The pains acquired and frustrations felt by raising awareness toward a rational animal-rights cause are epitomized by Jo-Anne McArthur, a photographer and activist who’s at the center of Liz Marshall’s admirably restrained documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine. McArthur, having spent 10 years documenting the grim treatment of animals in the U.S., Canada, and Europe used for meat, clothes, or scientific testing, pitches her extensive portfolio to a board of marketing advertisers in the hopes of starting a campaign, but is regretfully denied the exposure she needs. The meeting closes in a flimsy and, due to the graphic nature of McArthur’s pictures, unsurprising bit of corporate reasoning: The time just isn’t right to springboard the liberation of the mass amounts of animals stuck in cages and pens.
That early scene sets the tone for the rest of the film, as the question of when the “right time” is supposed to happen is answered in McArthur’s exhaustive oeuvre that Marshall gracefully showcases. Although McArthur never directly addresses the irritation she feels from years of thwarted opportunities at publicity, her sentiments are nonetheless discernible amid her ambition to photograph anything that will help her cause, even if that takes her into illegal territory. In a stirring sequence, McArthur and the filmmakers even infiltrate European fox and mink farms used for the fur industry, and the images captured are requisitely sobering. Marshall doesn’t turn this passage into a gloating display of faux-thriller posturing, but instead quietly trains her lens on the animals for extended periods of time, potently elucidating McArthur’s objectives. Highlighted in this scene, Marshall’s approach to the film rests on the idea (repeated a little too much through conversations) that pictures say more than words, and McArthur wisely takes a backseat to let Marshall exhibit her decade of work.
Although McArthur’s cause draws sharp comparisons with PETA, the controversial organization is never mentioned, and this seemingly insignificant omission discloses a lingering problem of willful insularity. The film never seeks out an opposing viewpoint, which sucks much of the tension away from McArthur’s protests and practically sketches her unseen opponents as shallow and undefined miscreants. Because of this, the way Marshall goes out of her way to focus on the vegan dishes eaten by McArthur and her friends in various dinner-party sequences (themselves unable to overcome a distinct air of staginess) almost implies anyone who eats meat is an enemy of McArthur. If the film biasedly confronts the question of whether animals are sentient beings or products used for food, clothing, or entertainment, it leaves another far more compelling inquiry undeveloped: As evidenced by shots of McArthur surrounded by indifferent people concerned with other problems, how does she finally capture their attention?