Mark Devries, “Speciesism: the Movie” (2013)
As home movies go, few possibly extend very far into the realms of journeys of self-discovery and self-awakening as this one does. Law student Mark Devries employs an original style of investigative journalism that can only be described as klutzy devil’s advocate inquiry into the concept of speciesism – the assigning of economic value to animal species and the ramifications that this has for the way we humans treat our fellow animal travellers on Earth – and the moral and environmental implications speciesism holds for us.
Initially Devries’ attention is captured by a group of young women posing semi-naked in the street protesting against the fur industry. His curiosity as to why some people campaign for better treatment of animals leads him to investigate chicken and pig factory farms and how these operate. Devries’ quest takes him to the animal rights group PETA where he meets people who introduce him to the concept of speciesism. Further intrigued, Devries sets out to meet and interview a number of philosophers, scientists and academics including Richard Dawkins, Temple Grandin and Peter Singer; he also interviews members of the public for their views on speciesism and even ventures to speak to a leading representative of the American Nazi Society. For “balance”, Devries also speaks to someone at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and finds his views on the morality of treating humans and animals differently very depressing.
For a self-made documentary, the camera is less jumpy than one might expect and the film is powered all the way through by Devries’ endearingly unassuming and non-confrontational interviewing approach and narration. His sincerity and adoption of the neutral-everyday-observer, mostly sceptical of the claims made by animal-rights campaigners, highlights the change in attitude he undergoes and this gradual transformation anchors the film all the way through and becomes part of his message. He allows everyone he interviews the chance to explain their views as to why speciesism is or is not wrong. He challenges philosophers to explain why they believe on rational grounds alone why speciesism is wrong and why humans cannot claim to be higher or more special than other animals.
Perhaps the most riveting section of the film is Devries’ investigation of the impact that factory farming of pigs in North Carolina state has on the environment and the health of people who live close to the farms. One man who lives in the vicinity of one such farm shows Devries the spraying of hog faeces and urine onto land around the farm. Droplets may become airborne and be blown by winds onto neighbouring properties; the people living on these properties may be exposed to exotic microbes and bacteria that have evolved super-strength immunity thanks to having been exposed to antibiotics in the pigs’ feed. Hogwash can also enter and contaminate rivers, ponds, lakes and groundwater on which people depend for water supplies. The people Devries meets are ordinary everyday Americans with twangy Southern accents who vote Republican and hold conservative views on most issues, yet they are afire with anger at the way corporations dominate federal and state politicis with money and influence, run roughshod over people’s rights and threaten people’s health and livelihoods as well as the health of animals and the survival of natural environments.
Devries also makes interesting comparisons between our treatment of animals and slavery during the 1800s, and challenges people’s views on animals as lesser beings by using the Nazi-Jewish Holocaust as a standard of comparison. To this end, he interviews a Holocaust survivor who equates our treatment of animals as equivalent to the Nazi treatment of Jewish concentration camp victims and speaks to a rabbi at the Simon Wiesenthal Center; the latter definitely does not come off as an exemplary advocate for Judaism.
The film is aimed mainly at young people and university / college undergraduates and so it is easy to follow. It is a highly personal journey so it eschews the use of statistics and dizzying graphics and does not have the preachy tone that might be expected of documentaries on animal rights. Having a particular audience in mind, and a young one at that, means that “Speciesism …” cannot delve very much into the economic and political systems and ideologies that support and bolster the corporations that profit from factory farming and which encourage people to believe that animals on factory farms are being cared for humanely. The film ultimately makes a plea to audiences to consider ways in which they can help animals and give them the lives they deserve. Unfortunately it does not go much farther than that.
As it is, “Speciesism” is a very thorough, absorbing, thought-provoking and commendable exploration of issues surrounding animal rights and the concept of speciesism.