Thinking Out Loud with ‘Speciesism’ Filmmaker Mark Devries

By on November 22, 2013

Speciesism

First-time filmmaker Mark Devries has brought his deep wit and healthy intellect to Speciesism: The Movie, an aptly titled documentary about the belief that human animals are inherently superior to nonhuman animals. Featuring Peter Singer, Gary Francione, Tom Regan, Richard Dawkins, Marc Beckoff, Nathan Runkle, Bruce Friedrich, and others, the film promises “You’ll never look at animals the same way again. Especially humans.”

We sat down with Mark to ask about this intriguing new film.

Since Thinking Vegan readers should understand speciesism fairly well, now is your chance to preach to the converted. What will they get out of Speciesism: The Movie? Or, what don’t they understand about the subject that they will after watching it?

While making the film, I had the opportunity to spend years studying the vast array of arguments and ideas pertaining to the ethical status of nonhuman animals. By the editing stage, part of my goal became to include a discussion of all the most important and influential of these. As a result, to whatever extent I have succeeded at this, the film can be seen as a repository of all the major arguments and ideas in one place.

I am thrilled to say that countless people who have been involved with these issues for years tell me the film gave them new ways of thinking about and (especially) explaining to others the underlying philosophy. Animal advocates have also been describing the film as invigorating and inspiring. Perhaps the most valuable use of the film, though, may be as a tool for educating others. I am often contacted by people who were completely unfamiliar with the topic when they attended a screening, and now say that it significantly affected their lives.

People who have seen the film will know that you were in college when you started making it. Before this, what was your opinion of animal rights? Were you vegan at the time? In general, how did this experience and exposure to these issues change your own views?

I started working on the film once I realized there was something unusually interesting about the topic, but my understanding was very limited and vague. I certainly had no idea I would find out that speciesism is likely one of the most important ethical issues of our time! And, not surprisingly, I was not yet vegan, either.

After my first year or so of investigating factory farming, and especially once I began speaking with philosophers such as Peter Singer and Tom Regan, it became clearer and clearer that there is undoubtedly something to their arguments. However, it still took me a while longer until things really began to “click” emotionally, meaning before I started actually feeling as though our treatment of animals is of comparable importance to major human problems such as poverty, heart disease, child abuse, and so on. I have tried to include in the film all of the experiences that helped me make the emotional switch, so that audiences may feel it as well.

I can imagine it’s difficult enough to make a film about something as abstract as speciesism, but you’ve made it quite funny in parts. Was it intentional on your part to add a lot of humor to the film, or is that one of the magical things about low-budget filmmaking, that things become inexplicably comical along the way?

I always intended to include in the film humorous events that I anticipated would take place during my adventures, but I did not go out of my way to be humorous during the actual filming. In fact, in the first preview screenings, I was caught by surprise at how much the audience laughed. There is no doubt, though, that humor benefits discussions of these issues – by making things less overwhelming for those being introduced to the subject, and also by preventing animal advocates from feeling burnt out when confronting the enormity of the situation.

You include quite a bit of detail, and interviews, about the toll meat production takes on the environment and community health. How does that connect to the central theme of speciesism? It’s good information, but I have to be honest and tell you it was my least favorite part of the film, because I wondered if it took focus away from the animal issue. Help me make sense of why you included so much on this topic.

Peter Singer agrees with you on this, while Bruce Friedrich had the opposite reaction. The segment on environmental devastation became a larger part of the movie than I first envisioned it would be, mainly just because of what I saw when I visited those pig farms in North Carolina. I almost could not believe my eyes – the manure from thousands of pigs is flushed into giant, open-air cesspools the size of lakes, and then sprayed straight into the air so that it ends up all over (and inside) people’s houses.

As you see in the film, my investigation of that phenomenon took me from sneaking onto the massive “sprayfields,” to flying in a propeller plane overhead. The images were so jarring that I filmed much more than I anticipated. My hope is that its placement in the film helps draw a broader picture of just how bad factory farming has become. If this is how factory farms treat their neighbors, imagine the extent of their concern for the animals whom they are using as economic commodities!

I have often said that I will rip apart any animal, human or non-human, who attacks or threatens my own cat or dogs. With my bare hands, if necessary. I would have no qualms about it. I absolutely value the animal members of my family over animals I don’t know. I would save my cat from a burning building before I’d save a cat I don’t know, or before a human I don’t know. Am I speciesist or not? What about people who engage in so-called “single-issue” campaigns based on having a personal preference or assigning value to one animal species over others?

No, I do not think valuing family members over strangers renders you in the least bit speciesist, just as it does not render you racist or sexist. Your reasons for distinguishing between these individuals are based on their relationships with you, not their species membership.

The topic of “single-issue” campaigns is large and multifaceted. People who are working for legislative or corporate policy changes (as opposed to those doing vegan advocacy) obviously cannot focus on every species at once. So, the fact that a campaign happens to focus on a particular species (e.g., hens in battery cages) certainly does not automatically render it speciesist. Sometimes, however, animal advocates may focus on a particular species because of personal affinities for those animals. This is not in itself a bad thing, but it may become problematic if an advocate’s focus on a particular species leads him or her to become less effective.

For example, someone may have a particular affinity for pigeons, and thus wish to commit all of his or her advocacy to stopping pigeon shoots, but doing so might only help a small number of animals compared with advocating on behalf of farmed animals.

Having done the research on the subject, and interviewed so many thinkers and heads of animal organizations, are there any particular individuals, nonprofits, or campaigns out there you think do a good job of challenging speciesism? Can you perhaps give us a public-facing example of how activists are undermining this seemingly inborn tendency to elevate our own species over others? Or are we doomed, since we humans are the ones attempting to raise the issue in the first place?

With regard to very specific examples, the first that comes to mind is PETA 2’s Animal Liberation Project, which has toured college campuses and many other places. It consists of panels comparing the abuse of animals in various industries with the oppression of humans in various circumstances throughout history. Apparently, people have found the exhibit very thought provoking.

In terms of the broader aspect of your question, it is encouraging to note that human beings have gradually expanded their circle of “who matters ethically” over the past several centuries. Not long ago, racism and sexism were widely considered acceptable. And now, over just the last few decades, our attitudes toward members of other species have seen a dramatic shift. Countless actions are surely part of this – from personal conversations to newspaper articles. I hope that Speciesism: The Movie will be another small part of this change.

To see upcoming showtimes, visit https://www.facebook.com/Speciesism/events

To pre-order the DVD, visit http://SpeciesismTheMovie.com/order

 

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Comments

  1. Dori
    November 23, 2013

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    Its so important that people in general start looking at animals as the intelligent, loving creatures that they are. This movie really showcases the fact that animals are not objects that are here for humans to use as they wish. People need to realize that there isn’t a difference between the animals that they love as pets and the ones on their dinner tables each night. I think films like this are doing an amazing job of waking the public up by putting reality directly in front of them where they can’t hide from it.

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