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What is Earthlings, the documentary at the centre of a hostage crisis in Ukraine?

What is the film about, and why did the president post a video on his official Facebook page urging people to watch it?

By: Explained Desk | Updated: July 24, 2020 11:59:42 pm
A poster of the 2005 American documentary film, Earthlings. (Source: http://www.nationearth.com)

On July 21, a nearly 10-hour long siege ended in the Ukrainian city of Lutsk after the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, endorsed the 2005 American documentary film Earthlings. What is the film about, and why did the president post a video on his official Facebook page urging people to watch it?

Who made the film and what is it about?

Nation First, the production company behind Earthlings, says the film is about “humankind’s total dependence on animals for economic purposes. Internet Movie Database (IMDB)’s synopsis says the film “chronicles the day-to-day practices of the largest industries in the world, all of which rely entirely on animals for profit.” Narrated by Academy Award winner Joaquin Phoenix, who is also a passionate animal rights activist, the documentary shows human reliance on animals through five chapters — pets, food, clothing, entertainment and scientific research. The film has been written, produced and directed by Shaun Monson, who is also a founding partner of Nation Earth. It features music by Moby, a celebrity vegan and animal welfare activist like Phoenix.

How was the film made?

Shaun Monson began work on the documentary in 1999, shooting in shelters around Los Angeles. The film has hidden camera footage of animal suffering in agricultural and scientific industries and it took Monson almost six years to obtain all the material and complete the film. “It was something about seeing dogs and cats in a refrigerator (being prepared for euthanasia) that made me think of meat. They were (also) animals in a refrigerator… I lay in bed thinking someone’s got to do this, the ultimate encyclopaedia movie of how humans use animals. And I realised oh, it’s me,” Monson told Million Dollar Vegan (a non-profit organisation that encourages world leaders to take a vegan pledge), describing how he got inspired to make Earthlings while shooting a video on spaying and neutering of pets.

In 2015, Monson released a sequel to the film titled Unity which examines why “despite the advent of science, literature, technology, philosophy, religion, and so on — none of these has assuaged humankind from killing one another, the animals, and nature.”

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How was the film received?

In 2005, Earthlings won the best documentary award at Artivist Film Festival — an event “dedicated to recognising activist efforts of filmmakers”. The film has also won awards at the Boston International Film Festival and the San Diego Film Festival. Actress Linda Blair has called the film “the Citizen Kane of documentary films”.

Phoenix also won the Humanitarian Award for the film. “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,” Phoenix said about the film in 2007. Earlier this year, ahead of his appearance at the prestigious BAFTA awards in London (where he won the best actor award for his performance in Joker) Phoenix participated in an event titled ‘The Earthlings Experience’ with other animal rights activists and unfurled a large banner from Tower Bridge which said, ‘Factory farming destroys our planet. Go vegan.’

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While the film has got largely positive reviews in the last 15 years, it has faced some criticism for not providing solutions or alternatives to reduce our dependence on animals in sustainable ways.

What happened in Ukraine?

On Tuesday night, 44-year-old Maksym Kryvosh hijacked a bus with 13 people on board and claimed that he had explosives. He posted his manifesto and a series of demands on Twitter, including that the president endorse the film Earthlings and several government officials admit to being “terrorists”, among others. Finally, the Ukrainian president posted a short video message on his official Facebook page saying, “Everybody watch the 2005 film Earthlings.”. The over 10-hour siege ended with the gunman surrendering and the hostages being released safely. Kryvosh has been charged with terrorism, hostage-taking and illegal possession of weapons.

According to reports in the Ukrainian press, Kryvosh is an animal rights activist who helps protect stray dogs. He was born in Russia. He has reportedly been convicted twice for robbery, fraud, and illegal arms handling, and has spent nearly 10 years in prison.

As per CNN.com, Ukrainian interior minister Arsen Avakov later said at a press briefing, “The film (Earthlings)… is a good one. But you don’t have to be so screwed up and cause such a terror for the entire country, you can just watch it without all that.”

Is the film available for streaming online?

The 10th anniversary edition of the one-and-a-half-hour documentary is available on http://www.nationearth.com/. The film also has a French and German version, but they have to be purchased.

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