'Ghosts in Our Machine'

Abbey on his rescue day in a scene from the film "The Ghosts in Our Machine." (Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals / December 2, 2013)

Many documentaries steeped in social or political issues get very insistent and often very noisy in expressing a point of view. Michael Moore is, of course, the model for effective, engaging and defiantly in-your-face activism in this arena.

In contrast, "The Ghosts in Our Machine," a heartfelt meditation on animal rights, comes at you as a whisper. It depends on the persuasive powers of creatures great and small — in their natural habitat or in cages — to argue that we stop using them for food, clothing, research and entertainment. That the cages be tossed away.

There is a secondary story on activism itself and how a belief can shape a career, define a life. Both narrative threads are compelling in writer-director Liz Marshall's finely wrought new documentary.

The filmmaker spent a year following animal photographer Jo-Anne McArthur into the fox and mink factories, the cattle slaughterhouses, the monkey exporting trade and other dark corners where profit margins make for such misery that one magazine editor concedes that McArthur's imagery is exceptional but too much for a mainstream audience. Equal time is spent in animal sanctuaries, not to soothe but to show us the other side.

It's a bit of a meta-experience to watch "Ghosts." Marshall's camera team captures McArthur with her own camera trained on the tranquillity that is possible and the terror that too many animals experience. Four cinematographers contributed their efforts: John Price, Iris Ng, Nick de Pencier and Marshall.

Though there are some difficult images in the film, "Ghosts" is more a case of letting haunting beauty do the talking. Close-ups of eyes are strikingly effective, whether they belong to a cow, a piglet or a beagle who spent years on and off an operating table in the name of science.

The footage also makes a persuasive case that behind those eyes are personality, emotion, the ability to feel fear, pain, pleasure, joy. A shot of piglets going at a milk pan is adorable; the way they snuggle together afterward suggests sentient beings making choices.

They are the "ghosts" of the title, forgotten when we grab that leather handbag, bake Thanksgiving turkey or use life-saving drugs. The machine is all the infrastructure required to feed consumer demand.

While Marshall was filming, McArthur was turning her photos and thoughts on the human-animal dynamic into a coffee-table art book, "We Animals," due Dec. 13. Much of the narrative is built around McArthur's discussions with editors, animal sanctuary workers and other activists as she shapes her ideas and takes her pictures.

McArthur has fused her work with her ideals, and Marshall is definitely into agenda-setting too. The filmmaker's 2010 documentary debut, "Water on the Table," looked at whether the liquid of life was fair game as a consumer commodity or an inalienable human right. "Ghosts" is urging us to rethink our relationship with the animal population — what they owe us, what we owe them.

The film has a few loose story arcs built around various species, but a spent milk cow and her calf claimed by an animal sanctuary are the stars. The beagles who've been sprung from research facilities are a thematic choice, but they also serve to bring the point home, literally, since we already see dogs as members of our human families.

Data and animal-rights findings are woven into the main narrative, but some of the more interesting stats come in the title cards dropped into the credits — a loss for anyone who leaves before the very end.

bsharkey@tribune.com

"Ghosts in Our Machine" -- 3 stars

No MPAA rating

Running time: 1:32

Opens: Friday at the Music Box Theatre