Three Filmmakers Fighting for Animals

Three Filmmakers Fighting for Animals

“The best work is always done when there is passion.”

Liz Marshall. All photopgraphs for this story by Jo-Anne McArthur/The Unbound Project except where indicated

At one point or another, every animal activist has described their motivation as speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. Filmmakers Allison Argo, Shannon Keith, and Liz Marshall are no different. Artists as much as activists, they are driven professionals, determined to use their voices to speak for the animals exploited and abused in a human world.

“I am inspired by causes that need representation,” says animal rights lawyer turned director and producer Shannon Keith. After years spent helping activist clients fight government harassment, Keith discovered that she too was known to the authorities. “I found out that I had been followed for years, my trash had been taken and I was on a terrorist watch list,” she says. But instead of giving in to the intimidation, “this only fueled the fire,” she says, the threat backfiring and increasing her desire to tell the stories of those fighting animal exploitation through activism. She founded the non-profit group ARME (Animal rescue media education), which, as well as taking on direct animal care & rescue work, addresses animal abuse and exploitation through producing documentaries. “The degree to which animals are exploited, abused and neglected is unfathomable and it continues because most people don’t know it exists,” Keith says of her motivation. “Documentary exposés are a great way to get information out so that individuals can take action.”

Talking with Argo, Keith, and Marshall, it’s clear that telling stories for animals comes with its own set of challenges, but that the passion each woman feels for the cause has allowed them to overcome the obstacles that have arisen in their careers. Though “career” was hardly how Allison Argo viewed filmmaking when she made her first documentary. “I knew nothing about making films,” she says. But then Argo encountered a silverback gorilla named Ivan on display as an attraction in a low-end shopping mall in Washington State. Seeing Ivan kept in isolation in these conditions, Argo resolved to tell his story, teaching herself the craft to be able to do so. “It took me three years to do it. After the film aired, the shopping mall was picketed and Ivan was sent to live with other gorillas. I’ve made films focused on animal welfare ever since.” Now a producer, director, writer and editor, she founded Argo Films to continue making documentaries that help animals.

I look for those who are struggling – for survival or freedom or simply for dignity and respect.

– Allison Argo

“I believe that most humans are inherently compassionate,” Argo says. “But if they’re unaware of the suffering of others, how can they make compassionate choices?” Educating audiences about the suffering of animals is evidently a passion for all three filmmakers, but the task itself takes skill. “To visually witness the truth head-on means showing violence and suffering, yet people turn away or shut down when confronted with these uncensored realities,” says Liz Marshall, director and co-producer of The Ghosts in Our Machine. “How do we convey the gravity without traumatizing the audience?”

Allison Argo

Marshall was already an established filmmaker when she decided to make a film that focused on animals. Having already made documentaries focusing on other social issues, one of her goals in making a film that focused on animal issues was to draw in members of other social movements.

We wanted to make a film that could be a bridge.

– Liz Marshall

Marshall focused on the power of human narrative to help audiences connect with animals, but also strove to give animals agency by essentially letting them speak for themselves in her film. “The result in Ghosts is that there are some sentimental sequences and long observational sequences without talking.”

All three women highlighted connecting viewers to animal stories as one of the primary challenges they face as filmmakers fighting for animals. “Getting people to care about animal issues can be challenging,” says Keith.

And it’s not just the audience that’s hard to convince. “The industry has tended to trivialize the significance and importance of animal-focused films,” says Argo. “I have noticed an unfortunate bias in the film industry towards human-focused stories.”

But that’s changing. Argo, Keith, and Marshall all mentioned a shift in recent years, with both producers and filmgoers more open to viewing animal stories. And indeed, all three women have produced award-winning animal-focused documentaries that have generated considerable attention. Not only are today’s audiences more willing to watch films about animals, the breadth of topics available to the animal movement’s storytellers has been significantly expanded by the progress of recent years. As the movement to protect animals moves forward, so too does the art that reflects it.

Marshall’s next project, supported by Canada’s documentary Channel, is a feature length documentary called Meat the Future, a film that explores the movement to transform conventional animal agriculture with the advent of “cultured” “clean” meat: real meat produced without animal slaughter. Marshall describes the film as upbeat and solutions-focused––hardly terms that have been traditionally associated with stories at the heart of the animal rights movement. Likewise, Argo’s newest project is also a story that offers a non-traditional narrative within the movement. The Last Pig is a documentary about pig farmer Bob Comis, who, after contemplating his life as a farmer raising animals he cared for but ultimately killed, decided to transform his farm into a sanctuary. “The film invites the audience to question their own ethics and connect the dots between what they eat and the sentient creatures on factories & farms,” says Argo. Keith’s latest work, Sanctuary, tells the story of the harrowing world of non-human primates kept in captivity and the incredible stories of the people who work tirelessly to free these animals and give them a chance at a life that is their own. More than two decades ago, Argo started her filmmaking career portraying Ivan’s plight in an effort to mobilize her community and offer him sanctuary; today, Keith has been able to base her own film project on just a handful of the countless activists now working to liberate and care for animals like Ivan. The momentum is tangible.

