Some films are so bad that you can’t help but write the review immediately.
Creating a documentary is hard work. As the creator, you’re interested in the controversial question that’s motivated your interest in the subject and want to start exploring it as soon as possible. You want the audience to be as excited about the subject material as you are. Importantly, you want the audience to finish the film thinking new thoughts about the world around them.
This presents a problem: having done all of the preliminary research and become inspired by your subject choice, you’re several steps ahead of your audience. Your documentary needs to bring the audience up to speed quickly, giving them the tools to think about the argument being presented and to engage with the material as it unfolds.
In turn, this gives rise to a new problem: bloat. You’ve brought the audience up to speed, you’ve begun to engage with the controversial question, but now there are so many different ways the conversation could go. As the creator, you need to shape the material into a digestible form so that it’s fulfilling but not overwhelming.
Specieism the Movie is an hour and a half of stream of consciousness garbage that has no structure, no argument, no point, and offensive comparisons between the victims of the Holocaust and pigs.
22-year old Mark Devries sees attractive women being sexualised to promote animal welfare and thinks: ‘I have just woken up from a 22-year long coma and don’t understand what this “animal rights” thing is, so I should start making a film.’
This begins a hamfisted and excruciatingly painful exploration of battery chicken farms. Devries lines up interviews with various animal rights organisations (such as PeTA) and sits down for a civilised chat with them about the horrors of these factory farms. With some dodgy camera work and dodgier lighting skills, Devries manages to make these organisations look like they’re run by civilised, intelligent, rational people.
To get the ‘other side of the story’, Devries takes a video camera and walks straight into these properties, discovering — shock and surprise — that the owners don’t care much for talking to a guy wearing an ‘I [heart] eggs’ T-shirt.
I am completely against factory farming. I think that our meat is far too cheap and should be more expensive in order to promote animal welfare. I want our legislation to improve the protections for animals created and maintained for consumption.
Yet even I ended up thinking that the owners of these farms were unfairly presented in this film. Devries comes across as an entitled jerk who demands access to the farms and their owners, asks obnoxious questions, then seems shocked that people don’t want to talk to him.
The first half of the film attempts to link the images of suffering animals with the suffering of various people, including Devries’ father who was in some kind of horrific accident. As Devries never manages to film inside the places he visits, savvy audience members start to question where he sourced his footage…
Cracks appear in the film early. Very strange claims are asserted with extremely flimsy evidence, but never supported. One of these claims was that an industrial pig farm had set up a sprinkler system to spray pig faeces into the air, but the claim is only made by cranks who look like they’d struggle to find a grand piano in a one room house. The segment ends with the genuinely heartbreaking story of a man so riddled with cancers that he can’t leave his house. It’s strongly suggested — but never outright claimed — that the cancers are related to living next to a pig farm. As the guy doesn’t say anything terribly insightful or helpful (‘When you eat the fish, you’re eating shit’) it is unclear why he is in the film, except to suggest that living next to a pig farm is bad for human health. Because they spray pig faeces into the air. For some reason.
After anthropomorphising the emotional states of cows, it feels like the documentary is winding to a natural end. Farming practices that mistreat animals are barbaric and you’d demand justice if this were being done to people. Time to roll the credits.
Instead, we enter the second — and altogether more nutty — slice of this fruitcake of a film.
These farming practices exist, it is claimed, because of widespread ‘speciesism’. Speciesism is the (immoral) belief that non-human animals are not deserving of equal moral consideration as humans. I tried to keep a tally of the number of times speciesism was linked to racism but lost count. According to the all-white cast of experts, racism was the belief in the moral superiority of one race over another. How was this different to speciesism where one species considers itself morally superior to another?
This paves the way for Peter Singer to enter the film. Described as the world’s most influential philosopher (Hi, David!), Singer asserts that the suffering that is able to be experienced by animals is greater than that of some humans and, therefore, it is morally wrong to inflict pain upon them.
The interview with him is strangely edited (Devries was also responsible for the editing of the film) and I suspect it’s because Singer also believes that it’s morally permissible to terminate some humans (notably, the intellectually disabled and the very sick). As it’s an intellectually interesting argument, it had to be edited out of the film. It also would have presented a problem for Devries’ argument, who wants to say that the severely intellectually disabled are considered worthy of ethical consideration by the general public, while animals aren’t. Singer, of course, reverses that somewhat: animals are more worthy of rights that we ascribe to humans than some categories of people.
