The Animals Film Review
Twenty-five years after it attracted over a million viewers during the first week of Channel 4’s transmission, The Animals Film is back to find a new audience. A wide-ranging investigation/damnation of animal cruelty in its myriad forms, this feature-length documentary has lost none of its power to shock. If you’ve ever read or heard anything about the film, you’ll know that you need to steel yourself before an initial viewing; as the BBFC’s little blurb alongside the ‘15’ certificate puts it, “contains images of animal suffering and death”. And it’s imagery you may not wish to face up to, but then this exactly the point: The Animals Film is an antidote to “crowding out reality” (as the narration puts it) and turning of a blind eye – a fierce expose that demands a response from its audience.
Opening with a montage intercutting the 1905 proto-Lassie yarn Rescued by Rover with scratchy black and white archive footage of captivity, experimentation, dog fights, horse falls and so on (much of it only permitted by the BBFC owing to context), The Animals Film sets out early with its belief in the power of the moving image. Following these filmmakers’ lead – but to altogether different means – directors Victor Schonfeld and Myriam Alaux amassed their own material of various atrocities to offer a startling insight ‘behind the scenes’, as it were. Read the disc’s chapter listing on its inner sleeve and you’ll realise just how far-reaching this footage is: dog catchers, beef production, veal production, factory farming, vivisection, the fur trade, and so on. Yet The Animals Film is not a “shock doc” in the vein of the Mondo Cane or Faces of Death series, and neither could it conceivably be viewed as such. Rather it is filmmaking of consummate skill and execution; you’re left in no doubt as to where its makers’ intentions lie.
For this polemic, pure and simple, and interestingly it prefigures the techniques of many a more recent example. The intelligent – sometimes humorous, sometimes shocking – use of archive material, from a Felix the Cat cartoon to previously restricted government film, brings to mind, most obviously, Michael Moore, as does the blend of vox pops and engaged interviews alongside such footage. The use of celebrity connections is also far more widely-used nowadays (think of Leonardo DiCaprio fronting a doc on global warming), though in comparison the presence of Julie Christie as narrator and a score by Robert Wyatt may seem positively low-key. Importantly, however, such techniques feel less open to complaint than they have since. Christie’s appearance is strictly voice-over only and is never once vaunted. Rather you get the impression that she’s there simply because her clear speaking voice allows the information to come across more succinctly. Likewise the interviews are devoid of underhand methods and problems posed by editing. Many of those participating may be targets for the filmmakers – we see, for example, Roy Kroc, the founder of McDonalds, or “the Tiffany’s of the hamburger business”, as he puts it – but they’re always allowed to have their say and engage intelligently with the questions posed; you never once get the impression that they’re being cuckolded or forced to damn themselves with their own words, even if nothing quite gets in the way of Schonfeld’s and Alaux’s overall clarity of argument.
It’s this clarity which could potentially have proved detrimental in the long run. Given that the filmmakers’ intentions are clear from the outset, The Animals Film risks a potential complacency in the viewer, and therefore a lack of engagement, simply because we know exactly where we are being led. And yet this never once turns out to be the case, even over a hefty 130-minute running time. Time and again a startling fact or, most likely, image crops up so that disengagement simply isn’t an issue. Witnessing the “de-beaking” process of young chicks (as shocking for the matter-of-fact manner and production line stealth with which it is undertaken as it is for the act itself) is likely to stay with the viewer for a very long time. And then there’s the “blood ritual” carried out following a hunt (the heart of the prey given to “the most gallant rider”, hooves for the runners-up, as it were); what farmers have jokingly referred to as “the rape rack”; footage of monkeys on LSD; “the atomic ark”; and the list goes. All have to be seen to be believed – a strong endorsement, surely, that Schonfeld and Alaux have taken the right approach. Indeed, even if The Animals Film does not force a grand reaction from the viewer – it’s claim to fame, so to speak, has always been its ability to turn audience members to vegetarianism – as a piece of education it is a genuine eye-opener and truly remarkable.
The Animals Film is presented here in two differing cuts. The first, which is the original cut and how it screened theatrically in the UK and other countries, is the longest and contains the footage cut by Channel 4 for its 1982 television screening. This material comes at the very end and involves the Animal Liberation Front and their activities. The reason behind its editing was the possibility that it may incite criminal action – the argument being that the preceding footage was so powerful that the audience may be provoked into following the ALF’s lead. The second cut, a newly prepared ‘Director’s Cut’, similarly does away with footage (Schonfeld has stated that it is now dated and how, given a post-9/11 political environment, he would no longer wish to incite violence) and in its place we find brief titles explaining how some of the laws have changed since the film’s initial screenings and a promotion of www.theanimalsfilm.com. New end-titles also appear, though this is solely owing to the fact that those in the original cut run over imagery that has now been excised (in their stead the exact same credits run over a blank screen).
Both versions are present on the disc courtesy of seamless branching meaning that their presentation is equal. Newly restored and remastered The Animals Film really does look quite terrific. Of course, the variety of archive footage means that it’s never consistent, but the footage shot by Schonfeld and Alaux (depending of the film stock employed) is crisp, clean and with strong colours. Needless to say, the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio is retained, whilst the soundtrack (DD2.0) is similarly strong and offers no discernible problems. A welcome addition is the additional presence of optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing.
Of the additional features, two in particular standout. The accompanying 30-page booklet (mixing newly commissioned articles with reprints) offers a wealth of background detail, most notably the lengthy piece about the film’s production written by its researcher Philip Windeatt in 1980. Windeatt also appears on the second standout, serving as interviewer for a lengthy, wide-ranging discussion with Victor Schonfeld. Covering his background, his influences, the influence The Animals Film has had and much more besides, it is perhaps most interesting when he touches on how the production was actually put into place. Echoing the stories of many a first-time director, he most intriguing anecdote is the fact that Willem de Kooning offer the makers a painting to put up for auction in order to secure some additional funding. The disc also houses a statement from Julie Christie (barely two-minutes in length and essentially noting her continued endorsement of the film) and a newly produced trailer. As with the main feature, all extras (where applicable) come with optional English subtitling.