September 19, 2013 by Beatrice Marovich
Mark Devries (star and director of the new documentary “Speciesism: The Movie”, whose world premiere I attended in Manhattan last night) is now in his late twenties. But he started filming this movie when he was an undergrad, in his early twenties. He’d wrapped up filming by the time he was 23, and put the project on hold while he was in law school. The film, itself, is the kind of project that could only be credibly produced by a curious young kid. And it’s the image of Devries as an ingénue taking tenuous steps into the big, bad, world that carries the narrative tension of the film.
There is a sense in which the aesthetic and genre of the film resemble a Michael Moore style expose. Movie posters have the term “speciesism” splayed across the top, with the “ism” scrawled out in a violent, angry red. It’s clear, from the film poster alone, that “speciesim”—the presumption of human superiority—is the film’s ideological villain. And Devries does attempt, throughout the film, to approach a number of people (namely chicken and pig famers) in a manner that seems almost combative. But Devries is also careful to temper these encounters. When he goes to the chicken farm, he wears an “I heart eggs” t-shirt, and tells the farmer’s wife that he just wants to prove all those people who levy accusations of animal cruelty against factory farms wrong. He’s young enough, and cordial enough, that you (as the viewer) almost believe him.
It’s this image of Devries as a curious ingénue, out searching for moral truth, that helps him avoid preachiness and moral rectitude. The film begins with a confession. Devries tells us that he thought he knew the basics, about how the world works. But he realized he was wrong. Devries admits, at the outset, that he’s a bit mystified by animal activists and includes a couple of shots of naked, painted protesters—demonstrating against the use of animal skin—that makes them look just a bit batty. And so, from the beginning, Devries presents himself as an observer/reporter who is not neutral as a strategy (as if neutrality were possible). Instead, he’s neutral on the issue of animal rights or animal liberation because he doesn’t know anything about it. He’s out to learn, and he’s going to take you—the viewer—with him, on a journey of discovery and exploration. Given the vision-quest nature of the film, it’s the sort of movie that a director can only make once. A man can only have the wool ripped from his eyes so many times.
The primary audience for this movie seems to be the average American who doesn’t know anything, at all, about the cause of animal rights or animal liberation. During the first half of the film, Devries introduces his viewer to the brutal realities of factory farming in the U.S.. Most of the footage, of animals on the interior of these farms, isn’t original to Devries (who didn’t really do any undercover work for the film) but is borrowed from organizations that go undercover, like Compassion Over Killing. Devries does include a powerful scene where he interviews a man and his father, who live on the outskirts of an industrial pig farm in North Carolina (with waste lagoons the size of football fields). The farm sprays waste run-off from the pig’s cesspool close to the well where the family gets its drinking water. The father is at home and in bed, dying of cancer. In the interview, the father tells Devries that it used to be the case that they’d catch fish from a nearby pond and it wouldn’t taste “like shit.” Not anymore. It becomes painfully clear, at this point, that the problem with factory farms is a serious problem for vulnerable humans as well as other animals.
Once Devries has established a solid case against factory farming (for himself and, thus, for the viewer who accompanies him on this journey), he introduces a cast of characters who will likely be familiar to readers of this blog. Making the most frequent appearances are figures like Peter Singer, Gary Francione, Dale Jamieson, Tom Regan and Bruce Friedrich (formerly with PETA and now with Farm Sanctuary). It’s through their voices that Devries introduces the concept of speciesism. Initially, these thinkers serve as something like a negative foil for Devries. “They have to be wrong…” He keeps wishfully musing. He doesn’t want to believe, it would appear, that speciesism is a real problem. Devries seems especially interested in finding a hole in Singer’s logic, and he makes a good show of being consistently humbled by Singer’s biting and savvy retorts.
