An interview with the filmmakers of Bold Native, a new film on people who risk their freedom to save animals.
Vegans and animal rights activists in Los Angeles are primping and preening for the premiere of Open Road Films’ Bold Native, which bills itself as the first fiction film about the Animal Liberation Front (A.L.F), a non-centralized group of animal liberators and economic saboteurs that the FBI calls their top domestic terrorist priority.
I had the pleasure of seeing an early cut of the film, which fits nicely within the zeitgeist that questions the use of animals for food, clothing, entertainment and scientific research. Get this: the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) of 2006 enabled the prosecution of activists as terrorists if their actions result in economic damage to corporations in animal industries like factory farms, slaughterhouses, research labs or fur farms.
In Bold Native, Charlie Cranehill, an A.L.F member wanted by the government for domestic terrorism, emerges from the underground to coordinate a nationwide action, while his CEO father tries to find him before the FBI does. Simultaneously, a young idealist campaigns for more humane treatment of farmed animals on behalf of a large nonprofit organization, and a woman from Charlie’s past threatens to undermine his plans.
Actor Joaquin Pastor plays Charlie, and also composed the music for the film. Intense, musically gifted and vegan, Pastor will likely be known one day as “the other Joaquin” for the inevitable comparisons to Joaquin Phoenix. The film also features Randolph Mantooth from the classic TV show Emergency and appearances by John Feldmann, lead singer of seminal pop-punk band Goldfinger; rapper MC Supernatural; raw vegan hero Tonya Kay, indie darling Joshua Leonard (Humpday and Blair Witch Project), and the talented and beautiful Kristine Louise, among others.
The filmmaking team behind Bold Native includes producer Casey Suchan, producer Mary Pat Bentel, writer/director Denis Henry Hennelly, and cinematographer Jeff Bollman. Denis and Casey did the honor of this interview:
Open Road Films is known for documentaries, and you also produce some videos for animal organizations. Why did you decide to make a narrative film on this subject instead of a documentary?
All of us at Open Road actually began our filmmaking journey wanting to make fiction movies and came to documentaries by accident. Making documentaries really developed and honed our filmmaking and storytelling skills. If you can take 200 hours of real life and turn it into a three-act movie, shooting a script starts to feel like a piece of cake. We were thinking, “You mean, we can have anything happen we want to happen?!?”
So Bold Native is actually a return to our roots as filmmakers. Documentary filmmaking taught us how to make movies in a different way – one where you work within the real world, which is a perfect skill to have in approaching something as grassroots and guerilla-style as Bold Native. We shot in cafés while they were open, in public spaces like beaches and streets, and used as many real people as we could.
And all that time we were producing documentaries we were actually writing and rewriting Bold Native and following the changing landscape of activism post-9/11. We wanted to see fiction movies about the people we consider heroes and about issues that are important to us. And we knew we weren’t alone in wanting to see stories like this one told. We’re telling a story about people who risk their freedom in celebration of life, so we tried to fill the film with as much life as possible and make it fun while still maintaining a serious, uncompromising look at the issue of animal exploitation.
We did try for several years to get the film made the traditional Hollywood way. And in the meantime we learned how to make films on our own and the technology developed to allow us to do that. So we made the decision in 2008 to just start shooting.
A fiction film allows you a different kind of access to the mainstream audience. Documentaries are great. We love them, and are working on some really exciting ones, but they can be heavy to watch. Bold Native is an adventure. We wanted to draw people in to a story and have the issues bubble up. This is part of the evolution of animal rights becoming a mainstream issue.
You have a number of people in the movement appearing in cameos in the film. How did that come about, and what was it like working with such an interesting group of non-actors?
Traditionally, when you’re making an independent film you pepper it with cameos of big-name actors. But when we thought about the kind of cameos we wanted to feature in Bold Native, we wanted to give a nod to the people who are on the ground, actually fighting for the animals and against the system that takes protest activity and turns it into terrorism. These were our heroes. It was important to us that people not be able to dismiss this film as an act of fiction or make-believe or exaggeration for dramatic effect. Infusing the film with real people speaking on these issues really drives home the sense of reality.
