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A Conversation with Karol Orzechowski, Director of Maximum Tolerated Dose

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A Conversation with Karol Orzechowski the Director of the film Maximum Tolerated Dose

From Humane Research Council (HRC)
April 2013

Maximum Tolerated Dose is meant to be a different kind of animal rights film – part artistic meditation, part investigation, part mash-up film, that explores the world of animal experimentation through first-hand accounts from former laboratory workers and researchers, and through the stories of former lab animals.

 Karol Orzechowski vivisectionMaximum Tolerated Dose is a feature-length documentary described as, “a look inside modern animal experimentation with the animals who lived through it and the people who walked away.” This award-winning creation is equal parts beautiful, haunting, and novel in its approach to the topic. HRC is pleased to present an insightful conversation with the film’s director Karol Orzechowski on the role the film plays in our social movement, the importance of profiling individual stories, and lessons learned for advocates.

1. Tell us a bit about the film, your journey with it thus far, and what is yet to come.

Maximum Tolerated Dose is meant to be a different kind of animal rights film – part artistic meditation, part investigation, part mash-up film, that explores the world of animal experimentation through first-hand accounts from former laboratory workers and researchers, and through the stories of former lab animals. We released it last summer, and since then there have been dozens of screenings, spanning three continents (so far!) and thousands of people have seen it. From this point forward, we'll be pushing it even more, with more touring, as well as the upcoming DVD / Digital, which should spread the film even further. We also have a TV distributor, and we're keeping our fingers crossed to make some headway distributing the film that way as well.

2. Given the abundance of animal issues, what about animal experimentation prompted you to so fully immerse yourself in a project on the topic?

This is the first feature length film about animal issues that I've made, though I've done a half-dozen short animal rights films. I felt that it was a good time to make a bigger contribution. I got involved in animal rights starting in 2005 through the Animal Voices radio show based out of Toronto, and through working with host Lauren Corman (now a prof of Critical Animal Studies at Brock University in St. Catharines). It was through that work and the perspective that Lauren brought to the program (the importance of individual animals, the importance of worker's perspectives, and much more) that really informed me throughout my journey into animal rights. At the same time, I was going through undergraduate and graduate degrees at York University and animal issues were very much at the centre of my studies, and that's where I also started doing film. The two things evolved very much at the same time.

As far as animal experimentation as a subject in particular, it wasn't something that I did in a premeditated way. I just happened to meet two people—one a former researcher and one a former lab worker—who shared their stories with me, and I felt that, based on my past experience with the issues and my ability to do film work, that I could do something unique around the topic. I didn't choose animal experimentation as a topic because of any particular strategic concern. It was really more about the opportunity being there, and what I felt I could bring to the table. From there, the immersion into the topic was just a necessary part of making the film.

 Karol Orzechowski vivisection3. Some scenes from the film are very haunting but I can imagine equally inspiring for many viewers. What role do you think filmmaking plays in social change, and what feedback have you received about on-the-ground changes the film has inspired?

One of the central missions of the film is to open up a space where current and former laboratory workers and researchers can tell their stories, and those of the animals they worked with. And in fact, as we came to a close of main production, we were contacted by a researcher who was having a “crisis of faith” so to speak, about the work that he did. He had worked with some of the biggest private research firms around, but found himself increasingly unable to justify his work on various levels. What's more, there was no space for him, within the industry, to question his work. So, through someone who had already appeared in the film, he found out about Maximum Tolerated Dose and approached me with his story. He and I exchanged long emails about what he was going through, and I listened without judgment. He opened up and eventually decided he would like to have some of his story shared in the film. And because of that space that was made, he felt strong enough to make the leap to actually leave his very lucrative career and pursue a different line of work. It's amazing the kind of changes his life has undergone. I consider that the first real "success story" of the project, not because he left his science career, but because he decided to live in line with his ethics. Unfortunately, he didn't feel like there was a space for him to advocate from within, and I think a lot of researchers share that perspective. (I don't think anyone who advocates against vivisection is "anti-science," but it's hard not to appear that way when the various institutions involved are so resistant to change.)

I don't have any kind of solid way to gauge the kind of change that the film might inspire, beyond anecdotal stories like that. But even the anecdotal stuff is pretty inspiring for me.

4. Documentary photographer Jo-Anne McArthur credits you with describing the overwhelming number of exploited animals not as the total number, but rather as 1+1+1+1…. Making the abstract tangible is something you’ve done in Maximum Tolerated Dose by telling the story of animals who have lived through being a research subject. What benefit do you think this approach has for advocacy?

To be honest, I'm not sure I should take credit for that… I mean, I have indeed described my thoughts that way, but really I just think I'm articulating an idea that's been part of animal advocacy (and academic work around animal issues) for a long time: that individuals matter. In so many issues relating to animals, we tend to think of things in terms of millions, or billions… Really, it's hard for people to even understand what a single factory farm that houses 100,000 egg-laying hens might look like. So yes, a large part of the film is meant to bring things back to a grounded experience, to understand that the approximately 127,000,000 animals used worldwide in vivisection are actually 1+1+1+1+1…

In terms of advocacy, I think it's just about striking a balance. The big statistics are powerful. Speaking in the millions gives us a sense of the scope of industries, and so on. But those numbers can be even more powerful if we can find elegant ways to shift focus from big numbers, to individuals, and back again. It's about being able to move between the two types of ideas with grace and purpose. The statistics give the larger scope, and the individual stories give those statistics visceral texture.

