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Exploring 'Earthlings’, the animal-rights film featuring Joaquin Phoenix

For many individuals considering a drastic lifestyle change, often it is through watching personal accounts of encouragement, or documentaries, either feature-length or YouTube shorts, that help to persuade and stimulate. Documentaries are, after all, a gateway to further thinking, conversation and debate, with films such as Blackfish leading to Seaworld ending their orca breeding programme, as well as Super Size Me leading to plummeting profits for the fast-food giant McDonalds. 

Similarly, for the vegan and vegetarian community, films have long been a crucial part of recruitment and education, from recent efforts such as Cowspiracy and Seaspiracy to earlier films such as Forks over Knives and Food inc. Whilst such films have certainly caused a cultural splash, there is no film that has grabbed public attention more than the 2005 American documentary Earthlings, narrated by Joaquin Phoenix

Exploring humanity’s use of animals for pets, food, clothing, entertainment and scientific research, Earthlings is an unflinching assessment of our own relationship with the species that we share our planet with. Taking six years to complete, the film directed by Shaun Monson covered pet stores, puppy mills and meatpacking plants, using footage captured by hidden cameras that exposed some of the largest food industries in the world. 

Opening the film with meditative images of the earth and its bountiful species, Joaquin Phoenix narrates: “Since we all inhabit the earth all of us are considered earthlings. There is no sexism, no racism, or speciesism in the term earthling, it encompasses each and every one of us, warm or cold-blooded, mammal, vertebrae or invertebrate, bird, reptile, amphibian, fish and human alike”.

Continuing, he states: “Humans, therefore, being not the only species on the planet share this world with millions of other living creatures as we all evolve here together, however, it is the human earthling who tends to dominate the earth, often times treating other fellow earthlings and living beings as mere objects”.

This is the general sentiment of Earthlings, a provocative piece of documentary filmmaking that ultimately tries to force the viewer to consider their own relationship with animals and rethink the position of humanity in the hierarchy of life. An infamous film in the documentary community thanks to its shocking, unrelenting depictions of animal abuse and slaughter, Earthlings has also become perhaps the single greatest advert for vegetarianism ever made, with the film’s trailer listed with comments promoting a plant-based diet. 

Premiering in 2005, Earthlings won Best Documentary at the Artivist Film Festival, Best Content at the Boston International Film Festival, as well as Best Documentary at the San Diego Film Festival, where Joaquin Phoenix also won a humanitarian award. Commenting on the impact of the film, Phoenix stated in an interview with Safe: “Of all the films I have ever made, this is the one that gets people talking the most. For every one person who sees Earthlings, they will tell three”.

A purposefully provocative piece of cinema, Earthlings is designed to shock, repulse and force the viewer into individual change. Shaun Monson’s film is an illustrative example of art forcing change.

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