I’m so happy to welcome an accomplished, award-winning filmmaker, Andrew Hinton, to The Discerning Brute’s roster of expert contributors. Andrew both meticulously crafts stories, ideas and feelings into compelling and visually stunning films, and looks at others’ films through a lens that assesses everything from aesthetics to ethics. – Joshua Katcher

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by Andrew Hinton, Filmmaker

As a filmmaker and a vegan I’m fascinated by the way animals are represented and portrayed on the screen. I believe in the power of media to shape our behaviour – and therefore our world – and I want to understand how this power can be harnessed to compassionate ends.

I’m embarking a new film project which seeks to make sense of the complex, sometimes inspiring, often heartbreaking relationships between humans and animals.

On this journey of researching my own film I’m going to explore everything from Youtube pet videos to undercover activist films. Feature films to phone cameras. Natural history documentaries to Hollywood blockbusters.

…I want to find out who speaks for the animals.

Along the way I want to find out who speaks for the animals. To discover why so many humans love watching some species while eating or wearing others. And see whether film really can change hearts and minds – and save lives. I’ll review and share some of the most interesting examples I find along the way here.

“We Work For Them”

In the documentary A Fierce Green Fire hero of the high seas Paul Watson shares the story of a profound encounter with whales which changed his life. “From that moment on” he says, “I decided I work for whales. I work for seals and sea turtles and fish and sea birds. I don’t work for people.” I remember feeling something shift as I heard those words. Here was a human who answered only to nature with the courage and capabilities to really do something about the problems he was witnessing.

There are a number of heroes in Orlando von Einsiedel’s documentary Virunga, released worldwide this week on Netflix. It’s a beautiful film wrestled pretty much single handedly into being by the director who spent over a year living and filming in the Virunga National Park in Eastern Congo.

The film plays out an all too familiar story of a murky British oil company seeking to undermine the conservation work at this UNESCO World Heritage Site in order to exploit the park’s natural resources. Standing in their way are the last of the world’s wild mountain gorillas, a team of rangers whose job it is to protect them, and a brave young journalist who takes considerable risks to reveal the company’s underhand methods.

Against a backdrop of money, politics and armed conflict we see the beauty and wonder of the park’s biodiversity. Leading the rangers is Emmanuel De Merode, a Belgian prince who quite literally puts his life on the line to fulfil his duty to save the park and its inhabitants. He’s a man of huge integrity and as the fighting gets closer he declares confidently “I will be the last man to leave”.

But when the camp is evacuated Andre, one of the handlers of the orphaned gorillas also decides to stay. Repeatedly checking his gun as he prepares to defend his gorilla ‘family’ he tells us why: “There comes a moment where you have to justify your life. The gorillas are the reason for my life“.

Virunga is an uplifting film about fragile hope, the costs and rewards of a life of purpose, and the urgent need to appreciate and conserve the wild spaces we have left in the world, and the life that lives there.

Here in the US it’s the last of the wild buffalo who are suffering the effects of politics, consumption and human greed. Every winter the buffalo leave the cold high ground in Yellowstone for the more temperate lowlands. Unfortunately for them the Montana livestock industry doesn’t want to share the public grazing lands they use for cattle so the buffalo are subjected to a range of hazing techniques, from helicopters and four wheelers rounding them up for slaughter to being shot at close range.

Silencing the Thunder, a 26 minute film by Eddie Roqueta is a measured and stunningly shot piece which not only gives all sides a chance to be heard but spends enough time with the buffalo that you feel they are part of the conversation too. It explores the science surrounding Brucellosis, a deadly disease which the ranching community fears will be transmitted to cattle, and raises difficult questions about the ‘management’ of these wild creatures.

But the real heroes of the film are the Buffalo Field Campaign, a team of activist volunteers who patrol the migration routes and seek to document the worst of the abuses, while campaigning for the free passage of the buffalo.

Stephanie Seay from the group sums it up beautifully: ”What it really comes down to is the human commitment to coexist. All we’ve got to do is say yes, we can do this, we can coexist with these animals. We’re smart enough as a species to figure this out. We just have to want to.“

The film did a great job of making this viewer want to. There used to be millions of bison across the United States and the hounding of the remaining few to the edge of extinction should be regarded as a national disgrace. (If this is a cause that resonates you can volunteer with BFC).

Finally, a hard hitting campaign by vegan production company Environment Films about the trade in dogs for meat in Thailand has been making waves. They’ve been working with the Soi Dog Foundation on a documentary about this grisly business for years but their short film featuring celebrities like Ricky Gervais and Dame Judi Dench has just gone viral. The press ran with the story, expanded it to Vietnam and the NYT have just weighed in. Over 600,000 people have now signed this petition asking Thailand’s leaders to put an end to it. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of effect all this international exposure has. Let’s hope there’s a happy ending and that the concern generated extends the debate beyond dogs to include all animals abused for food.