5. A new study that posits that mice are a poor stand-in for humans when it comes to researching our critical ailments has made a big splash in the mainstream media as of late. In the process of making this film, what other things have you learned about animal experimentation that can help advocates build a powerful case?

 Karol Orzechowski vivisectionI think the main "other thing" I wanted to get across through the film, something that many people don't think about, is that when we think of animal experimentation, we really need to think beyond particular procedures or the moment of an animal’s death. Animals who end up in laboratories generally start their lives at industrial breeding facilities, as labs don't usually have their own breeding programs. Before the breeding facilities, animals might be wild caught (such as you see in the film with macaques from South-East Asia). And even once they end up in laboratories, animals are often used for many studies over the course of their lives to save money, so they might spend long stretches of time not actually on studies, or undergoing procedures, simply existing in the especially stark captivity of laboratories. So one of the points I really wanted to get across with the film is that when we're making ethical judgments about the costs and benefits of vivisection, we need to reckon with the "true costs" to the animals: not just pain at the time of a particular testing procedure, but the fact that some may have been torn from their families in the wild, used as breeding machines, and subsequently sent into laboratory captivity for years and sometimes decades.

Advocates have been really picking up on this in the last few years, even just since I started production. Campaigns against airlines have been growing, and the resistance to the transportation of dogs and primates especially has been taken up by many established and new groups as a key pressure point in the industry. The industry has certainly been concerned about this, with the UK even suggesting that animal shipments might be taken over by the military if activists succeed in shutting down ferry and airline shipments. The activism is important, and it's working.

6. The documentary is as much about humans as it is about animals. Maximum Tolerated Dose profiles those who at one time worked on the front lines of vivisection and have since changed their frame of mind. What engenders such a transformation and are there takeaway lessons for advocates from this insider perspective?

I strongly believe that because of the nature of the vivisection issue being outside of the bounds of much "consumer-driven" advocacy (see next question), the strategy around advocacy against animal experimentation needs to use different tools and requires a different approach.

I think that the testimonies from the former lab workers in the film point to some very interesting possibilities for advocacy… Some that may not be particularly comfortable for animal activists to reckon with. They point to the fact that part of what's required for change is a culture shift from within institutions themselves. This means being able to have empathy for people who do animal research, but who want to find a different path. It means being open enough to build bridges of solidarity with people who may not be immediate allies, and recognizing that we may have made similar choices if we were in their position. It also means recognizing that, when it comes to a set of industries as opaque and guarded as those of animal research, insiders and whistleblowers are going to be crucial to the culture shift.

Put simply, I think we need to be sure we are helping to foster changes from within, while also maintaining pressure from outside. But in my opinion, I don't think activist pressure alone can topple a multi-billion dollar, non-consumer driven industry.

7. Unlike veg advocacy where the consumer is the focus of much effort, campaigns around vivisection have more of an institutional focus. What advice do you have for advocates working in this area?

This is a crucial distinction about animal experimentation that separates it from every other animal issue. To be clear, consumers certainly play a role, as many cosmetic / toiletry / pharmaceutical / etc. products are made by companies that test on animals, and consumers can choose differently when it comes to such products. I actually don't think consumer-based activism ("voting with your dollar") is ever "enough" in terms of advocacy, but that's another topic for another time.

That being said, a huge percentage of vivisection takes place outside of the typical confines of a supply and demand market, which makes it especially difficult to empower grassroots activists to get involved. Fortunately, there is a rich history of antivivisection activism to draw upon, and projects like The Talon Conspiracy have archives full of old publications, written by activists themselves, where the history of activism can be explored and analyzed. The recent activism about animal transport by both mainstream and grassroots groups is very encouraging, and I think creative pressure campaigns, combined with fostering change from within the industry, are going to help us keep pushing forward.

8. Any closing thoughts?

First and foremost, I think it's important to recognize that advocacy is always contextual. Though I've made a bunch of generalizations based on the questions, I really think that the best kind of advocacy is that which is grounded in the particular place and culture where it takes place… In that sense, for me, advocacy questions are always cultural questions, about what people will respond to in the best way given their context. What works in North America might not work in different parts of Europe, or Asia, and what works in Florida might not work in California. On the flip side, what doesn't work in the US might work very well in China. I think ultimately the key to good advocacy is self-reflexivity and honesty about what the goals are and how each action contributes to those goals. Advice from a filmmaker who doesn't live in your region will only take you so far!

Secondly, I have to say thank you so much to HRC for reaching out for this Q&A. I think the work that HRC does is so vital, especially when it comes to some of the more self-reflexive analysis of issues that might make animal advocates themselves uncomfortable. I really think we need to be able to look at the kind of social trends around animal issues in an objective way, and I think we need to really be able to reckon with issues of "effectiveness" in activism (sometimes even by just recognizing we don't know how to truly measure "effectiveness"). From my perspective, HRC's research is dedicated to looking at animal advocacy in an objective and sober way, and it's something I really appreciate.

As far as the film goes, I encourage people to "Like" our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter, and keep an eye on our official website. We have been a grassroots production from start to finish, and we continue to depend on word of mouth and social media as our main ways of letting people know about the film. Finally, make sure you check out our screening page regularly, and find us out on the Open The Cages tour happening again this summer!

Finally, if you are a current lab worker or researcher looking to stop doing animal experiments, or a former lab worker or researcher who wants to share their story, or stories of the animals you worked with, our door is always open: email us and we will provide you with peer counseling services discreetly and without judgment  maximumtolerateddose@gmail.com 

Please reach out.