Chris DeRose got his start in acting, but quickly devoted his life to activism. He started Last Chance For Animals and has worked tirelessly on a multitude of issues from laboratory testing to puppy mills. He’s been a clarion voice in the movement for more than 30 years. In the film, he plays Charlie Cranehill’s old college professor and mentor. He would have been someone who might have introduced Charlie to the idea of animal rights, and certainly would have spoken to him about the imperfection of man’s law and the need to break it in social justice movements. Chris was a perfect fit for this role and brought so much life to it. He’s also pretty badass and didn’t mind sitting on a surfboard out in the middle of the ocean for three hours while we shot the scene.
Peter Young was someone we thought about often in the evolution of this film, which started back in the summer of 2000. At that time, he was wanted for the release of mink on farms in Wisconsin and had been successfully evading the authorities. When you look at a picture of a young man like Peter on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, and his crime is releasing mink, and the other guys are wanted for murder and other violent, heinous crimes, you just think to yourself, what kind of a crazy world is this?
As we were working on trying to make the film, he was caught and arrested, tried, sentenced, served two years, and released – it takes a long time to make an independent film! We watched it all very carefully. And after his release we often thought it would be such a tremendous piece of history to include him in the film. One activist ultimately led to another, and he agreed to do it.
Peter plays a character who tries to discourage our hero Charlie from going through with his plan for a coordinated national animal liberation action. We workshopped his scene with him and asked him to tear apart Charlie’s plan in any way he could. He brought a sense of realism and intensity to that scene. Our actors all commented on how interacting with someone who really did what they were pretending to do dramatically raised the stakes for them. Peter was fun to work with, prepared, laser-focused and kept the professionally-trained actors on their toes.
We were able to cast real-life attorneys Shannon Keith, Louis Sirkin and Odette Wilkins in the scene in which the AETA is explained to Charlie’s father, which clarifies the severity of what his son is facing under the current law. Again, we wanted to infuse this film with a sense of reality as well as a sense of real history that is unfolding even as you watch the film. It seemed fitting to involve lawyers who were actually experts on the subject. Odette Wilkins works with the Equal Justice Alliance on efforts to repeal the AETA. As an expert on the legislation, she was able to break down exactly how it came to be, who benefits, and what the guidelines are. She put us in touch with the SHAC7 attorneys. Of those, Louis Sirkin, who represented Lauren Gazzola, was able to join us in filming the scene. He is an expert in explaining the kind of economic damages an animal enterprise could claim against Charlie, like the cost of a new security system.
And Shannon Keith, as both the director of a documentary on the Animal Liberation Front as well as a practicing attorney for animal rights and animal activists as well as a target in government investigations against animal activists herself, was the perfect voice to speak about the A.L.F and FBI surveillance of the movement.
We had a script for the scene that was about two pages long. Once we filmed the dialogue, we just let our actors engage with these real attorneys and ask questions in character. What unfolded was ultimately a fascinating two-hour conversation on AETA, the SHAC7 case, and the tactics the FBI employs. Don’t worry, we edited this down to two minutes for the film, but there should be an extended version of the scene on the DVD that will be a great conversation on the topic.
Can you talk a bit more about the real-life origins of the film, such as the FBI’s domestic terrorism priorities and the AETA?
We started working on the script right before 9/11. The FBI had already called the Animal Liberation Front the number one domestic terrorist threat in the U.S. Considering the violence perpetrated by anti-abortion groups, right-wing extremists, racist groups and anti-government groups, this seemed unreasonable to us.
