Film is an especially effective tool for reaching an audience that is attuned to receiving messages in an immediate, visually striking way. As animal activists, we can harness its power to educate the public on the appalling treatment of animals in our society.
There have already been a number of groundbreaking animal rights films over the past few years. Earthlings, Peaceable Kingdom, and, most recently, Bold Native (which we’ve covered extensively here at Our Hen House) all stake their claims as being significant cinematic expressions of our message of animal liberation. Soon, we’ll have another film to add to this pantheon: Karol Orzechowski’s Maximum Tolerated Dose (“MTD”), the first full-length feature documentary from Decipher Films. MTD is also the first feature-length documentary on the subject of animal experimentation, told from the perspective of “both humans and non-humans who have experienced animal testing first-hand.” Though harrowing, the film looks like it’s going to be an important tool for activists and the catalyst for changing the opinion of many people who are ignorant to the horrors of vivisection.
I had the privilege of asking Karol a few questions about the film, the issues involved, and his take on the use of filmmaking in activism. Read on for his incredibly insightful answers.
Our Hen House: To start off, could you describe the film in your own words, and tell us a little about what you hope to accomplish with it?
Karol Orzechowski: Maximum Tolerated Dose is a film about vivisection that tries to offer a new angle on an old debate, by speaking with people who have been former experimenters or lab workers and who have had a change of heart. The film will also feature biographies of animals who previously suffered in labs and have found their way to a safe place, through various means. I hope that the film can be a resource for animal activists to share with their non-activist friends. I hope that it can contribute something new to the vivisection debate and illuminate the industry from an insider perspective. And I hope it can inspire people to realize that they are not necessarily bleeding-hearts if they don’t support animal testing — even scientists and lab workers have legitimate and important arguments against it.
I think with all of my animal films, though, I want to make something that my parents and sisters could watch and consider. They are my barometer. They are not animal activists, but they are caring and conscious people. I want to build bridges between people like myself – who feel the weight and scale of animal suffering in a really visceral way – and those who need more information to understand the issues. That doesn’t mean watering down the issues. It just means finding a creative approach to communicate some heavy ideas.
OHH: For those readers who might not be aware, what does the film’s title, Maximum Tolerated Dose, refer to, and how does it relate to the film?
KO: The title refers to a type of lab experiment where “research models” (as animals are regularly referred to) are dosed with a particular chemical or pharmaceutical product to determine how much of it they can take before it becomes persistently toxic. As you can imagine, this kind of test can result in a great deal of suffering for an animal, because it’s meant to find a line where toxicity is potentially fatal. The initial tests generally last for six months, and then are often repeated to determine long-term toxicity, usually over a two-year period.
Though the film might touch on what the test is in passing, I mostly used the name of the test as a metaphor for the film and what it represents: what is the line at which your ethics change? If there are scientists and lab workers who have seen animal tests and rejected them, why is that? Likewise, how do the tests that animals go through damage and change them, and if the animals get a chance to be rescued, how do the effects of those tests still reverberate?
OHH: What made you you choose to focus on vivisection for this film, as opposed to other animal issues?
KO: To be honest, it wasn’t a conscious decision to focus on a particular issue… The film just sort of found me. Through various different animal-related work I was doing, I met and interviewed two people who were both involved in animal experimentation and who had made conscious decisions to leave it behind and be true to their ethics. It was a hard decision for both of them, because they believed in science (and still do), but what was happening didn’t make sense to them. Their stories blew me away. I had never considered the debate about vivisection from that kind of insider perspective before. I also visited Fauna Foundation in Montreal, and heard a lot of stories about the primates there and where they came from. Their stories were terrifying, awful, but ultimately led to redemption.
So, I realized that there was a big story here. I wanted to make a bigger contribution to animal activism through film, and the story just kind of came along and smacked me upside the head and said “Hey! Do this now!”
OHH: What do you see as the advantages of using filmmaking in activism?
