Some Thoughts on The Ghosts in Our Machine

Donna Oakes

I first read about The Ghosts in Our Machine this past May. It is described as “A film & web narrative in development about the individual animals used within the machine of our modern world”.

This project reminded me of how important images (whether in photographs or film) are in eliciting that “aha” moment. The moment when that fog lifts away and we see the truth about how animals are treated – and more importantly, the moment when we see how we have been unwitting accomplices.

I wanted to learn more about the connection that the team members have to this project.  In this post, Liz Marshall (producer, director, writer), Jo-Anne McArthur (photographer, main human film subject) and Ananya Ohri (researcher) provided deeply personal answers to the following questions:

Most people who become advocates for animals can recall having some type of ‘aha’ moment that set them on their path. Was this something that you experienced (and if so, can you tell us about it)?
Additionally, what aspect of the film do you think has the most potential for creating that moment for viewers – and why?

Ananya Ohri’s answer:

“My first ‘aha’ moment on the subject of animals, I’m afraid, wasn’t very profound. I was thirteen years old, tentatively chewing on a piece of chicken a neighbor had very lovingly prepared for my family. My younger sister, who knew exactly what was going through my head, looked at me impishly from the corner of the table and asked “enjoying the leg?” I put the piece of chicken down. I could no longer overlook the fact that I was nibbling on someone’s foot. From then I could only eat meats that looked least like the animal they came from – pepperoni pizzas, salami, fish sticks – but that too came to an end. Vegetarianism was a very personal thing for me. If someone asked why I was vegetarian, I couldn’t always answer. All I knew was I didn’t want to take part in killing or eating animals.

My second ‘aha’ moment came when a close friend invited me to watch the documentary ‘Earthlings.’  I remember sinking into my chair and watching the film from behind cushions. The images were difficult to watch, but the sense of shame from what we put animals through for our interests  was unbearable. Some questions began to nag at me: How are animals different from us and each other? How are they the same? What does it mean for an animal to have rights? And most of all, if animals can feel pain and suffering, sensations that humans work hard to protect themselves against, why shouldn’t considerations of compassion and justice also be extended to them? As I began thinking about these questions, I phased into making vegan choices.

Thinking about animals, and practicing veganism has led me to examine the logic common to different forms of oppression: the objectification, commodification and exploitation of bodies, both human and animal. I recognize the privilege of being human, and I also recognize the privilege in being able to make vegan choices. Right now, I ‘m trying my best to work through both these privileges together.

I feel that The Ghosts In Our Machine, as a film and web narrative, will provide all kinds of opportunities for all kinds of ‘ahas,’ meeting people where they’re at in thinking about non-human animals, and then gently pushing them forward to explore more. Following Jo-Anne as she photographs animals provides distance from the immediate subject – space that some people need when they first start thinking about our use of animals – and at the same time it provides a direct entry into a new way of thinking through Jo-Anne’s perspective. Also, the Ghost Stories on the website presents the experiences of animals in an empathetic way, juxtaposing them with information that conveys the larger context of which they are only one example. Being both evocative and informative, I feel the film will draw people to start asking some tough questions – the most important step to an ‘aha!”

Liz Marshall’s answer:

“AHA … I have had a few and each one is stronger than the last.

My recent one is the clearest.

For the first time I understand what it means to have “animal consciousness”: an integrated awareness of the systemic use and suffering of animals within our consumer driven world.

It is pervasive.

There are ghosts at every corner, every turn.

Looking back, I must have resisted this new consciousness in various ways … although it didn’t feel like resistance. Instead, it felt like I was outside looking in through a layer of glass. To dissolve that barrier I needed to fully engage in the content. Spearheading THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE was imminent: it had been brewing for several years. I finally leapt in and it’s been full immersion ever since – as it always is for a documentary filmmaker, no matter what the subject is. The difference with this issue is that it confronts you several times, daily.

For me, the AHA begins and ends with food.  Food is the number one symbol of the AHA phenomenon because it is daily, personal, complex. When we can make the real connections we experience food differently. I became vegetarian 23 years ago after reading A Diet for A New America. Over the years I thought deeply about the issues – sometimes I craved chicken or fish, – I ate dairy and eggs. Sometimes I wavered and slipped up. But that’s because there are layers of AHA. As a new vegan I feel complete because something has dropped in, differently. I don’t want to contribute to the system of abuse anymore.

We the Ghosts team are committed to embracing a broad demographic of animal lovers, and there is so much diversity within that spectrum. We hope to inspire many AHA moments along the way and help people to feel welcome to the experience we will offer.”

