In the months before 9/11, American law enforcement was busy tracking down a dread threat to civilization: antivivisection activists. That's one of many galling facts in The Animal People, Casey Suchan's new documentary about how the law protected corporate interests over the right to protest.
The documentary, co-directed by Suchan and longtime collaborator Denis Henry Hennelly and executive produced by Joaquin Phoenix, examines what happened to Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, a group established in Britain in the 1990s to expose abuse of animals during testing at Huntingdon Life Sciences. The group expanded to the U.S., where its members found themselves the target of a police investigation. There's a bitter irony to the fact that, before 9/11 and the current rise of white supremacists, they were being called domestic terrorists – and then, as The Animal People shows, when they thought the FBI would have bigger fish to fry, they found themselves the target of even more aggressive tactics.
Hennelly and Suchan have tackled issues of animal activism before, in 2010 political comedy Bold Native, yet even before then it was an issue she was interested in – as was the story of SACH. However, Suchan blanched at the suggestion she was an activist. "I was a storyteller who was interested in this world," she said, "with a tremendous amount of respect for it, and not the same amount of courage." She was automatically fascinated by SHAC – not just for its effectiveness in making HLS a commercial pariah by exposing their operations, but also in how the U.S. Government came after them. "How does somebody get indicted for doing these things that are free speech? If they were just talking, how can there be an indictment about it?"
It was after she and Hennelly met Mapplethorpe screenwriter Mikko Alanne (who would go on to produce The Animal People) while they were screening Bold Native that the final piece fitted into place. Alanne showed them a picture of the six core members of SHAC, in front of the court house, just before the entire system came down on them. She said, "You just look at that picture, with the words 'domestic terrorist' under it – particularly in the wake of 9/11 – and you think, 'What is happening?'"
However, The Animal People is not a simple endorsement of SHAC, often showing when they crossed lines from activism into tactics that alienated them from other groups, or that even supporters saw as unnecessary. "We tried to make a film that told what it felt like, as much as we could, to be on the other side of that campaign."
In fact, the more she looked at the SHAC defendants, the more unsure she was about their moral certitude, and the more she had to dig and analyze. "That's the best place to start trying to tell a story," she said, "when you're certain you know how you feel about something, you know a little, and then you go, 'I don't know. This is more complicated than I thought it would be."
Austin Chronicle: I watched this, and I came out very angry.
Casey Suchan: Really? Talk to me about that.
AC: Well, I'm very old fashioned about cracking down on protests about anti-terrorist laws.
CS: That's interesting, because I love, over the course of making this film, calibrating it and doing frequent screenings, getting through the edit. My favorite is always sitting back and letting the room discuss. Dialogue, now. It's always interesting to me to hear what people feel at the end. It definitely provokes feelings.
AC: So what was it you were looking for in that feedback?
CS: There were a couple of things that we were gauging while we were making the film. It's a complicated story, and the production process covered the 15 years since these activists were indicted in 2004. The actual SHAC campaign started in 1999 in the UK, so you're talking about a story that has a lot of years, and a lot of story that happened within those years. The campaigns and the protest strategies, trying to get into the nuances of that and spark debate without trying to lead the audience to how they should feel about it – trying to be as objective as possible in talking about the tactics and strategies. Trying to tell that part of the story in a way that made sense and simplifying it because, between 1999 and 2014 when they were indicted, that's five years of campaign history and evolution.
That was something we were listening to a lot in those test screenings. is it making sense? Is the government interest in this group, and why they are interested, and the corporate strings that were being pulled, is that part of the story making sense? Is the legislative part of the story making sense, with what was going on with the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act? Then there was the trial and the appeal, and just the trial could be a whole movie. And then we've got six defendants that we're tracking, and are you telling the story in a way that's fair to them? Are they likable? Do they have to be likable?
Just when you take all that story, and you condense it into something that someone can sit down and watch – hopefully without having to pause and go to the bathroom – it's complicated.
AC: There's a sense that what you finally settled on is both fair, but also allows them to present the evidence and defense that never really came out at trial.
CS: When you read the trial, you understand what happened – which is that none of these defendants ever had a chance to talk about why they were doing what they were doing. The government had all the resources in the world when they indicted them. This was a huge investigation, the largest in the history of the FBI at that time, and they were developing all sorts of technologies to try to crack through the encryption that the activist group was using.
This was at a time when the internet was really becoming a thing, and to me that's one of the most impressive things about this campaign, is that they saw what the internet could be in terms of an organizing tool. These are all pretty smart people, and they understood the government tendency to surveillance, so right off the bat they were using a program called PGP – Pretty Good Privacy. We actually interviewed the guy who created PGP for this movie. Fascinating interview, but it didn't make the cut.
But the government couldn't access their emails, and that's something that came up in trial. "Look, they're encrypting their emails. We can't read what they're doing." So the inference was that they must be talking about organizing illegal activity. Why else would you not want the government to read your emails?
There's a lot to learn, though, especially now. There was an article from Reuters, and it was talking about what's going on in Chile and Bolivia and Barcelona and Hong Kong and Lebanon. All over the world, there's this call to rise up. We're getting at this point where people feel compelled to take to the streets, and I think that looking at a campaign that had strategy, and doing it in a way that you can walk away and have a discussion about what they did well and what kind of strategies were really powerful. They rocked a huge corporate industry. It wasn't just Huntingdon Life Sciences that was affected by this campaign. It was the whole pharmaceutical industry which went, "If we don't stop this, who's to say we're not next?"
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