But when Devries tries to go out searching for someone who will disagree with them, and take up the opposing position, his strategy verges out of realism and into camp. He ends up in an interview with a showy neo-Nazi who looks to be dressed for an historical re-enactment. It’s clear, by the end of the film, that the anti-speciesist position has gained the moral high ground. Any possible ethical justification for eating meat has been leveled. But Devries still works to leave his own position rhetorically open, at the very least. He ends the film by urging the viewers to make their own ethical decisions.
This sort of tactic—the diplomatic approach that doesn’t seek overtly to proselytize—draws attention to the other probable audience for the film. Judging from Devries’ comments in the Q & A following the show—where he cited, several times, the impact that Bruce Friedrich and Matt Ball’s book The Animal Activist’s Handbook made on him—Devries seems to be modeling a particular sort of outreach strategy. An outreach strategy that’s aimed more at effectiveness than confrontation. One audience member, after the screening, asked Devries to speak about this at greater length. Devries confessed that his primary aim in the film was, “to show that this is my experience learning about the issues. I’m not telling you what to think. It’s me letting you into my thought process.” He sees this as an outreach strategy that’s inherently non-adversarial.
It’s unclear, however, how much this particular audience was impacted by the message. During the film screening an audible round of applause (accompanied by a few hoots) rippled through the crowd when Devries mentioned the Animal Liberation Front. The audience member who asked Devries about his outreach strategy followed up with questions about how effective a tactic like Mark Bittman’s VB6 (Vegan Before 6:00 p.m.) could possibly be—whether it didn’t actually sideline the real issues by a focus on personal [human] health, rather than animal liberation. There seemed to be skeptics in the crowd. My partner did overhear a comment, on the way out of the theater, that Devries’ strategy has the potential to reach viewers who might otherwise feel judged by an approach that comes from a clearly committed (i.e.; vegan) position. But I also have to wonder about this. Devries’ attempt in this film is, certainly, to present the issues as controversial topics that he’s merely learning about. He does his best not to overtly draw conclusions. But Devries—it’s clear—is also extremely quick witted, with a keen sense of comic timing. It’s not always easy to discern when he’s showing genuine interest in the position of those who represent the speciesist position, or whether he’s chiding them a bit. There’s veil of irony that does seem to hover over the narrative itself. I was never entirely sure whether Devries was the ingénue he’d styled himself as. The ingénue is a potentially compelling character, to be sure. But it’s never quite clear whether it’s just a character.
For my own part, I did find the last scenes of the film a bit awkward and strangely decontextualized. Devries seems to feel it necessary to end the film with a discussion about religion. Or perhaps simply a discussion with a religious person? It’s unclear. Devries simply tells the viewers that he finally feels ready to go and speak with someone that he’s been avoiding… so he ends up at the Simon Weisenthal Center? We’re never really told why. It’s not actually the first time he speaks with a Jew, in the film. Earlier, Devries does interview a Holocaust survivor who draws parallels between the cold, calculating, methods of murder used by the Nazis and the factory farm. So it’s not that Jewish voices have gone missing. Nor is it entirely clear why he ends up at the Simon Weisenthal Center. It does appear that the Center has come out, publicly, against the Dutch Parliament’s attempt to ban ritual slaughter. But it’s not apparent that they’re at the center of any major debates about the role of animals in human life and politics.
Nevertheless, Devries becomes embroiled in a debate with a fellow at the center (who doesn’t appear to be a rabbinical authority) about whether concern for animals erodes a concern for human life. Devries seems to have absorbed the ethical arguments he’s learned from people like Singer, and his positions and questions do sound like the more cogent and logical positions in the debate, on balance. Is this a demonstration that he’s shaking the need to seek out moral guidance from religious community? That he’s found a new source of moral authority? It’s unclear. What did seem clear, when the film was over and Devries began to take questions from the audience, was that Devries himself was being treated as something of a moral authority. One audience member wanted to know what to do about her cat, who didn’t appear to be into eating vegan. Devries didn’t seem to wear the position of moral authority easily and was more comfortable outsourcing his opinions by making reference to the work of other thinkers and activists. Perhaps this indicates that he really is still more comfortable in the rhetorical position of ingénue, after all?