Then America got hit with a real act of terrorism. Suddenly the words “violent” and “terrorist” started popping up with more frequency in the statements of animal industries regarding animal rights activists. This had a real through-the-looking-glass feeling to us; businesses whose entire existence was based on violence towards non-human animals were calling violent a group that explicitly rejects harming any animal, human or non-human.
Unfortunately, 9/11 did not reframe the government’s perspective towards the A.L.F. In fact, the “Animal Enterprise Protection Act” was changed to the “Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act,” increasing penalties and making prosecution of animal activists easier. This seemed clearly to be an opportunistic move by animal industries to take advantage of legislators’ unwillingness to vote against any bill that purported to fight terrorism.
So far AETA has been used primarily to target animal rights activists engaged in what most would consider perfectly legal, above-ground, constitutionally protected free speech like running a website or chanting at a protest. But Bold Native is about people who do break the law for animals. It is clear they are breaking the law by trespassing, stealing animals, destroying property, vandalizing, and so on. With a few exceptions, people like the real-life inspirations for Bold Native are not usually caught.
Almost every social movement in history has broken the law in the process of fighting oppression. They function on the ideology that the law is an organic entity striving towards justice, and by breaking those laws that are unjust, the system is forced to improve. Civil disobedience has a long and noble history in our country, whether it be burning draft cards, breaching segregation laws, or throwing tea into a harbor.
Henry David Thoreau said, “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right…Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”
But we are in a new era where someone will not simply be punished for the crime they commit; they will be punished for the belief which led them to commit that act. This is thought-crime legislation and seems to us to be distinctly un-American.
We are big fans of America, freedom, and the Bill of Rights. We are haters of violence and oppression. We consider this a fight not just for the rights of non-human animals but also for the rights of human beings to dissent from their government and in so doing create a more perfect Union.
People within the animal rights movement have differences of opinion on tactics, and Bold Native addresses the diversity of perspectives. How do you think the film will bridge some of those gaps and connect those dots?
We like to make films that function on a variety of levels. We learned this making Hip-Hop docs. They need to speak to someone who knows nothing about the subject as well as a core audience that knows everything about the subject but is interested in the details and conflicts.
The current debate in the movement has two main threads. The first is whether we should be pursuing a welfarist approach, which involves improving the lives of animals within the system of animal exploitation, or an abolitionist approach, which works exclusively to end the system of animal exploitation, and whether these two approaches are in conflict. We dramatize this issue by presenting a character who is working for incremental changes in animal handling by fast-food corporation suppliers – representing the welfare approach – and a group of characters who are firm abolitionists. We hope this presentation spurs debate on the question and highlights the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches.
The second main thread of debate is hypothetical, and involves the notion of violence. Even the most radical flank of the movement rejects any action that causes harm to a non-human or human animal. However, some consider property damage to be violence. The definition of “violence” is the exertion of force to injure or abuse. It seems clear to us that injury or abuse can only be perpetrated against a sentient being. So, property damage, on its face, is not violence. It can be used in a violent manner if the goal of property damage is to injure or abuse the individual who owns the property. The A.L.F. and its supporters would claim that the purpose of property damage by the group is intended to slow the system of animal exploitation, not to injure the property owners.
In the film, we imagine a situation where some decide to breach this rule against violence, and our hero Charlie is forced to confront the situation. It’s very important to mention that this is an imaginary, hypothetical situation, but it’s a useful dramatization for making clear to people who are unfamiliar with the movement that violence against individuals is strictly forbidden.
When and how will people be able to see it?
We’re pursuing a hybrid self-distribution strategy that involves event screenings, international DVD sales directly through our website, and online streaming and downloading through partners. We’re a very small company, and we’re depending on the support of others to help get the film to its audience, and have found great support so far. We have screenings set up in Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, and Washington D.C. These screenings begin in June and we encourage anyone who wants to help us organize a screening, anywhere in the world, to get involved and act as a local liaison to the movie. We plan to have the DVD available starting in July or August and also plan to do college screenings in the fall.
BOLD NATIVE trailer