The Animals Film: Telling it Like it Is

By James Norton

animals-film-victor-schonfeld-myriam-alaux.jpgThe Animals Film, 1982

The Animals Film, one of the most powerful of radical documentaries, was long overdue a dvd release. The film was made in 1982 by Victor Schonfeld and Myriam Alaux, a ferocious cry of outrage against the violent exploitation by mankind of our fellow animals, a paradoxical kind of civil war that we will inevitably lose if the enemy is exterminated.

The film opens with archive footage of cruelty to animals, such as elephants, now supposedly protected, played over the sinister clang of Talking Heads’ song Mind, before crashing into the badlands of 1980s New York where abandoned dogs, unwanted gifts, are rounded up and put down. Much of the film is an odyssey of slaughter across modern America – apart from the banning of hunting with dogs, none of the barbarism depicted in the film has changed in the intervening quarter of a century – chicks having their beaks clipped off, chickens trapped in their own shit, pigs tethered in vast dark sheds.

The impressive but more aesthetically composed Our Daily Bread showed the highly industrialised evolution of agribusiness today, whereas The Animals Film’s greatest strength is its linkage of all sorts of oppression. Results from tests on animals’ stress and levels of aggression under chemical and electrical torture were used in training the military in Viet Nam, and their exposure to radiation was used to assess, usually with deadly inaccuracy, the tolerance to humans. The philosophical and scientific cases are brilliantly argued; we learn that if penicillin had been tested on guinea pigs it would never have been prescribed, as it is lethal to those animals. Bogeymen such as the founder of McDonald’s and fur business fat cats also pop up to stoke the indignation.

The film is enlivened by a range of vox pops both against and indifferent to the murder of animals, and satirical clips of classic animation. The film also boasts an incisive, disturbing electronic score by Robert Wyatt and a commentary by Julie Christie.

animals-film-victor-schonfeld-myriam-alaux-2.jpgThe Animals Film, 1982

The DVD includes the original version and a recent directors’ cut. It was shown by Channel 4 in its first week on air, a station which has since deteriorated from Animal Farm to Big Brother. The only contentious episode then was an ending featuring Animal Liberation Front activists raiding laboratories. Although Schonfeld resisted cuts at the time, he has now excised the sequence, as the ALF are now tainted by threats and assaults and, in the wake of 9/11, he feels that any kind of violent activism should be discouraged.

The DVD includes an interview with Schonfeld by Phil Windeatt, the film’s researcher and now an archive researcher on The South Bank Show, who also contributes a superbly witty account of the shoot on the road in America.

James Norton is a director, producer and researcher in television arts.