by Jacqueline Kravette
UNITY, the second impassioned documentary from filmmaker Shaun Monson, which explores the connection among all other species and human beings and their proclivity to separate from not only other species, but also other humans. In his exploration of how we are all the same; from the same atom, the same planet, the same energy and the same universe; we are taken on the journey of delving into what it truly means to be human. Monson’s first documentary, Earthlings, illustrated the horrors and realities of our treatment of animals in the areas of food, clothing, entertainment, pet ownership and experimentation. It is gripping and harrowing and has been widely renowned as one of the most influential and compelling animal rights films of all time.
UNITY further explores Monson’s message by leaving the viewer with questions about what a change of our consciousness could create in the world. What would it look like to live on a planet in peace and harmony with all living beings: humans, animals and tree(s). Through the use of over 100 famous narrators, countless imagery and a script that begs us all to look at our judgment, separateness and apathy, only 98 minutes later, we are moved to a higher level of consciousness. This film poetically and convincingly explores many concepts about interconnectedness on our planet, but most notably the concept of not the same, but equal.
Ashley Gilday: Earthlings was revolutionary in assisting people in making the connection with animal cruelty in the areas of pets, food, clothing, entertainment and research. Did you decide to make UNITY after Earthlings to further explore and examine this connection of all species or was that part of the plan going in?
Shaun Monson: It was always going to be a trilogy. We hinted at that in the Earthlings poster and DVD with the image of nature, animals and humankind. It was going to be one tale about animals, which is Earthlings, one tale about humankind, which is Unity, and a third film which I have been sketching out for about 3 years. It is not just a global warming type of film but more about our relationship with the environment. It is not fully fleshed out at this point but there will be a 3rd one. About halfway through Earthlings everything began to sink in and I thought, wow this is kind of bigger than how we treat animals; it is how we treat each other. I thought that was too much for one film and we should focus on the animal part. So, I began thinking about the idea of a trilogy about midway through Earthlings.
AG: I have a couple of questions specifically about the making of this film. Was there a specific line of reasoning behind which celebrities were chosen for each section? I noticed that some were indeed vegan, but not all. Did that play a part in your choice?
SM: No, they didn’t have to be vegan to be in the movie. That would be like saying that there is unity IF we are all the same; that’s completely not what this film tries to represent. There were people who I wanted, whom I thought would be good, who weren’t available for it and then there were some I hadn’t thought of that offered to be a part of it. At one point I just surrendered to it and thought the people who are in UNITY are the people who are supposed to be in UNITY. That’s how that came about.
AG: I have heard you speak about sitting through the hours and hours of footage for Earthlings and how difficult it was to watch that animal cruelty. Did you find it equally as emotionally challenging to sit through the human on human violence?
SM: It’s a little different because we see so much human violence on a regular basis. I had read a statistic somewhere- I think Wayne Dyer might have said it- by the time a child turns 13 or 14 he or she has already witnessed some 58,000 murders on television and video games. We have generally become callous to violence. But when you start putting together something like this, there’s a line in the film where it talks about increasing in sensitivity and I think I found my sensitivity increasing while working on it, not decreasing, but increasing. I just felt more for my fellow man, whoever he or she was, and whatever he or she was going through. I felt it as if I were there. It’s just like the opening of the film. You are supposed to feel what it might be like to be that cow down in that shoot, waiting to go through. I think that is conveyed to the viewer; it comes across. I felt that way a lot throughout. What if that were me? That is a good thing for all people, to increase in sensitivity like that and to feel more for others as opposed to becoming more callous.
AG: Yes, that opening shot of the cow is one that will remain etched into my memory. As will the one of the fish being eaten while it is still breathing. I cannot shake that image. I love that you included that with fish because they are so commonly overlooked when speaking about what humans do to the animal world.