The result is a film which relies heavily on a strangely constructed intuition pump: if things can suffer, they have rights.
There are obvious ways out of this conundrum. I actively deny the existence of rights simpliciter: neither animals nor humans have rights which arise from their capacity to suffer. Others might deny the intuition in other ways: humans have rights arising from their capacity to express reason, or their capacity to be held responsible, or their ability to manifest will. The possibility of a ‘spectrum’ of rights is also not explored: a child is not given rights of self determination until it is capable of being held responsible for the exercise of those rights, but it might also have a right that decision-makers (such as adults) exercise their duties in the best interests of the child. Similarly, an animal might have the right to live a life free of cruelty but not have a right to life claim against a person who wants to eat it. But none of these is explored.
This results in Devries acting like a smug twat in a series of vox pops. Instead of listening to the views of the people he interviews (such as one person who argues for a form of legal positivism towards rights, which also escapes the above intuition), he talks over the top of them and tries to catch them in clever-clever wordplay. ‘Oh ho! Aren’t you just like a racist?’
Needless to say, it makes for a horrible viewing experience. Devries has his group of ‘anti-speciesist’ experts to whom he presents strawman challenges, allowing their claims to be asserted almost entirely without challenge. And this results in the second-most bizarre moment of the film.
The ‘anti-speciesist’ position relies on a naturalist account of ethics (at least per Singer). To use Simon Blackburn’s description of the point of naturalism:
To ask no more of the world than we already know is there—the ordinary features of things on the basis of which we make decisions about them, like or dislike them, fear them and avoid them, desire them and seek them out. It asks no more than this: a natural world, and patterns of reaction to it.
But Devries doesn’t understand the moral underpinnings of speciesism because he never asks the right questions. He therefore thinks that ‘naturalism’ is the (natural?) opponent of anti-speciesism and goes on a quest to find somebody who will advocate a naturalist account of ethics…
He finds and interviews a Nazi.
Like an actual Nazi.
Who wears a swastika and claims to be from the Nazi Party of America.
An actual Nazi.
At no point in this farcical abomination of a documentary do we get any sort of inquiry into the anti-speciesist position. Instead, we are repeatedly told that speciesism is bad because racism was bad, because sexism was bad, and because it’s just like a Holocaust. Some guy drives a car and explains that the only reasonable reaction to this Holocaust that’s going on everywhere is an explosion.
For no reason at all, the documentary shows us Richard Dawkins giving a lecture on evolutionary biology and who answers Devries’ derailing question from the audience. For reasons that escape me, we are then shown how vast the universe is. For reasons known only to Devries, he decides to confront the director of a Holocaust memorial with his radical theory that consuming meat is like participating in a Holocaust.
This is the most bizarre moment of the documentary.
Devries goes to a Holocaust memorial and films some of the inspirational quotes about freedom that are printed on its walls. He interviews the director and — not a word of a lie — compares the victims of the Holocaust to pigs.
For a while, I’d been feeling that merely watching this atrocity was to participate in some kind of moral crime. I’d paid $3 to watch this. Devries had my $3 and was going to use it to advertise his repugnant film with its bizarrely anti-Semitic slurs. By consuming the film and by talking about it now, I was contributing to his industry.
Before I could switch it off, the director of the Holocaust memorial started to fire out some smack downs about how offensive Devries’ comparison is. As he gets fired up, Devries’ voice cuts in over the audio: ‘I soon realised that he was just another speciesist.’
Preaching is easier when you can cut off people’s ability to provide a counter argument.
As the sanctimonious voice over narrates the conclusion to the film — ‘This film wasn’t meant to provide answers; only to provide questions’ — I thought back to an earlier interview in the film where the CEO of PeTA explains that the point isn’t to present a rational argument but to be sufficiently controversial to draw attention. Just as Devries had been distracted by protests involving naked women in body paint, and young girls dressed as animals, and women locked in cages — all examples of animal activist groups using sexist attitudes to promote their cause — I had been distracted by a film where an animal activist compared Holocaust victims to pigs.
Speciesism: The Movie isn’t a documentary. It’s a stunt. It is a soggy, intellectually-lazy stunt.