Judge Ian Visser would like to sell you a panda.
Four legs good, two legs bad.
"PETA proved, even to the man on the street, that it leads the fight for animal rights. I think before PETA [pause]…I just don't know if that was even on people's minds. And that's the first step. I think it's in a place now that for most people it's on their minds—and they still don't care."—Bill Maher, Board Member, PETA
Facts of the Case
With an activist mentality towards stopping animal abuse and cruelty, there really was nothing like PETA before it arrived on the scene in the early 1980s. The long-established Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) historically dealt with individual cruelty cases, whereas PETA developed a much broader philosophy that encouraged veganism and considered the factory farming of animals for food to be as abusive as any other mistreatment. With more than 1.8 million members, it became the largest animal rights organization in the world, and today maintains a high profile through education, investigations, legislation, and protests addressing animal abuse around the world, from exploitation in circuses to the use of fur in fashion. Since winning early victories against corporations such as GM, McDonalds, and L'Oreal cosmetics, PETA has attracted celebrity participation (notably actress Pamela Anderson and comedian Bill Maher) and its fair share of controversy. From its initial founding in a small apartment PETA today employs nearly 300 people and draws on an annual operating budget of $25 million.
Now, HBO and director Matthew Galkin take a closer look at PETA and its co-founder Ingrid Newkirk. What goes on behind the scenes at one of the most active protest groups in the world, and does its philosophy really match what people's perceptions of the group are?
I Am an Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA starts with a chilling recounting by Newkirk of the hate mail she regularly receives. It's a litany of vicious, evil thoughts that derides her for her efforts, and it gives the viewer an immediate sense of how controversial the group is to many people.
This first segment of the film recounts the early development of PETA and its efforts, including clips of demonstrations (there is something surreal about watching a man dressed as a chicken being arrested by police) and protests. We then jump to the present day, following Newkirk as she co-ordinates the organization's activism efforts and describes her philosophy and intentions behind forming PETA.
I Am an Animal focuses on two different activist efforts undertaken by PETA during the course of filming the documentary. The first is the infiltration of a Butterball slaughterhouse to record abuses towards turkeys. During the course of the investigation, the undercover employee is visibly troubled by his task; this is an animal lover forced to maim and kill turkeys, and he clearly appears to be both physically and emotional hurt by the effort. However, when no useful footage is obtained after two months, Newkirk lashes out at the employee, berating him for not getting significant evidence of abuses. She accuses him of "screwing them [PETA] over" and orders her sub-ordinate to "come down on him like a ton of bricks" on him. Eventually the volunteer is replaced and the necessary footage is acquired, but the incident creates an uneasy feeling that Newkirk is all-too-willing to place her employees in dangerous and unpleasant situations, only to abandon them if they can't get the goods.
The second action undertaken by PETA is a protest against the Paris store of fashion designer Jean-Paul Gautier. PETA was angered that Gautier had continued to use fur in his collections despite their protestations, and we watch as Newkirk and her staff co-ordinate their plan to vandalize the store. After determining their respective roles and responsibilities, they storm the showroom and smear fake blood and posters across the windows as the press records the incident. Eventually, Newkirk and her confederates are arrested and swept away in police vans, leaving the scene a chaotic mess. PETA claims that Calvin Klein and other designers have been convinced to stop using fur as a result of these actions and that it attracts attention to the cause and suffering of animals.
An even-handed effort, director Matthew Galkin includes interviews with the group's critics, including the heads of the American Humane Society and Friends of Animals, who operate within the same sphere but have considerably different approaches to animal welfare. These critics are sympathetic to the intentions of PETA, but are reluctant to endorse their methods and tactics. Also featured are members of the scientific and research communities who put forth their own positions regarding the greater good that is achieved through animal research. They charge that PETA and its members are not animal experts with an understanding of science, but instead are reactionaries who consider any research carried out on animals as cruel and barbaric.
Newkirk's opponents suggest that she is more concerned with press for PETA than assisting animals, and that years of "stupid human tricks" have resulted in mocking and derision by the public and the media. I don't agree entirely with that suggestion: Newkirk is clearly passionate about helping animals, but that doesn't mean there haven't been public relations problems. Recounted in the course of the film is arguably PETA's biggest misstep: a campaign that used images of the holocaust contrasted with those of animals in factory farms. The images outraged many people, and the film-makers capture a bizarre meeting during which PETA's staff discusses which human tragedy would work best for the campaign. Watching these staffers as they try to determine which atrocity juxtaposes best with images of dead pigs and chickens (African slavery, the holocaust, or Japanese internment?) is surreal almost to the point of satire. While PETA argued that the ads were an attempt to show the value of an animal's life as being equal to that of a human, others claimed that the images reduced the victims of the genocide to that of piles of animal corpses.
The film is a mix of footage, much of it several years old or taken by low-quality cameras during investigations. Newer footage varies from sharp to grainy depending on the individual scene. It's not unwatchable, but it certainly appears to be shot on the fly and without much preparation. The audio is the standard 2-channel Digital Dolby. There are no extras and no sub-titles to be found.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as PETA and Newkirk would like to take credit for convincing fashion designers to stop using fur, I doubt if such reverses have much to do with PETA's efforts to convince them as individuals that it is "wrong." Rather, it's more likely that these are multi-million dollar businesses that have changed their policies based on a fear of negative publicity affecting shareholder value. PETA and Newkirk would no doubt consider this a victory regardless, but for an organization that wants to increase awareness and acceptance of animals as equals, this kind of result largely misses the point.
One of the interesting points made by critics is that the larger PETA agenda is radically different from the one portrayed to the public and its supporters. While much of PETA's publicity material focuses on how the group helps abused animals, opponents argue that the organization hides its wider position of eliminating all human-animal relations, including farming and pet ownership, in order to appeal to the public. It's an interesting conundrum: do PETA-supporters who love their pets (and probably consider themselves to be friends of animals) realize that the founder of the group they support ultimately considers them to be abusers?
Director Galkin and HBO have managed to create a documentary that takes a balanced look at a controversial individual and organization. With a solid grasp on the material, the only disappointing elements of the release are a less-than-stellar video image and a complete lack of extras.
Not guilty. I Am an Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA is set free to roam the forests and hills.
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