Carnivores beware: seeing “Speciesism: The Movie” will make you feel incredibly guilty about eating animals, and not just because of the graphic footage of mistreatment we’ve seen in other exposés of factory farming. If the depiction of toxic pig waste fouling the air and water doesn’t get you, the ethical questions raised by the provocative documentary likely will. First-time filmmaker Mark Devries gives MNN insights into the film and the controversial moral dilemmas it raises.
MNN: How did you become interested in the subject of animal rights and decide to make a movie about it?
Mark Devries: It started innocently enough, when I came across some PETA demonstrations (against fur), and became curious about what was behind it all. I certainly never expected that within a few years I would be sneaking onto factory farms and interviewing some of the world's most influential thinkers about the subject. At first, I wanted to know if the ways in which groups like PETA and Mercy for Animals describe factory farming could possibly be accurate. Could there really be billions of animals having every aspect of their environment controlled — from lighting to temperature to food to water to air — as if they were living machines in a science-fiction dystopia?
What approach did you want to take going into making the film?
I wanted to let the audience follow my adventure as I was living it, and decide the answers for themselves.
How did that change as you interviewed people? How did what you learned change your mindset?
That approach never changed, but my mindset certainly did. When I interviewed philosophers such as Peter Singer of Princeton University, they confronted me with a simple argument: "Among the most fundamental ethical principles we hold is that causing harm, especially in the form of suffering, is a bad thing. Since nonhuman animals are capable of suffering, the same principle should extend to our treatment of them." Singer and his colleagues conclude that our common assumption that human interests matter more reflects a form of prejudice, similar to prejudices against groups of humans, such as racism — which they have termed "speciesism." I realized that if they are right, it would make what happens to animals on factory farms one of the most important ethical issues of our time. So, part of my goal became to find out whether there really is something to what they say.
What interview or visit made the greatest impression on you and why?
Among the most shocking experiences I had took place while investigating the factory pig farms in North Carolina. In each factory, the manure from thousands of pigs at once is liquefied and poured into a giant, open-air cesspool, the size of a lake. Then, to get rid of the waste, it is sprayed straight up into the air, where it turns into mist and travels to neighbors' houses, cars, schools, and churches. Some people who live in these areas collapse in their own front yards when the stench becomes so overpowering. The situation has to be seen to be believed — which is of course why I spent so much time filming it.
Do you think speciesism is equal to human racism, sexism, genocide, slavery, even cannibalism?
It depends on what you mean by "equal." Speciesism, racism, sexism, etc., are of course all different phenomena. If you are asking whether they are equally bad, I can at least say that, if the argument is correct that we cannot justify speciesism, then by definition speciesism would have to be as unjustifiable as racism and sexism.
Is testing on animals ethical? What if it involves drugs that could save children's lives?
Some ethical theories (e.g., versions of utilitarianism) would conclude that at least some animal experiments are justified, if the suffering they prevent is greater than the suffering they cause. Other ethical theories (e.g., theories of rights) would conclude that institutionalized exploitation of animals is never justified.
Where does one draw the line — what about insects, amphibians and others not as 'smart' or 'cute'? Is it OK to experiment on, mistreat, or eat less evolved creatures?
If the ethical principle we are applying is that causing suffering should be avoided, then as long as an animal is sentient, his or her interests should be taken into consideration. Also, I think it is a mistake to call certain species "less evolved," because evolution is not aiming at any particular goal. Different species have simply evolved in whatever ways are most adaptive to their differing environments.
What do you say to those who think animals are here on earth to serve us in whatever way we require?
My first question would be "what is the basis of your opinion?" As Peter Singer explains in the film: with racism, sexism, and speciesism, the dominant group has developed an ideology to conclude that it is superior. In all of these cases, we should be challenging the intellectual grounds for such ideologies. We should be asking, why is your group superior? What is special about your group? That is the goal of much of this film.
How has the experience changed you overall? Are you vegetarian or vegan now?
I became vegan while making the film. At first I thought this would be a difficult thing to do, and I was very surprised that it was not. There are vegan versions of literally everything now, so there is really nothing vegans miss out on. One of the information sources I found most useful was the Mercy for Animals "Build A Meal" webpage.
Do you plan to continue advocacy about animal rights? Make another film?
In terms of future projects, I am not sure when I will begin the next feature-length film, but I am currently working on a video that should reach a very wide audience next year. You can follow the progress of this and future projects at www.SpeciesismTheMovie.com.
What has been he reaction so far? Do you think the film will change minds?
I am happy to say that it already has. I am repeatedly contacted by people who say that the film completely changed their thinking about animals. Some have even contacted me months after watching it, to tell me that it changed their lives. The reaction so far has been incredible — better than I ever anticipated. The goal of the film is to generate social discussion of speciesism, and I am absolutely thrilled to see it doing so.
What else do you want people to know?
The film has just completed a U.S. tour of premieres, and is now playing in New York City. You can also pre-order the DVD.