“I feel like I’m a war photographer,” says photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur in Liz Marshall’s brave new documentary The Ghosts In Our Machine. “I am photographing history, and photographing changes in history right now, in terms of animal rights and where it’s going.” This sense of global shift—of an old world order being cleverly undermined by a newer, more compassionate one—permeates Marshall’s graphic, often upsetting meditation on how the animal kingdom is used and abused by humanity at large. And ultimately, it’s this underlying hopefulness that enriches her very difficult subject matter with a through line of nobility and purpose that makes it bearable to watch.
To make Ghosts, Marshall followed McArthur for a year throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe as she fearlessly found her way into restricted facilities to document the realities the food, fur, entertainment, and biomedical industries don’t want consumers to see. Namely, foxes piled on top of one another in caged, terrified heaps; pregnant pigs bearing marks from electrical burns and beatings while trapped in gestation crates; dairy cows used and neglected to the point of collapse; soulful-eyed primates peering intelligently through the bars of their captivity; cuddly beagles bred for extra docility, then made to endure endless experimentation; the list goes on. Understandably, this work takes a toll on McArthur. “Leaving is always the hardest thing. Leaving is the reason I’m haunted,” she says, explaining her predicament as an activist constantly recording the suffering all around her today in an effort to prevent even more suffering tomorrow. “I have PTSD. I have a lot of nightmares.” The images in this film may cause similar reactions in those who attempt to sit through it. But if the cumulative cultural effects of projects like The Ghosts In Our Machine and other recent animal-rights-themed releases like Speciesism and Blackfish somehow result in a less violent world, the discomfort that comes from viewing such content will have been well worth it.