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August 2003
The Mighty Converter

The Satya Interview with James LaVeck

 

 

Photo courtesy of James LaVeck

Three years ago a short documentary was screened at the Animal Rights Conference in Washington, DC. The small theater was standing room only and by the end, there was not a dry eye in the crowd. That was The Witness, the now well-known documentary about tough-talking Eddie Lama’s awakening to animal abuse and what he did to awaken others—by taking images of animal suffering to the streets on video screens attached to the sides of a van. The powerful intimacy of Eddie’s story has touched hundreds of thousands of people, inspiring many to do something to alleviate animal suffering personally.

The Witness
is the work of partners James LaVeck and Jenny Stein, who respectively produced and directed it. It is the first volume of the Animal People Documentary Anthology, a series exploring the issues of animal abuse through the moving stories of individuals. The next film, Peaceable Kingdom, is feature-length and delves into the darkness of factory farming. LaVeck and Stein established Tribe of Heart, a nonprofit organization dedicated to producing projects that encourage compassionate living, like The Witness, and to fostering community and educational outreach.

Catherine Clyne
caught up with James LaVeck to learn about the non-stop success of The Witness and how things are coming along with the new film.

So, where are you with The Witness?
Over each of the three years since release, we’ve seen the audience for the film grow larger. Just last week we had the largest yet regional broadcast on the Silicon Valley’s PBS station, KTEH. One thing that still amazes me is that across the U.S. and around the world, the film has so far never been rejected by an audience, regardless of demographic. The number of individuals who have made objections to the film’s fundamental message is basically insignificant—literally a handful of people in three years. That has given us a strong sense of optimism and motivation to keep doing everything we can to get the film seen by more people. We really feel that the biggest days are still ahead for The Witness.

How can you measure the success of The Witness?
On a recent online survey, over three quarters of the respondents indicated they had shared the film with family and friends. When asked if watching The Witness increased their level of confidence or comfort in discussing animal issues with others, 84 percent responded positively. And 90 percent said they felt friends or family members better understood their perspective on animal issues after watching The Witness.

I think those statistics speak to the fact that animal advocates tend to experience friction and difficulty within their close, most intimate circles—people just not understanding why they care the way they do. This film seems to be providing a solution, at least in part, to that difficulty.

We asked if people had seen changes in their friends and family after sharing The Witness. More than half had observed people eating and wearing less animal products and spending more time learning about or informing others about animal issues. Roughly half saw at least one person become vegetarian, and one in four had someone go vegan as a result of seeing the film. Many saw friends and family join animal protection groups or increase their level of donations and volunteer time given to animal groups.

Wow. That’s amazing. Has the word spread beyond the U.S.?

We have distribution established in Germany, Austria and the U.K. A version dubbed in Spanish has gone out for testing in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Spain, and excerpts have aired on Univision, a Spanish-language network seen in 11 countries. We have versions coming out soon in French as well as Japanese–The Witness is going to premier in Tokyo in October.

Turning to Peaceable Kingdom, what is it about?
Peaceable Kingdom is an 86 minute documentary that explores the contradiction between our conscious love of animals and our largely unconscious and unexamined exploitation of them. It does so through several interwoven stories, including the founding of Farm Sanctuary by Gene and Lorri Bauston, and the redemptive journeys of three former farmers who at various points in their lives came to interact with Farm Sanctuary and the animals there.

In our culture, young children are encouraged to have a positive relationship with animals. We all get stuffed animals, animal toys and animal coloring books. Adults almost universally reinforce children who behave in a kind or positive way toward animals; and adults delight in the spontaneous connection children have with animals, in the positive energy and love that pours out when they interact. Then there comes a day for almost every child when someone—a parent or some other authority figure—explains that ‘Yes, it’s very nice to love animals, but there are certain kinds of animals we mustn’t connect to that way because they exist for our food, clothing, or entertainment.’

Basically, each of us who goes through this experience are brought to a fork in the road: either go down the path of maintaining our sense of connection and identification with these animals, and therefore go on to experience conflict with our family, community, or society; or, in the case of the majority of us, we shut down certain parts of ourselves. We split inside, and only allow ourselves to bond and feel affection for the types of animals socially sanctioned for that purpose, our companion animals. But these farmed animals—to whom we are in a sense most connected, since we put their very bodies into our own—we are taught to cut off our feelings for them altogether, to write them off as individuals with feelings and familial bonds.