SM: Yes, it’s a funny thing about that. Fish are still vertebrae. In other words, just like us they have a spinal column, they have eyes, and they have faces. It’s hardly like they are some blob of goo with no identifiable features whatsoever. And from what we have learned, their pain receptors are extremely high and sensitive so a hook going into a fish’s mouth, as agonizing as it would be for you or me, would be even more excruciating for them. But because they aren’t kind of cute and cuddly like other animals that we have compassion for or they are not seals or whales which people have become endeared to, they don’t get compassion. I think in the movie we pull that off and you feel yourself having compassion for fish while you’re watching it.
AG: Did you learn anything from making this film? Anything that was unexpected?
SM: It was a lot of struggle making this film, more than I expected. It was a hard thing to assemble, just to get the composition and the flow right. It is an unconventional piece in terms of a documentary. There’s no main character that you are following around, which is pretty standard (in documentaries). So there were already unconventional components in making it. But there was struggle in making it and I don’t know if it was convincing people involved of the ultimate vision. I didn’t anticipate in the onset as much of an uphill battle, even internally, especially for a project called UNITY. That is more of an autobiographical piece, but that is how it went down.
AG: Why do you believe that humans still have this separation idea and don’t adhere to the philosophy so beautifully depicted of “Not the same, but equal.”
SM: That’s the best question ever because that’s the whole crux of the movie. We love technology- we love evolution, as long as it serves our needs like more comfortable homes, faster and more efficient cars, faster planes, going to the moon and back and maybe have the Internet while we’re doing it. We love all this stuff. What we are not ready for is to accept one another (person’s) differences or delusions. That’s really hard for people to do, to accept others’ insanity with some sort of patience and compassion while they are figuring things out. And not being naive, but also not being judgmental, punitive and punishing. Humankind has a long way to go in terms of acceptance of what’s here. People of different color, religion, sexual preference or political preference can’t even be accepted. These are all Earthlings. If we can’t accept what is here on our planet, the variety, how would we ever accept anything that is beyond us? I don’t know why we are so slow in that area, but we really are.
AG: After watching both Earthlings and Unity multiple times and seeing the bleakness of the human impact, are you still hopeful or slightly cynical?
SM: I’m very hopeful because look at history and see how far we have come. If you go to some museum somewhere and look at the medieval torture devices that existed you cannot even think of who would have come up with this. And this is what the churches and governments used to sanction on their own people and it was done in public. 100 years ago lynching was public in certain areas of this country. Less than 100 years ago, actually, so we have evolved; we don’t do that anymore. There’s lots of stuff that we just don’t do any longer. We are pretty slow in getting past this stuff but we are moving forward for sure.
AG: You have chosen film to affect others. What would you say is the best way for the average person to galvanize others and get the concept of “not the same, but equal” out there to others?
SM: All you can do is plant seeds. The important thing is a person does it on his or her own. The last thing we want to do is go around policing each other. There are enough people doing that as it is. People like to put leashes on people like they do on their pets. Pets don’t like that and people don’t like that either. The most you can do is plant seeds and hope it grows on its own and keep planting them. I heard this unusual analogy: if you want to raise every ship on the ocean higher, you can go around trying to lift up every ship which sounds like an awful lot of work, or you could just raise sea level and lift everything up higher at the same time. So if we just plant seeds and raise our consciousness, it ought to affect and inspire those around us. But having them do certain things or be card-carrying members of this or that or having people sign up for a group, won’t be its own self-driven motivation but will be policed by another. That is not being consciously inspired.
AG: So would you say that the best way to turn apathy into empathy is to plant seeds in people’s consciousness, as sometimes small as it might seem?
SM: That’s all you can do. You can’t affect how much you influence a person, but you can influence them hopefully positively. Just keep planting those seeds.
Unity will be available on iTunes in 100 different countries and a dozen languages, on Tuesday, October 27th. It will also be available on DVD/BR shortly thereafter, (TBA).
For more information on Shaun Monson and his new film, UNITY, click here