Shaun Monson – Not the Same, but EqualOctober 16, 2018
Writer and director of Earthlings, Shaun Monson’s latest offering is a powerful exploration of humanity’s range and depth of capability; from joy, love and compassion through to anger, hate and despair.
Unity gives hope for a transformation of humanity from ‘living by killing to living by loving’, with a clear and simple portrayal of the interconnectedness of all life. We spoke with Shaun to find about more his experience working on Earthlings and Unity and his thoughts on inspiration, consciousness and effective outreach.
You became vegetarian in the 90’s after watching footage of pigs being slaughtered, but what was it that ultimately led you to becoming vegan?
Well, I think it’s different for each person and I can say that with some degree of authority because I’ve seen people after they’ve watched Earthlings and their evolution after that is by degree. With some people it’s immediate; some people can see that footage, as you probably know, and it still doesn’t quite move them for whatever reason. They’ve been living a certain way for so long that their identity with a meat-based diet is more deeply ingrained and it just takes a little more time. I always look at it as a farmer planting seeds. He feeds, waters and nurtures them all equally and some don’t grow right away as others do.
So with me, I stopped eating meat right away but the dairy and the fish, I didn’t give those up instantly. I just kind of lost my appetite for them and then it came pretty quickly after that. The ignorant thinking with dairy is they’re not killing the cows – which they are ultimately – but the mind always looks for a way, the path of least resistance.
The things that feel to us to be more removed are easier to justify and that’s one of the issues we addressed in Earthlings. We talk about separation based on form and how we tell ourselves that this separation is okay over here because the form appears to be so different and so removed from our own. I think there is no end to the justification in the mind when it comes to resisting change.
Yes, exactly. We’ve been conditioned and it’s not always an instantaneous change regardless of what evidence is put in front of you. Although speaking to a lot of people, Earthlings is one of the few tools that has the ability to convert someone overnight, so I think you’ve done something pretty revolutionary there…
Without taking credit for that, it’s just they saw the footage as it was composed in Earthlings but someone else may well have also gotten that data too and created another film. I just love that the footage speaks to people and really gets through to them. Earthlings is one vehicle for that information, it certainly isn’t the last word.
Hopefully there will be more films just like it but I am grateful to hear that it makes such an impact because when I first released it I was told by a lot of people – particularly industry people – that there would never be an audience for it. Who would willingly sit down, even if it was just for 90 minutes, and watch something like this? No one would want to. I think there’s even a line in the film where Joaquin says, ‘Who wants to look? No one wants to look at this’.
So the fact that it’s in at least 40 languages worldwide and continues ten years later – because it’s a pretty crude film, it’s very small budget, it’s not high definition – and the fact that humankind is willing to watch, to me speaks so well of humanity; it’s beautiful.
I often have people ask me if I have hope for humanity and I say absolutely. Look at Earthlings, this brutal, awful, horrible picture that people are watching and changing from. It gives me great hope for people.
I know that when you set out to make Earthlings you asked yourself, ‘Who am I to do this?’ I think it’s quite a common fear for people that want to make a difference. How were you able to overcome that?
I’ve always wanted to be a film director and was writing screen plays and trying to break into the industry all through my 20s and into my 30s. When the inspiration for Earthlings hit me I wanted to be able to combine all the animal rights footage into one piece.
At the time, there were several groups doing undercover filming. PETA, for instance, would have a video on the circus, another group had one on fur and then someone else would have a video on animal testing or rodeos or something. The idea for Earthlings to me just seemed so simple. Why not just make one kind of visual encyclopedia where the whole picture is documented?
And then I started thinking, well I’m not an animal rights organisation. I don’t have donors, orders and a big following. Who am I to do this? I just had a love for filmmaking and had been filming my whole life. But from a content point of view I was questioning if I was qualified enough to put something like Earthlings together.
The thing is, is that when you have that kind of inspiration – like a calling or whatever you want to refer to it as – whatever it comes from, it’s so overpowering that even in the face of the odds or personal doubt you just can’t not do it. You just can’t put it to rest.
So I just dove into it and found my stride along the way.
I’ve heard you refer to it as ‘nagging inspiration’. Do you have any belief about where that comes from or how to explain it?
I guess I’ll say spirituality or consciousness; just something more than mind and body. During the writing of Unity it became so clear to me that we are more than just our mind and body. As we say in the movie, the body forms entirely on its own in the womb, meaning that in the womb we don’t actually consciously focus on developing our lungs, our spleen, our spine, our toes, our nails. We weren’t willing it to happen, it happens of its own accord.
So I started thinking about why people identify completely with their mind and their bodies and yet they can’t control their minds and they don’t really control the functions of their bodies. We sleep a third of our lives, where we have dreams which we don’t understand. So there’s something more than just these five senses and this mind and body, without having to talk about religion and any particular organised belief -system.