One of the main purposes of the film is to help viewers realize they have been encouraged to disconnect and alienate themselves from farmed animals, and to invite them on a journey back to that earlier mode of relating to them. Basically the film asks, could it be that this primal identification, love and delight in animals is not a simplistic, childish fancy, but actually an expression of the profound truth of our interconnectedness with these other beings who walk the planet with us?

Can you describe some of the most meaningful moments in the film?
I think some of the most powerful moments occur through the sharing of Gene and Lorri Bauston’s discovery of what was going on behind closed doors, particularly in the stockyards of America—their stepping into this hidden world and uncovering the widespread abuses and mass misery of animals of all kinds. And once in that hidden world, how, just out of a spontaneous humanity, they rescued animals left for dead, and took them back to their urban home in Wilmington, Delaware. Then, neighbors became interested and children stopped by to ask what kind of animals do you have today? Gradually, Gene and Lorri realized that people connect with and enjoy getting to know farm animals when they get a chance to meet them in a positive environment. Step by step, that led them to found a national organization, including their two sanctuaries.

Throughout the film there’s a movement between the suffering and injustice hidden behind closed doors and stories of people taking steps to bring mercy to the vulnerable, people working to create a different kind of world, one that is compassionate and just. It allows the audience to ask themselves, Which world do I want to be a part of creating?

There are a number of memorable scenes in which people who grew up in farming culture share the angst they have experienced throughout their lives both witnessing and participating in the sale and slaughter of animals that were once in their daily care, and the transformative experiences that allowed them to heal from these very deep wounds of the heart. There is something so moving about the depth of the pain people carry, and the power to heal that is released when they find a way to work through the grief and fear. It is beyond words.

It’s striking to hear you say that. I recently interviewed Godfrey Reggio, who made the film Koyaanisqatsi [see interview], and he said something similar, which is our language can no longer express what our culture is. That’s why he chose Hopi words to name his films and he explores the contradictions of our world in images.
That’s something that Jenny and I, in the process of making this film, definitely experienced personally. Many times, we went to Farm Sanctuary and spent whole days immersed in their investigative archives, just swimming in imagery of the day to day misery of the animals at stockyards and slaughterhouses, and also of the people caught up in the system. We’d go, do the work, and leave, thinking we got through it okay. Then on the drive back home, it was as if a heavy wave began to hit. We’d get home and collapse into a deep sleep. Over the next several days we’d experience a surreal sense of disconnection from anything close to normal life, almost feeling crushed by the scale of the pain and injustice we’d witnessed—and this was on a video screen. Imagine the people who took the footage, and most importantly, how it is for the animals, who cannot turn off the images or choose to leave the scene of their suffering. So I can very much identify and agree with what Reggio said—I certainly know no words to express what it means to confront the enormity of this thing that has gotten a hold of so many lives. In our film, only through a combination of words, images, and music can we give a glimpse of the darkness our society has taught us to deny.

And here is the most important thing—just as many times as making this film has left me with a heavy heart, I have felt wonder and joy at the sight of just one person reaching into that abyss and offering comfort, or pulling a suffering animal to freedom. In that moment, that single act seems to be even more powerful than all the injustices combined. It gives me hope.

While making Peaceable Kingdom, were there any moments you experienced personally that were particularly moving?
We interviewed a former farmer named Harold. He shared the pain he’s carried his whole life over what he’s seen and done to animals he cared for as a boy and young man on his family’s farm, and the redemption he’s found through his relationship with the animals at Farm Sanctuary. We were all sitting in the middle of a field while the sun was going down. Harold had his back to a cow who was laying down next to him. At one point while Jenny was filming and I was conducting the interview, we felt warm breath on our necks and huge wet noses nuzzling our heads. We stopped the interview for a moment and turned around, and there were two enormous cows—two giant former victims of the veal industry—standing right behind us; and standing behind them was a semicircle of eight more cows!

So here were these animals watching the interview happen, where a man was talking about his relationship to this very species, and the suffering he has borne for having been a part of hurting them. As we continued the interview, when Harold’s grief and sadness reached a peak, the cow sitting behind him exhaled very forcefully, like aahhhhhhhhh. They are, after all, herd creatures, very tuned in to what is happening to others around them. It was profound, to connect with these animals who had been so abused and now had seemingly accepted us as temporary members of their herd. I felt accepted by them, and there was a kind of forgiveness in it for me for the things I’ve done in my own life that hurt animals.

And it was also this feeling, for me, of being able to be among them and say inside, I am working for you. I am here to help you and your kind.

To purchase a copy of The Witness ($20), learn more about Tribe of Heart, make a donation, or get news about upcoming releases and screenings, visit www.tribeofheart.org, or call (607) 275-0806.

 

 


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