Ingrid Newkirk may be the most influential person most people have never heard of. President and co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Newkirk has sparked controversies around the world for more than 25 years, engineering radical campaigns for animal rights that have encompassed everything from undercover investigations to anti-fur protests to naked demonstrations. Directed by Matthew Galkin, I Am An Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA provides an unprecedented portrait of a very private person committed to a very public crusade, and offers a glimpse into the inner workings of the animal rights group.
The film includes often-graphic footage of animal cruelty that fuels many of Newkirk's campaigns against research facilities, meat-processing factories and clothing stores around the world. Without question, the direction and strategies of PETA are a direct reflection of its single-minded leader, who is both revered and despised for her uncompromising beliefs in the rights of animals, and her willingness to cross taboos and offend numerous groups to make her point.
Headquartered in Norfolk, VA, PETA has 300 employees and an annual operating budget of $25 million, most of which comes from private donations. Though many know about PETA, few are familiar with Newkirk, who co-founded the organization in 1980 with Alex Pacheco (who is no longer at PETA, though he is interviewed here). Under Newkirk's watch, PETA implemented a high-risk, high-publicity policy of animal-abuse investigations, and protests against offending groups - earning Newkirk the contempt of nearly as many people as those who support her.
With over one million members, PETA has been described as "by far the most successful radical organization in America." The group seeks "total animal liberation," says Newkirk - with no meat or dairy, aquariums, circuses, hunting or fishing, fur or leather, or medical research using animals, even if human lives can be saved. PETA is even opposed to the use of seeing-eye dogs.
Newkirk works tirelessly, often putting in 18-hour days, and performing many of PETA's hands-on operations herself. I AM AN ANIMAL follows Newkirk as she conducts several rescue missions, including saving a malnourished dog living outside a trailer home and recovering a turkey who escaped a processing plant. The documentary also chronicles the staging of a protest against "fur abuser" Jean Paul Gaultier, as Newkirk and her PETA colleagues take over his Paris boutique, smearing fake blood on themselves and the store windows.
PETA's uncompromising platform has won it an ardent suporters such as Pamela Anderson, Alec Baldwin and Bill Maher - as well as equally ardent critics. Says Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, an advocacy group unaffiliated with PETA, "They [PETA] have trivialized animal rights. They have exploited racism, and women in campaigns, using people as props to project animal rights, and you can't do that. You can't sensationalize an issue involving a lot of pain, a racist issue for example, and expect to advance an ethical cause in doing so. The means don't justify the ends."
To Newkirk, saving the lives of innocent animals justifies the criticism PETA receives for its questionable marketing; in one memorable campaign, pent-up pigs and chickens were compared to Jews in the Holocaust. Argues Newkirk, "Sometimes the only way you get discussion on a table is to do something jarring ... I still hold that the [Holocaust] campaign is absolutely true."
I Am An Animal is Matthew Galkin's first film as solo director. His previous credits include the HBO documentary series "Family Bonds" and "loudQUIETloud," a feature documentary chronicling The Pixies' 2004 reunion tour, which he co-produced and co-directed with Steven Cantor. Steven Cantor, a producer of I Am An Animal, founded Stick Figure Productions. He won an Emmy® for his film "Willie Nelson: Still Is Still Moving"; Cantor also received an Academy Award® nomination for producing and directing the short documentary "Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann," and an Emmy® nomination for producing the feature "Devil's Playground."
I Am An Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA was directed and produced by Matthew Galkin; producers, Mikaela Beardsley, Steven Cantor and Pax Wassermann; editor, Tim K. Smith; associate producer, Bryan Quinn; director of photography, Jonathan Furmanski; music, James Lavino. For HBO: supervising producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.