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August 2006
Myth: All Activists are Terrorists

Who’s Behind the Mask?
The Satya Interview with Shannon Keith

 

Shannon Keith is the director of the new documentary Behind the Mask, which gives a human face to the activists and actions of the Animal Liberation Front. Shannon is a Los Angeles-based animal rights lawyer who, concerned with the federal government’s branding of animal rights activists as the country’s number one terrorist threat (above and beyond al-Qaida), was compelled to tell the story of a movement of individuals who care about all living creatures enough to take matters into their own hands. She had never made a film before, but felt animal activists and direct action were woefully misunderstood.

Behind the Mask introduces us to the UK activists who started spreading the ALF moniker and philosophy, sometimes putting their lives on the line to try and stop animal exploitation. We get a better understanding of their actions, like liberating animals from a vivisection laboratory then torching it; and burning a slaughterhouse down to the ground in the middle of the night. We meet the American breed of ALF activists, like Rod Coronado, who have spent time in jail for their actions. While the activists responsible point out that no human or nonhuman animals were harmed by these particular actions, the ALF has become a major target of harsh government response.

Catherine Clyne had a chance to speak with filmmaker Shannon Keith soon after Behind the Mask’s successful Los Angeles premiere.

So, you’re an animal rights lawyer. What motivated you to take on the task of making a full-length documentary?
I became an attorney specifically to change the law, because in law animals are considered property (I was devastated when I found that out). As an attorney, I realized that I might be saving one life at a time, or helping activists, one at a time, but in the grand scheme of things, I was not making that big of a difference. I also realized that people listen to what they see on TV or in the movies. I thought that if I were to make a full-length documentary about all these issues, it would have the biggest impact.

In a nutshell, what is Behind the Mask about?

Behind the Mask is a documentary about the Animal Liberation Front. It focuses on certain individuals who talk about their struggles within the animal rights movement but also on the current political state we’re in, in terms of government repression. It also delves into FBI surveillance. The movie tries to dispel the myth that animal rights activists or animal liberation activists are terrorists. And really focuses on humanizing the people behind these actions.

Would you say the film is about the ALF or direct action or both? Would you say there’s a difference?
I think the movie is probably best described as being about both. It is difficult to just focus on the Animal Liberation Front without bringing in other aspects of the movement, because, at times, they are intertwined. To be accurate, it is important to focus on other aspects of the animal liberation movement and key people involved who might not necessarily be ALF activists but are involved in direct action or can tell a story that might explain the motives behind certain ALF actions.

Do you feel there is a lot of ignorance in the U.S. about the UK roots of the ALF?
Yes. It is interesting, I was reading some of the surveys of the many animal rights and vegan people who attended the Los Angeles premiere of Behind the Maskand they said that they learned a lot about the Animal Liberation Front. And even though they were already vegan and against animal exploitation, they still thought the Animal Liberation Front was a group that you can join. They were surprised to find out they weren’t violent. And that was actually one of the main points in making this movie, to get that message out there—that these are compassionate people who perform these actions.

This brings me to my next question, which is about violence. In the film, activists say over and over that no one has ever been harmed by any ALF action. Yet that’s not necessarily true. The most notorious example is Brian Cass, the Huntingdon Life Sciences executive who was beaten severely by activists in the UK. What’s your response to this?
My understanding is that it wasn’t claimed as an ALF action and I know that SHAC UK condemned that action.

Very true, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty UK did condemn it. But the American SHAC activists were different. I attended part of their federal trial and it was disclosed that one of them said publicly something along the lines of what happened to Brian Cass might happen here.
Well, I don’t know anything about that, so I can’t really comment on that.

In light of the SHAC convictions and other federal cases against animal rights and environmental activists in this country and the UK, why is it important to tell the story of animal activists and give them a human face now?
I think it is important because most of the information people get is from the news. And as we all know, the news is very sensational and focuses on things that get attention and would quantify animal rights activists as being terrorists—you know, those “crazy radicals.” And people don’t get the full story, they only get what the media wants them to hear. So this movie is for the public to see what’s really going on, from these people’s perspectives in the movement.

Legally, in your opinion, what are activists up against in this country?
Wow. That’s a difficult question. Well, it’s very scary. The climate right now is one of repression and intimidation. And while I don’t want to discourage anybody from continuing in the struggle for animal liberation, it is a time where people need to be careful and think about what kind of a political environment we are in. With the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and other statutes being revised and conjured up, they’re definitely targeting compassionate people because they’re threatening big business. They’re threatening capitalism.

You premiered Behind the Mask in Los Angeles recently. What was the response?
The response was wonderful. It was a packed house. A lot of people came with friends who knew nothing about animal rights. There was a great side-effect of the movie, which was people going vegan after they saw it. I also got a good response from people who happened to have worked in animal labs. One woman said that she had worked in a lab and was taught to really hate the Animal Liberation Front and all she knew about it was that it was violent. After she saw the movie, she couldn’t believe that these were actually compassionate people doing something to help animals and her view completely changed.

Is that your ideal audience?
Yes. That was amazing. It’s been wonderful and so many people want to get on board and promote this film and have it screened in different areas and hopefully get it distributed.

A lot of footage and actions showed in the film are actually about vivisection. How do you distinguish between the message of vivisection but also factory farming, etc. getting across?
That was tough for me because of course I feel that all facets of animal exploitation need to be highlighted. However, a lot of the issues with vivisection I’ve always felt the closest to. And I can’t really explain why, I guess it hurts me the most when I see it. So probably, subconsciously, I focus more on vivisection. Also a lot of the ALF actions had to do with animals in labs, so focusing on vivisection worked well.

Why do you think film is an important medium for activists?
I will give a great example. When I was in law school we had a class called “Law and Religion” and we had to give a presentation on anything we wanted. Of course I picked something that had to do with animals and passages from the bible. I showed some footage from Lethal Medicine, that vivisection movie from way back when. And everyone was sort of attacking me, saying they didn’t believe it. The next day, I’m walking through the hallway and a guy from the class—who was actually the most outspoken the day before, saying he didn’t really believe those things happened—stopped me and said, ‘You know, late last night, I was flipping through channels and low and behold, Lethal Medicine came on.’ He said, ‘I’ve gotta tell you, I couldn’t believe it. I’m sorry I attacked you in class. I can’t believe this happens to animals and I am not going to support testing on animals for medical purposes anymore.’ I had just shown pieces of it in class and talked about it, and everyone in class read my paper, but that didn’t mean anything. But it meant something to him when he saw it on TV. So I always remember that. I think this is the way to go, this is the way to get to a mass audience.

I also think a lot of people might feel threatened talking directly with somebody in the movement. They might feel shy or embarrassed or not know what to say. Making a movie gives people the comfort of being in their own home and they can sort of be alone and take it all in.

What’s next for Behind the Mask?
It looks like we’re going to Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, New York and then throughout Europe. Hopefully, in the interim, we’ll get picked up by somebody. I would just love everybody to see the movie, in theaters and on TV, and make copies and show them to people. In terms of getting the most exposure, I think it would probably be best on cable, like HBO or Showtime.

To learn more, find a screening near you, make a contribution or order the DVD of Behind the Mask ($20), visit www.uncagedfilms.com. Shannon Keith will be screening Behind the Mask at the AR 2006 conference in Alexandria, Virginia, on Saturday, August 12 (see arconference.org).


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