated pets, wildlife, and the ones we don’t like to think about: the ghosts in our machine. Why do we value wildlife and our companion animals but not the billions of animals bred and used annually by global industries?


The film focuses on Jo-Anne McArthur, who has traveled the world for years, documenting some of the horrific and yet everyday ways in which our society inflicts cruelty upon animals, from animals in captivity in zoos to animals in captivity on factory farms. The focus of the film, though, and the true subjects, are the animals Jo-Anne is trying to get the public to see, most of whom rarely see the light of day and who suffer tremendously behind carefully locked doors. In close up shots, we see their eyes; we see their nostrils flare; we see them cower in the backs of their cages, clinging to each other as the gentle photographer bears witness to their abuse.

The film is moving, beautiful and poetic. I got a chance to interview both Jo-Anne McArthur and Liz Marshall (the director) and I can truly say that both of these women are now my role models.

For more information about the film, visit the film’s website!

  1. The title of the film is poetic. Where did it come from?

Liz: I wanted a title that would make people think, and that would lend itself to a conceptual approach. In 2010 I was at a lecture by Canadian novelist Graeme Gibson, an avid bird lover, and he referred to nature as the ghost in the machine, to illustrate what is at stake. This sparked an immediate connection for me; I knew I needed to work with a variation on that phrase. Most people connect with the title and some people are confused by it.

2. In the beginning of the film Jo-Anne visits a photo agency only to kindly be told that although her photos are powerful, they are “difficult” for consumer magazines to sell. As a filmmaker, did you have any similar concerns? What made you decide to work with Jo-Anne?

Liz: Initially, when I started developing THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE, I was quite struck by the challenge of making a feature length documentary about this subject matter, but what I have realized is that more and more people are onside: animals are sentient beings and not tools for production. The science is in, it’s more and more difficult to conveniently ignore the billions of animals living in obscurity, used as cogs within the machine of our modern world. I wanted to work with Jo-Anne, because my instinct told me that she was the perfect entry-point into the issue.

3. How did you keep the crew going during the tough situations? Did the making of the film inspire any of the crew to go vegan/vegetarian?

Liz: Production is always a lot of work, a lot of responsibility. I choose to work with talented seasoned doc makers who understand this, and who enjoy the challenge, are flexible, creative and sensitive. We were a veg production and post-production unit – everyone was united in that, and there was a great deal of understanding and respect. Everyone who has contributed to THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE has had a personal transformation. That’s beautiful.

  1. What advice do you have for women who want to make documentaries?

Liz: Roll up your sleeves, get your hands on the gear, shoot, edit, direct, produce, write, make mistakes, try it all and then decide what your passion and strength is and zoom in on it, while always keeping the big picture in your minds eye.  Believe in yourself, find your voice and then exercise it. If you are meant to be a filmmaker, you will know. It’s hard work but it’s a vital expression of who you are. Remember to enjoy the process!

5.    The film gracefully transitioned from painful subjects to more peaceful scenes, which seemed to highlight the idea that although horrible practices are happening, they don’t have to.  The current state can change if we want it to. What do you hope people will get out of the film and your work?

Jo-Anne: I like that the film is reflexive and not directive. Liz and I certainly work well together in that regard – we don’t want to tell people what to do, we want to show realities, ideas and alternatives. We want people to turn the lens inward and ask themselves if and how they participate in these animal industries, and how they can change. Both the Ghosts and We Animals web sites offer advice and help on how to make these changes, so we’re not leaving people totally on their own! As Liz elegantly describes, the film is a slow removal of our blinders.

The goals of the We Animals project are many, from making informative and meaningful photographs to bringing stories of animals to classrooms through the We Animals Humane Education Programs. The project aims to educate, and make visible the atrocities which take place behind closed doors, and even out in the open, like the use of animals in entertainment.  What I’d like to see happen in the long term, however, is to have We Animals become more of an archive than anything. An historical account of what was, and a reminder of what shall never again be.

6.    You’ve said that you feel like a war photographer and even stated in the film that you suffer from PTSD. Do you think that this film will help bring you peace knowing that awareness on animal issues is spreading because of your dedication?

Jo-Anne: The Ghosts film indeed helps with this, as you’ve suggested, but so does the daily feedback I’ve received because of We Animals for years now. There are lots of heartfelt emails and positive messages each day about how the project or even just a single image has moved and changed someone.

Peace also comes from taking better care of myself than I did in the past. It came as a surprise to me when I discovered that I don’t actually have any superpowers! I too, am susceptible to becoming depressed in the face of so much suffering. I had to go back to some very helpful basics, like eating well, working a bit less, sleeping more, spending time with loved ones and, most importantly, celebrating change and being thankful for all the hope and change I see in this world. I also read an illuminating book which should be required reading for all activists, called “Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World, A Guide for Activist and Their Allies”. by Pattrice Jones. It helped me get over some serious hurdles.

7.    Throughout the film we see how extremely difficult this work is for you but yet your dedication never falters. How do you keep your motivation?

Jo-Anne: I answer a bit of this question with the last; it all ties in. I think I’ve really learned to focus on the good. I meet such compassionate people every day, and I have a brilliant network of activists around the globe with whom I can work to create change. Though I’m traveling a lot, physically moving around a lot to all these countries and working with so many people, this network is also thriving on line and in our communities, if we seek them out.

I also know that hope is a flame that can be snuffed, and without it we can be left with a heavy and bitter heart. And it’s hard to do our best with a heavy heart. Don’t let that flame get blown out. Protect it with everything you have.

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James Cromwell Says This Film Should be Essential Viewing for Everyone

“This is a masterful film. It should be essential viewing for everyone. ” – James Cromwell, Actor

“Marshall succeeds in creating a portrait of a driven activist that shies away from outright polemics to perhaps preach beyond the converted.” – Basil Tsiokos, INDIE WIRE

“Powerful…disturbing…beautifully shot. A superb example of committed filmmaking. 4 STARS.” – Susan G. Cole, NOW Magazine

I’m so excited about this new animal rights film coming out soon! The Ghosts in Our Machine, is an acclaimed documentary film about the dramatic reality largely hidden from our view – the lives of individual animals living within and rescued from the machine of our modern world – will begin an awards-season run in four major U.S. markets this fall.


Award-winning filmmaker Liz Marshall Marshall directs The Ghosts in Our Machine through the heart and lens of award-winning animal photographer Jo-Anne McArthur. Over the course of a year, Marshall shadows McArthur throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe as she documents animal stories, with each photograph and story serving as a window into global industries using animals for food, clothing, entertainment and biomedical research. McArthur’s epic photo project We Animals is comprised of thousands of photographs taken around the world, documenting animals with heart-breaking empathic vividness.

“With the exception of our companion animals and a few wild and stray species within our urban environments, we experience animals daily as the food, clothing, animal tested goods and entertainment we make of them,” said Marshall. “This moral dilemma is often hidden from our view.”

“I feel like I’m a war photographer,” McArthur says in the film. “I am photographing history, and photographing changes in history right now, in terms of animal rights and where it’s going.”