Dominion. Directed by Chris Delforce. Reservoir, Victoria: Aussie Farms Repository, 2018. 120 minutes.
The Ghosts in Our Machine. Directed by Liz Marshall. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2013. 93 and 60 minutes.
Dominion and The Ghosts in Our Machine tell a story that most students never hear. Despite the staggering scale by which animals are torn from kin, held captive, isolated, maimed, abused, and killed in the agricultural sector (roughly ten billion land animals a year in the United States and, if estimated conservatively, sixty-five billion worldwide, with these numbers increasing), and despite the similar misery they endure in other industries, students (and faculty) are largely unaware of the war against animals.1 Encultured into human exceptionalism and anthropocentrism, animals’ exploitation is normalized, and we tend to believe what we are told by industry actors, government, and mainstream media—that it is necessary to have animals on our plate, in the zoo, and in the research lab and that they are treated well.
Even when we teach our students about Othering and violence, only a fraction of us raise “the animal question” or relate it to the social justice issues we cover. By neglecting to consider species hierarchy, critical theorists fail to grasp the negative repercussions that human exceptionalist thinking entails not only for animals and other nonhuman beings but also for anti-oppressive movements in general.2 Feminist and other critical educators seeking to redress this omission and disrupt the unsaid anthropocentric premises and foci of their classrooms can turn to Dominion and The Ghosts in Our Machine to convey the heartbreaking realities of animals’ lives that are hidden from public view.
Dominion is an Australian documentary that exposes the brutalities of modern-day systems of intensive, or confinement, animal agriculture (i.e., “factory farming”) in Australia, while also commenting on other industries at times, with footage procured through drones and undercover cameras. The film presents an unflinching and unrelenting representation of the routine industry treatment of “domesticated” and “wild” animal species, delivered in even-toned narrations by vegan celebrities such as Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix. Although showcasing the plight of animals unique to Australia, the film accurately represents farming in that continent as unexceptional because it asks viewers to reflect on the ubiquity of animals’ suffering in industrialized nations. Ambitious in scope, covering seemingly everything from laying hens to camels, the film is successful in conveying the violent scope of human “dominion” over animals.
The Ghosts in Our Machine is also effective at providing a glimpse of the array of horrors that industries inflict upon animals but does so through the activism of Canadian photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur, documenting in snapshots over fifteen years some of the animals she has encountered. Filmmaker Liz Marshall depicts McArthur’s undercover work photographing animals in concentrated factory farms and fur farms. She also accompanies McArthur in her efforts to take pictures of animals rescued from the animal research industry as well as those still held captive in zoo and aquaria industries. The film captures McArthur’s reflections on the difficulty of her work, how she copes with the trauma she sees, as well as why she is driven to do it.
Both Dominion and The Ghosts in Our Machine importantly emphasize that routinized violence against animals is a staple element of Western industrialized culture and not something happening only elsewhere in other (racialized) countries. Students who have never or rarely thought about animals in relation to feminist or other social justice, antiviolence or anti-oppression ideals, will be provoked and prompted to do so. But a pressing question, however, is who can actually watch these films.
Dominion exposes the normal habits, which include daily torture, of intensive farming. It is thus necessarily “graphic.” As an educator who strives to cultivate awareness of the systematic brutalities that animals experience, I applaud the filmmakers for their work. But as someone largely incapable of watching scenes of violence and misery unfold, I could not view most of Dominion, in which such scenes are numerous and unrelenting. I listened instead, with my head down, crying from just hearing the human descriptions of the routine agricultural practices and the sound of suffering animals. Among the audience of about one hundred seasoned animal advocates, I was not alone. I heard of some (women) who had to walk out.
The images Dominion exposes at an almost constant pace are necessary to provide evidence to counter the false narratives about “happy” animals treated “humanely” or that animals do not suffer like we do. In terms of educating people and inspiring critical thinking, it is powerful. For some, though, bearing witness to the treatment of animals—watching and hearing them writhe and recoil in pain, scream, balk or foam in agony, futilely try to protect their newborns from separation and harm, and otherwise resist or finally succumb and break down—however mundane and legal—is too difficult.3 Given concerns about triggering in the classroom, I would not recommend the full screening of Dominion without emphasizing to students just how difficult the film is to watch (the film’s website acknowledges this and has a self-care tab for viewers), encouraging them to leave if they have to, and providing an immediate debrief for viewers who have stayed. Alternatively, educators can recommend students watch the film privately or show only a few clips in class.
Another option would be simply to screen the sixty-minute classroom version of The Ghosts in Our Machine and include Dominion as a recommended documentary to watch for fuller knowledge about the brutalities that the former references but mostly does not show. The Ghosts in Our Machine is much more palatable for the classroom, as its graphic quotient is negligible in comparison, and it also intersperses exposure to suffering with uplifting and hopeful images of animals at Farm Sanctuary and elsewhere.4 It still delivers ample critique of the animal exploitation inherent in our everyday consumables and, as a bonus for a feminist class, also exalts women’s activism and politically engaged career choices. Whichever option is chosen, a valuable discussion about feminist pedagogy and feminist activism can also be had with students about deciding to screen the films or not.
To accompany as pre-reading or even as a partial substitute for the films, I would first suggest overviews of the animal-exploitation industries.5 There are also a variety of articles that can help students understand why “the animal question” is a feminist issue, a point neither film makes explicit. Some address the wide-ranging feminist implications of milkdrinking, while others answer the inevitable question about whether the torture endemic to the animal agricultural industry is also present in so-called “humane” agriculture.6 Overall, paired thoughtfully with readings, these films will provide important, eye-opening accounts of animal exploitation for most students in a feminist classroom.
1 If commercial fishing and aquaculture are included, these figures rise exponentially into the trillions (Dinesh Joseph Wadiwel, “Do Fish Resist?” Cultural Studies Review 22, no. 1 : 196-242; Dinesh Joseph Wadiwel, The War against Animals [Leiden: Brill, 2015]).
2 For a brief discussion of these connections see Will Kymlicka, “Human Rights without Human Supremacism,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 48, no. 6 (2018): 763-92.
3 I say this despite my deep commitment as feminist animal care scholar and educator to expand students’ horizons and generate critical thinking about human-animal relations and my professional belief that we need to bear witness, as activists and scholars, to the suffering of others to cultivate compassion, especially when we are complicit and hold privilege. See Anita Krajnc, “Bearing Witness: Is Giving Thirsty Pigs Water Criminal Mischief or a Duty?” Animal Law Review 23, no. 2 (2017): 479-98; Kathryn Gillespie, “Witnessing Animal Others: Bearing Witness, Grief, and the Political Function of Emotion,” Hypatia 31, no. 3 (2016): 572-88.
4 Farm Sanctuary is an organization that works to rescue and defend farm animals as well as to educate people about factory farming.
5 John Sorenson, About Canada: Animal Rights (Halifax: Fernwood, 2010); Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals (New York: Lantern, 2014).
6 Greta Gaard, “Toward a Feminist Postcolonial Milk Studies,” American Quarterly 65, no. 3 (2013): 595-618; Gillespie, “Witnessing Animal Others”; Chloë Taylor, “Foucault and Critical Animal Studies: Genealogies of Agricultural Power,” Philosophy Compass 8, no. 6 (2013): 539-51; Nancy M. Williams, “The Ethics of Care and Humane Meat: Why Care Is Not Ambiguous about ‘Humane’ Meat,” Journal of Social Philosophy 46, no. 2 (2015): 264-79.