Fifteen years in the making, “The Animal People,” directed by Cassandra Suchan and Denis Henry Hennelley, will celebrate its world premiere Oct. 26 at the Austin Film Festival.
The feature length documentary chronicles the international animal rights organization SHAC (Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty and its U.S. campaign leaders’ 2006 federal indictment case. One of the largest FBI investigations in history, “Operation Trail Mix” sought to prosecute SHAC’s leadership in order to stop their targeting of corporations performing medical experiments on animals, primarily contract research organization Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS).
The documentary thoroughly covers the lead up to the trial, citing the 1999 lab raids at the University of Minnesota, where unknown actors associated with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) caused over $1 million in damage to laboratory equipment and rescued lab animals. The war on terror launched by former President George Bush after 9/11 exerted further pressure on on legal protests, as some SHAC protestors were added to the dometic terrorist watch list. The FBI counterterrorism division decided to mount a trial against six SHAC leaders, accusing them of using the SHAC website to incite attacks on HLS business partners, board members and major shareholders.
The Minnesota lab raid — which the ALF video taped — and other underground attacks, including a smoke grenade attack in Seattle on the offices of HSL’s insurance company, ignited severe push back from the government. SHAC leaders credit such destructive acts to rogue members of the movement, who they nevertheless admire and don’t offer to apologize for their tactic. Another key element to SHAC’s tactics were repeated protests that hundreds of times targeted the homes of HSL employees, business partners and associates. To the SHAC making the protest personal proved an effective strategy. To law enforcement, it was an invasion of privacy and serious threat to private individuals.
As incidents stacked up, lawmakers wrote and passed the Animal Enterprise Protection Act in order to make illegal the actions of the protestors. Interviews with SHAC leaders including Kevin Kjonaas and Josh Harper offer further insight into the movement’s inner workings and the government’s relentless efforts to squelch the protestors. Rather than pursue the underground agitators responsible for violent acts, the FBI instead opted to pursue the above-ground SHAC movement.
Produced by Joaquin Phoenix, the 90-minute documentary presents a fascinating case involving free speech, ideologies of effective protesting and corporate greed.
Some extremely difficult to watch undercover footage of animal cruelty shot in an HSL Lab occasionally interrupts the tense interviews and grainy news clips, reminding the viewer of the core issue and key catalyst for the movement. Historic parallels are drawn between the SHAC animal rights protests and the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements, all of which experienced heavy amounts of unprecedented FBI surveillance.
“The Animal People” highlights a pivotal case, making it timely with footage of current protests around the U.S. It weaves a compelling tale of young, passionate protestors facing off against big business and just how far the government was willing to go to stop them.
“The Animal People” premieres Oct. 26 at the Austin Film Festival, austinfilmfestival.com