The Witness

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2001:
The Witness
Tribe of Heart video (P.O. Box 149, Ithaca, NY 14851), 2000.
43 minutes. $20.00 + $4.00 postage & handling.

In the year-plus since The Witness debuted at the Animal
Rights 2000 conference in Washington D.C., it has become the screen
production most raved about by activists since The Animals’ Film,
narrated by Julie Christie in 1981. Mainstream critics praise it;
activist publications gush.
Unlike The Animals’ Film, which played at off-peak hours in
some major theatres, The Witness is not as demonstrably reaching the
general public–and probably no documentary could in today’s much
more competive screen marketplace.

Of 61 “recent community screenings” of The Witness listed on
a flak sheet, 48 were by and for activist groups, unlikely to reach
people not already somewhat interested in animal rights and/or
Chicken Run, released at about the same time, has delivered
a pro-animal and anti-factory farming message to millions more people
than The Witness ever will, by packaging the message as
The Witness is a documentary. It overtly challenges
non-activists and non-vegetarians to change their lives–which means
most people will tend to avoid it.
The subject of The Witness, Eddie Lama, is a Brooklyn
building contractor. Single, approaching age 40, without evident
close family ties, Lama is in the demographic bracket in which adult
males are most likely to undergo a transformative experience. In his
case, trying to get to know a young woman, he babysits her cat.
Lama has not been hostile toward animals, but has never been
around them much. Getting to know an animal, he recognizes the
commonalities among the cat, himself, and the meat on his plate.
He gives up meat, becomes a cat rescuer, and campaigns against
meat-eating and fur-wearing in a van with a video screen mounted in
the cargo door.
Lama’s evolution from indifference toward animals to activism
is often described as “unlikely,” “surprising,” and so forth, yet
is actually a typical conversion experience, whether on behalf of
animals or another cause. Among the Biblical figures in more-or-less
the same demographic bracket who “heard a voice” and became activists
were Noah, Jonah, Moses, Ezekial, Isaiah, Jesus, 11 of his 12
disciples, Paul, and of course Balaam, to whom God spoke through
the voice of a donkey who objected to being beaten.
Even most of the specifics of Lama’s conversion parallel the
specifics of how the late Animal Rights International founder Henry
Spira came to work on behalf of animals, more than 20 years earlier.
Spira, too, took care of a cat for a female friend. Spira, too,
though a lifelong human rights activist, had never before thought
much about animals. Spira, too, had worked with his hands, as a
carpenter, automobile assembler, and shipboard electrician, though
he had also been a distinguished investigative reporter, and had
become a high school teacher. As the 1998 Peter Singer documentary
Henry: One Man’s Way recounts, Spira, too, abruptly recognized
that a cat is a chicken is a human in terms of capacity to suffer,
put down his fork in mid-meal, and never ate meat again.
The Witness more-or-less combines the major elements of The
Animals’ Film and Henry: One Man’s Way. Lama’s story includes an
Animals’ Film-like series of clips from the videos he shows with his
van on the streets of New York.

The phenomenon

The Witness offers Hollywood quality music and camera work.
But even the best Hollywood publicists rarely get film-goers to tell
anyone who will listen about how a film has changed their lives.
Patty Finch, one of several people who offered to write about The
Witness for ANIMAL PEOPLE, actually quit her paid job to help
promote it as a volunteer and to write curriculum guides which might
help get it into classrooms.
Finch described her manuscript as a “testimonial,” an
indicative choice of words.
The closest parallel may be in how many born-again Christians
have responded to the science fiction film Left Behind. They too are
changing their lives after viewing it, and they too are “testifying”
about it in uncritical terms suggesting that they are projecting into
it much more than is on the screen.
In the case of The Witness, activists claim that because it
has touched them, enabling many to recapture the feelings that they
had during their initial conversion experiences, it could have a
similar effect on the uninvolved public.
We are also hearing that Lama may be the long awaited voice
who will reach indifferent male teens. Yet Lama is as old as the
parents of most teens. He is not an athlete or rock-and-roller. No
evidence appears in the video that he has even had much contact with
teens since he was one, 20-odd years ago.
Lama will probably reach the male teens who are already
sympathetic toward animals and vegetarianism, and won’t reach the
rest, the same as everyone else.

The cause

The most difficult question about The Witness to answer from
the present point in time is what The Witness phenomenon means to the
future of the cause. Conversion experiences tend to occur at two
different phases in the evolution of either a cause or an individual
activist commitment, and can have distinctly different meanings.
First comes the baptism, in which the activist is immersed
in awareness, the effort to create change, and the counterculture
of activism. Family and old friends who are not themselves immersed
are “left behind.”
Later comes revival. By now the activist has learned that
most other people are not eager to be immersed in anything
threatening to their way of life. Even more disconcerting, the
activist has begun to see that fellow converts are much the same as
other people. Some have left their old lives because a personal
dysfunctionality kept them from success and happiness. The same
problems eventually interfere with their activist relationships.
Activism becomes less emotionally satisfying. The convert yearns for
a more normal life.
Social movement analyst Bill Moyer pointed out to animal
rights leaders in September 1990, at a workship convened by ANIMAL
PEOPLE publisher Kim Bartlett and Friends of Animals president
Priscilla Feral, that burnout is actually part of the success of a
cause, because it brings the reintegration of activists into the
Relationships with family and old friends are
re-established, on a more comfortable basis. A parent, for
example, stops urging a grown child who has become vegetarian to eat
some Thanksgiving turkey, and the child shuts up about the closeted
fur coat that belonged to her grandmother, and to her mother still
symbolizes “mom.”
The process of reconciliation is in itself a
conversion by gentler means. The outcome brings former activists
into positions of influence. Skills developed in activism become
useful in politics, business, teaching, and media work, as former
activists develop careers while finding ways to avoid compromising
their essential values.
The revival phase of activism can help remind former
activists of their values, but can also recycle them back to the
immersion phase, marked by renewed disaffection from non-converts
and increasing insularity.
If The Witness inspires more Eddie Lamas to go forth, it
will serve a useful purpose. If it inspires more people to give up
meat, especially non-vegetarian animal welfare workers, it will be
more valuable still.
Yet if The Witness phenomenon continues to parallel the Left
Behind phenomenon, by encouraging more dropping out of society and
more cultishness, as activists pursue “conversion” instead of the
less dramatic process of changing the norms of society from within,
the phenomenon could inhibit rather than advance the cause.
Ironically, the problematic aspects of The Witness
phenomenon contradict the message of the video itself. Lama himself
seems much less interested in achieving dramatic baptisms and
revivals than many of the activists who extoll his example. He does
not claim to be a miracle worker, or even a leader, and mentions
that he is still learning about issues and tactics. He acknowledges
being a relative newcomer to an old cause, in which activists his
age have often campaigned for 20 years or more. He seems aware of
the need to reaching the mainstream.
Being himself a convert by immersion, Lama believes in
converting through immersion, but will probably not be satisfied to
“preach to the choir.” Whatever Eddie Lama does next will probably
be toward finding better ways to reach the public. What the choir
does may be less certain.

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