The best work is always done when there is passion.

– Shannon Keith

These women are telling stories that need to be heard with voices that for too long went underrepresented. For years, the film industry lacked diversity and inevitably produced narratives from an overly homogenous perspective, but trailblazers like Argo, Keith, and Marshall are changing that. Keith’s experience as an attorney taught her to let her talent and drive do the talking. “There was a definitely a men’s club that tried to keep women out, degrade us, make fun of us, and otherwise do their best to make my job difficult, but it never worked. The best attorney typically won out in the end,” she says. “Winning awards early on… helped to establish me as an equal player,” says Argo, and she hasn’t stopped since. And while there is still work to do, the industry has quickly realized the power of diversity: “There is a big campaign now, all about the importance of the female gaze, and about gender parity when it comes to funding,” says Marshall.

The range of subjects available to animal-focused filmmakers in today’s world, and the angles with which they are choosing to portray these stories, shows a movement in full swing that needs artists more than ever. The success of documentaries like Blackfish and Cowspiracy have thrown issues affecting animals onto the mainstream agenda in unprecedented way. While documentary filmmakers were once constrained to using festivals and campaign events as platforms for their projects, they are now able to use the power of animal narratives to appeal directly to anyone with a Netflix account. Perhaps the greatest tool that animal activists have today is not a megaphone, but a camera lens. Argo, Keith, and Marshall are all turning theirs on the animals who need our help and on the activists fighting for them. Their efforts are shining lights into the corners of animal-use industries that, for so many years, have relied on darkness.

Josie Du Toit

Josie Du Toit

“Life is life, whether human, monkey, dog or sheep. Compassion doesn’t discriminate between species.”

Josie Du Toit at the Vervet Monkey Foundation. All photos by Jo-Anne McArthur/The Unbound Project

Every morning at the Vervet Monkey Foundation in Tzaneen, northern South Africa, Josie Du Toit is out of bed before 6 a.m. Her work day doesn’t end until she goes to bed that night, so interviewing her for an Unbound Project profile meant following along as she gave bottles to vervet babies, supervised medication and medical care for various others, directed staff, delegated, organized, caught up on paperwork, and made many rounds of the sanctuary to check on the individuals in her care. Seeing just a few days of Du Toit’s non-stop life caring for the hundreds of animals at the Foundation, it was easy to understand why she’d received so many Unbound nominations.

Since I was really young I’ve always had a passion for animals.

Born and raised in England, Du Toit’s journey to running a sanctuary in South Africa started early. “My parents were vegetarian and they decided to raise my sister and I vegetarian as well,” she says. Du Toit’s mother worked as a natural health therapist, and when she attended conferences to promote her work, Du Toit would be right there beside her with her own miniature table, encouraging people to sign petitions and handing out information about fox hunting, animal testing, and other animal issues. “I feel very privileged and honoured to have had that upbringing because it’s led me to where I am now.”

Determined to have a career helping animals, Du Toit was over the moon when her father brought home a pamphlet about an animal care course at Sparsholt College of Winchester when she was a teenager. “I didn’t even think [that] existed at the time. I got very excited about it and signed up… I was 16 at the time, and that was 20 years ago now.”

Throwing herself into the coursework, she found that she was just as passionate about the practical side of animal care as she was about the ethics and welfare principles that the students were learning about.

I learned how much they are like us.

But not all of the students made the connection that Du Toit did. As the only vegetarian in her class, “People used to joke about me being vegetarian, put an extra piece of meat on my plate, things like this,” but Du Toit persevered with her beliefs that all animals should be treated with compassion. “I’ve always tried to get people to change their ways of thinking,” she says of that time, not knowing that this attitude would be instrumental in changing the direction of conservation at a sanctuary half a world away almost two decades into her future.

After graduating, Du Toit’s hard work paid off when she was offered a job as a veterinary technical advisor in Somerset. It was a dream opportunity that allowed her to learn even more about caring for animals. Du Toit worked with the company for four years, but it was a fateful four-week sojourn that would set her on the path that would ultimately become her life’s mission.

Eager for new experiences and to learn about different animals, Du Toit set to researching opportunities online and her interest was piqued by the Vervet Monkey Foundation’s volunteer program in South Africa. Vervets are considered vermin in South Africa, making orphaned and injured monkeys a common occurrence, with few people willing to care for them. And while the living conditions at the sanctuary would have been daunting to most people, Du Toit knew this was for her. “It was vegetarian and very basic living, with no electricity. Volunteers were housed in tents; this was bush living and I thought: this sounds amazing.” She approached her boss to request the time off, and while she received the consent she was looking for, it was on the condition that she come back. She and her boss joked that Du Toit may fall in love with Tzaneen and the sanctuary; it would turn out to be more serious than either of them knew.