KO: We live in a visual culture. It’s inescapable. I’ve worked exclusively in text form (through writing about animal issues), orally (through working on Animal Voices radio show for a number of years) and visually through filmmaking. Each approach offers something different, but what I like about filmmaking is that it combines sound (which is a huge passion of mine) and photography (another passion of mine, framing moving images) into one art form. For me, it’s a synthesis of a bunch of work I’ve been doing for a long time now, and it allows me to use a wide skill set all within one project.
Films don’t necessarily impact everyone. If films have one advantage, it’s that they have a popular currency and can communicate complicated ideas in a streamlined way. With internet distribution, they can also be very quick and easy to access. But I don’t think they replace things like books or radio or other media.
OHH: Do you have any advice for filmmakers that would like to use their talents for animal activism?
KO: In my opinion, the first and only real prerequisite is that you care. Don’t do it just because it’s a hot issue or something like that. If there is an animal issue that you care about in particular, focus on that. Watch other animal rights films about that issue, so you know what’s out there and how you can contribute something new or different. But definitely don’t just jump into filmmaking. Read about the issue. Inform yourself. There is nothing more painful to see in a documentary than a filmmaker who hasn’t done their research.
There is a huge spectrum of opinions within animal activism about what is the “right” ideological position and how best to go about activism. I’m not terribly interested in debating how people should approach their film subjects ideologically, though. There is a lot of room in the animal rights movements for more media-making. Get out there and contribute to the spectrum.
OHH: You have a unique, grassroots approach to fundraising for this film. Could you talk more about your fundraising strategy for those who might be interested in their own DIY projects?
KO: Up until this point, I’ve made films (both animal-related and not) that are entirely funded with my own money that I’ve saved from working. This is my first feature-length project and it will require considerably more cash to get it made. It is far beyond what I can afford to do with my own money.
So, I’m appealing to the animal activist community to help make this film. If you watch the trailer and my other animal films, and if you like my approach as a filmmaker and an activist, you can support the project directly. There is a set of rewards for different donation levels, and I’m working really hard to make sure that people feel their money is being well spent. Films of this scope cost a lot of money to make, but I’m determined to do things in the most economical way possible, with a high standard of quality.
My main goal with this is to make it accessible to people who want to see it. Though I plan on submitting it to festivals and distributing DVDs (with plenty of extra resources), I want the film itself to be free or low-cost to activist groups, and have the option of having it eventually free on the web. Appealing to the community for funding was a calculated decision, because I don’t want the film to get tied up and delayed by unnecessary things, which often have to do with money. Different funding sources come with different strings attached, which is completely understandable. But if funding for MTD comes completely from the community, then I’m only accountable to the community when it’s done, and that means it can get out to people quickly and easily.
OHH: For those who are interested in this issue and in combating vivisection, do you have any resources they should check out for more information (in addition to the film, of course)?
KO: Right now I am reading a book called Brute Science: Dilemmas of Animal Experimentation that is really helpful in understanding why there is such a gulf between the “pro” and “anti” sides of the debate. I would highly recommend it to anyone, as it offers an honest look at the shortcomings of both sets of arguments. That’s just the latest book I’m devouring about the topic, in preparation for an upcoming set of interviews for the film.
In the U.S., PCRM [Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine] is a great advocacy group and has a huge website worth checking out. They also run a conference about experimentation and alternatives. Read up on the issue from them and other sources, and make sure you read industry sources as well, because it is vital to be able to speak to both sides.
Apart from that, once you’re familiar with the issues, take steps to remove your financial support of these industries. Don’t buy products tested on animals, find medicinal alternatives that aren’t tested on animals wherever possible, and be wary of fundraising campaigns for medical research that are so ubiquitous these days. For example, if you really want to help stop prostate cancer, you can inform yourself of preventative measures and take good care of your health and the health of those around you. Most people don’t realize that the type of research they were supporting with their “Movember” moustaches was invasive and painful research involving dogs, who are the central “research models” for prostate cancer (even though all experimental procedures will need to be tested on humans eventually). I think if people knew where their money was going in campaigns like this, they would rightly be horrified, and would demand better of the scientific community.