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Austin Film Festival 2019: “The Animal People” Film Review

Feature documentary “The Animal People” had its world premiere on Saturday, October 26, at the Galaxy Highland theater as part of the 2019 Austin Film Festival lineup. It’s sponsored by the Austin Humane Society.

Interview with “The Animal People” filmmakers | Photo credit: Annie Jeeves

Broadly speaking, the documentary is about the animal rights activists behind Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC); as the name implies, they were protesting the use and treatment of animals in the labs at Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS). There are six protagonists at the center of the film who were targeted by the U.S. government and labeled terrorists: Kevin Kjonaas, Lauren Gazzola, Josh Harper, Andy Stepanian, Darius Fullmer and Jake Conroy.

We’re introduced to each of the characters throughout the film’s first act, and they continue to have present-day talking heads throughout. But this documentary uses plenty of archival footage too, from promo videos for HLS to video of protests to Congressional hearings to undercover footage from inside the HLS labs. There are also other people involved with the case brought on board to talk about it, including investigative journalist Will Potter, former Minnesota FBI agent Coleen Rowley, former HLS Senior Management Darioush Dagdar and undercover investigator Michele Rokke.

If you don’t know the story, basically the members of SHAC planned protests outside the homes of senior-level management at HLS and companies who worked with HLS. At one point, Potter says, “Protesting at people’s homes is controversial but constitutionally protected.” But the U.S. government and FBI began surveillance on certain members of SHAC that they pinpointed as leaders in different parts of the country, and, with the passing of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006, charged the six people mentioned above with terrorism. Spoiler (?) alert: They were all convicted and did time in federal prisons. They are still labeled as terrorists.

“The Animal People” does a great job of weaving the story together chronologically, from the late 1990s when Kjonaas got involved in animal rights activism in college until closer to now, after everyone was released from prison. The in-between involves a lot of research, planning and strategy on how to get companies (and individuals) to divest from HLS — a “key player in animal testing,” according to Potter — for the poor treatment of its lab animals. The footage that Rokke and others gathered from those labs is horrifying and disturbing, and it mostly features beagles and macaques. Those videos are what caused Harper to choose to organize with SHAC specifically; as he says in the documentary: “I hated those fuckers.”

And don’t think that politics doesn’t come into play here too. George W. Bush was president at the time, and the creation of Homeland Security was connected to the terrorism charges leveled at the SHAC activists. Even Chris Christie was involved with the trial; you can often see him with lead prosecutor Charles McKenna. He seemingly used the convictions (a success, in his point of view) to jump-start his bid for New Jersey governor.

This might sound dry, but the documentary keeps its momentum going throughout. The editing together of clips helps a lot, and they prevent it from becoming another series of talking heads. Directors Casey Suchan and Denis Henry Hennelly created a dynamic story and even related it to current political upheavals to highlight the differences between the SHAC activists and a (Tiki) torch-wielding mob.

Whether or not you see yourself as a supporter of animal rights, “The Animal People” tells a story that should be more widely known, and that’s part of what a documentary is supposed to do. It’s interesting and informative; you will definitely learn things, it will probably make you feel something, and it may even make you want to learn more or take action on your own.

Austin Film Festival will show an encore screening of “The Animal People” on Tuesday, October 29, at 1:30 p.m. at the Hideout Theatre.

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