Your one condition is that you return, because I know you might end up falling in love with the place and the animals and not coming back.

“It was the best month of my life,” Du Toit says now, and then pauses, listening to the monkeys. “I don’t know what’s going on with them today. They’re like ‘something’s scary!’ Look how they suck on each other’s ears,” she laughs. The sanctuary that started off as a four-week sea change is her whole life now.

Josie Du Toit

The decision to relocate to South Africa permanently seemed hard at first, but ended up being the easiest choice that Du Toit had ever made. After she arrived back in England, she was searching for a way to remain involved with the sanctuary remotely. When a position came up, however, it wasn’t remote: it was an opportunity to be the on-site volunteer coordinator. Du Toit broke her promise to her boss. “I remember being on the phone and my mind quickly turning, like could this actually happen? And I just said ‘Yes! I’m coming!’ And it was as simple as that!”

The logistics of moving to a new continent were all consuming, and amid the turmoil of selling her house, resigning from her position, and packing up her possessions, Du Toit had one main priority: “I knew that the only way I could go back is if I could bring my dog, Reuben.” Less than a year after originally volunteering at the sanctuary, Du Toit and Rueben returned permanently in February 2006.

After around two years of working at the sanctuary, Du Toit was diagnosed with a painful condition called fibromyalgia, which seemed like it might put an end to her work with the animals. She searched desperately for a solution. “After a couple of years being here I found myself unable to do the things I needed to do for the monkeys. I wasn’t able to walk around so much. I tried a lot of different medications because I wanted to be out there helping.”

As she was struggling to find a solution that would get her back on her feet, Du Toit watched a lecture by animal activist Gary Yurofsky. Immediately, her life changed. “From that moment, I never ate cheese, eggs, or milk ever again… It was like a lightbulb moment like: what on earth am I doing? And why didn’t I see it in the agricultural college when I was actually there? How did I not see that?” she switched to a completely vegan diet and in doing so, Du Toit found the silver bullet that she had been looking for to improve her health. “After about six months of being vegan, I found my health dramatically improved and I actually came off all my medications.”

Her recovery let her re-dedicate herself to the monkeys with a new perspective on conservation. Du Toit’s motivations for moving to a plant-based diet weren’t simply about farm animals—she became passionate about the impact of animal agriculture on the environment, including the habitat of her beloved vervets. “Eating animals affects the environment, it affects the forests, it affects all wildlife everywhere,” she says, and hopes that other sanctuaries will make the connection and transition to plant-based diets for their kitchens, as the Vervet Monkey Foundation did shortly after du Toit made the change herself. “For me, working at a sanctuary and eating meat don’t go together at all.”

How could I go and eat a burger or a steak… knowing that we’re cutting down forest and planting massive monocrops to feed these cows?

One of the sanctuary’s other missions has always been to keep the animals as wild as possible, limiting human interaction and increasing each animal’s chances of living the most natural life possible. Du Toit worked with sanctuary staff to develop a method of helping orphaned monkeys learn to feed themselves and to bond with a foster mother. “That’s what I believe rehabilitation should be about,” she says. “Getting these animals wild and as happy as they can be back with their troop so they can actually have a real family in the wild rather than stay with us and spend their lives looking for attention from us.” The technique has been so successful that other sanctuaries in Africa are running their own pilot programs to help with re-wilding animals who have come into their care.

Du Toit and sanctuary founder Dave’s ultimate plan for the monkey troops that can live independent of humans is an ambitious project: The Vervet Forest. Right now, they are looking for a suitable piece of land—hopefully around 500 acres—that will be protected from poachers and loggers, helping not just the animals recover, but the ecosystem as well: “We don’t want it just to be a release site. The vervets help to repopulate the trees as well… We’d like to see everything thrive with them.” There are also plans for the Foundation to use the space to run education programs: “We’d like to run workshops on human-wildlife conflict, offer veterinary courses, primate courses, also about lifestyle and living. We’d like to educate people about reducing their carbon footprint and about how can they do something personally to protect the environment as well as animals. That’s the big vision and the big plan!” She laughs, but it’s clear that she’s serious about this big dream.

Du Toit and Dave are now the subjects of a documentary, also called The Vervet Forest. It’s a beautiful project that seeks to portray the monkeys not as vermin, but as Du Toit sees them, individuals worth caring about and worth saving.

Josie Du Toit

There is still a long way for Du Toit to go to achieve her dream of establishing The Vervet Forest, but her passion for her work and her tremendous empathy for animals keep her focused on that goal. “I think that everything I’ve done has basically led me to being here, doing what I can for these animals… By living true to my value and within my passion, I found my purpose.”


Learn more and support the Vervet Monkey Foundation.
Text by Sayara Thurston. Photos by Jo-Anne McArthur.