Jo-Anne McArthur’s answer:

“I realized that I had to stop eating animals when I admitted that I was eating my friends. My mum had 10 chickens at her property in the country and when I would sleep there I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and see them. Spending time with these chickens allowed me to learn that they had desires, friendships, fears and joy, and a will to live. I knew this about non-human animals but had never spent much time with “food” animals, so there had always been a sort of separation between companion animals and food animals for me. One day, after playing with the chickens and even spending time in the house with them as they perched on my shoulder (they loved that!), I came in to have dinner. Chicken.

I had no mentors or infrastructure for giving up meat and becoming vegetarian. I didn’t know any vegetarians and my mum was concerned that this was an unhealthy choice. Some people have the realization and become vegetarian or vegan over night. It took me a while to do it, feeling I was going to have to give up so much. But as many who have made this decision already know, it’s liberating, it’s a relief to not be contributing to the death of animals who value their lives and do not volunteer their bodies for slaughter. It’s very disappointing to hear a meal-time grace that includes the words “and we thank this animal who gave its life for our nourishment”… When we eat animals, it’s because lives are *taken*, not *given*.

Once I went vegetarian I got politicized about it. I signed up for vegan potlucks, animal rights film nights and went to Farm Sanctuary for my first internship where I became vegan on April 1st, 2003. A friend wrote to me this week, saying she had just adopted veganism. I’ll quote her words here because they are beautiful: “I’ve seen the light. Or rather, I’ve seen the darkness and am now running to the light”. At Farm Sanctuary I read all that I could, spent time with rescued animals and visited the stock yard. I’ve been seeing that darkness, documenting it, and bringing it to light ever since.

The Ghosts film, along with the Ghosts web experience will document and bring to light many important and difficult issues. It will look at animal abuse in an uncompromising way. The film will also show intimate moments of connection between human and non-human animals, thus showing the darkness *and* the beauty. Experiencing both is essential; the former must be seen and the latter brings imagination and hope .”

These answers are so profoundly intimate and powerful. I am so grateful that these incredibly talented and compassionate women are fighting the good fight – it gives me hope and reignites my own commitment to stand up for what is right.

For details about the project , please check out their website –

and this wonderful interview that  that Our Hen House did with Liz Marshal (the director)

There is an IndieGoGo campaign for this project that will end on 7/22. Any amount over their target amount will be donated to the We Animals Project.

Find out more at:

To learn more about Jo-Anne McArthur and the We Animals Project, please check out this great interview from Our Hen House –

Two other team members have agreed to share their reflections about this project and what it means to them.  Stay tuned for Part 2.

My deepest thanks to David for graciously allowing me to post these articles on this blog.

The photo in this post is a self portrait crew shot taken at Farm Sanctuary by Jo-Anne McArthur.
From right to left: Jo-Anne McArthur, photographer & main human subject of
film, Susie Coston, National Shelter Director for Farm Sanctuary, Nina
Beveridge, Producer, William Shackelton [AKA Shack], Sound Recordist, Liz
Marshall, Producer, Director, Writer.

6 Responses

  1. How wonderful. I love the phrase that Ananya Ohri uses, “practicing veganism.” I have followed a vegan lifestyle for 15 years and often someone (usually an omnivore but sometimes a vegan) will ask, “But do you ever eat something cooked in butter at a restaurant by accident?” or “What about refined sugar?” Putting veganism in terms of a practice — like a spiritual or religious practice — makes sense to me. There are small slip-ups along the way (most of which are forgivable), but the intention is constant: not to cause others to suffer.

  2. Thank you for reading this post Jessica. I love what you wrote in your comment – “the intention is constant: not to cause others to suffer” – what an incredible world it would be if everyone held this belief.

  3. Thank you for the background on this project… I saw the photos of the dairy calf being thrown into the wheel barrow some weeks ago and have had Ghosts in our Machine on my radar ever since. The spectacular photography offers an insight into these being’s tragic lives that we can’t hardly imagine.

    Best wishes to this enterprise as it attempts to make more people awake and aware.

  4. Bea, I looked at those same photos this past weekend – I have not been able to get them out of my mind. To say that they are heartbreaking is an understatement. The team for this project consists of such amazing activists – it really gives me hope.
    Thank you for reading and commenting on this post.
    Donna Oakes

  5. […] week’s post about The Ghosts in Our Machine featured insightful and thought provoking remembrances of the […]

  6. Is there a non-Flash version of TGIOM? I’d like to view the site but am on an iPad.


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