In her work as an animal rights activist, photographer Jo-Anne McArthur tries to get everyday people to grapple with the moral, ethical, and spiritual issues that underlay our relationships to animals. “I feel like I’m a war photographer,” she says early in the documentary The Ghosts in Our Machine. “And I’m photographing changes in history in terms of animal rights and where they’re going.”
Director Liz Marshall’s camera trails McArthur everywhere, from meetings with a potential book editor to clandestine night shoots at factory farms, slaughterhouses, and research labs, immersing the viewer in the struggles of her heroine — saving animals, building her career in order to gain currency that can then be used to shine a light on the issue, trying to protect her own psyche in light of the suffering she’s seen.
Like many contemporary docs, the globe-trotting film’s advocacy sometimes slides into PSA mode as opposed to investigative journalism, but only rarely.
The passion with which McArthur carries out her mission, and the film’s balance between grim imagery and real-life heroes (a woman who runs a rescue farm; a married couple who adopts beagles who’ve been research test subjects), easily override those moments, creating a film whose sense of urgency and purpose is utterly engrossing.