I think there are dormant things in us that are ultimately awakened. For example, a person who wasn’t a vegan, who became a vegan and now can’t imagine themselves before being non-vegan, that aspect of themselves was always inside and it was just awakened, it was just brought forward either by circumstance, experience, knowledge, insight, a companion, or any-number of variables.
So I’m very interested now in inspiration because I’d like to think it’s a higher part of myself that’s unfolding or being uncovered from within and I try to listen to it even though it may seem like with Earthlings, it’s pushing me in a direction that may seem a little insurmountable for me.
Yes, that’s interesting. I like that way of describing it because sometimes it can be a little bit ‘woo-woo’ and it freaks people out…
You know what’s funny about “woo-woo-ness” and “new age-ness”? The simple truth is that one hundred years from now everybody here is going to be gone and a whole new crop of people is going to be walking around. We are passing through and we have sensations we experience beyond the five senses such as love, such as inspiration, such as Deja Vu.
There are things that occur to us that are beyond sight, smell, touch, sound etc. and I think these are spiritual components that are right in front of us. In fact, everything in the world of form, everything and I mean everything, is passing, is temporary, even the universe. It doesn’t matter if you believe in the Garden of Eden or if you believe in evolution; at some point there was nothing and then there was this. Everything in the material world is merely superimposed over the immaterial, over something else and we’re passing through and that’s not religion, that’s fact.
It’s just like the atom; 94.5 percent empty, 5.5 percent form.
There’s an energy to everything that goes beyond this physical life and I don’t know why in 2015, 2016 that is still a revolutionary, radical idea.
It’s right in front of us so that’s why in Unity, I wove this message into the narrative and I got a lot of flak for it, even from someone in my closest circle. They’re like, ‘what are you doing going off into this stuff for? Why don’t you talk about the concrete stuff?’ And it’s because the concrete stuff keeps coming and going. The concrete stuff keeps passing through. We have to go deeper and further, which is the whole point of Unity.
It’s just beholding the world, beholding all these expressions of life, beholding all these forms and not wanting to possess it, not wanting to criticise it.
If we can live by loving instead of killing, imagine the planet we would be on. If we understood that simple, simple principle – not the same but equal.
You’ve got a third film planned, so what is the ultimate take away that you want your audience to have?
I’ve already written Beings but I’m still just trying to figure out how to do it. I’m also going to do a brand new Earthlings, which I’ve written a new script for. It’s still Earthlings, it’s just a new one. An ad agency will tell you that they have to show a product or message to people seven times before it gets through.
Repetition is necessary either because people have their own opinions, they are slow to be sold on something or because there’s a million other things vying for their attention. So – Earthlings, Unity, Beings, another Earthlings – with these kinds of projects there’s a necessary form of repetition to it because they’re small and they’re competing with a lot of noise.
Earthlings is pretty straightforward; here’s the footage, here’s what we do. With Unity I decided to take a completely different approach. I wanted to intelligently, logically, reasonably see if the audience will look at it from another angle. Beings is more of a nature film but it’s not an environmental film. I won’t say too much about it but it’s another way of looking at these same themes of compassion, love, not the same but equal, stuff like that.
Vegans are often accused of caring more about animals than they care about humans but it seems like today’s society has become so desensitised to images of human suffering. Unity really juxtaposes the animal and human suffering. Was that your intention?
Yeah, it was funny during the testing phase. We showed Unity several times to a test audience and we had people fill out cards to see how they reacted to the film. It was very revealing because everyone mentioned the animal footage. There’s human violence in this movie; there’s execution, there’s militaries marching, there’s World War Two stuff, there’s bombs going off, there’s all kinds of deaths.
At all that stuff we see people wince when they watched it but the comments on the cards were always about animals. There weren’t many comments about humans because as you’ve said they’ve been so desensitised to it already, which is sad. And in fact it’s sad in the sense that we’re so desensitised to it and yet in the same breath quite remarkable that we do wince when we see the suffering of animals because we’re not totally altogether callous, we do still feel. We’re used to it with humans but we aren’t used to it with animals. That still speaks well of us, there’s still hope.
We can become quite remarkable beings and that’s why I think the Hitler/Gandhi metaphor is so beautiful because it shows human capacity. Look at the range of the human being. On one hand you have someone who is completely destructive and on the other someone who is completely constructive and both are human and both are contemporaries. So that range is right there within all of us, that capacity for good as well as evil. The capacity exists for greatness, I mean, my God it’s unbelievable how good you can be. No end to it probably.
As a filmmaker and as an artist who has a vision, you’ve unfortunately got to find a compromise between wanting to present what you see as the truth and making something commercially viable in order for it to be seen by the widest possible audience. What has your experience taught you about this?
With Earthlings no one would touch it. People were like, ‘good luck with that. We admire what you’re trying to do and that’s great you got Joaquin but I don’t know who’s going to watch this’. By 2006 it was becoming heavily pirated by animal rights activists. One of my colleagues said they’d seen it streaming on about two hundred different websites that they knew of. It was put to me that we should make it free and I didn’t want to do that. It’s not that I thought I’d make money from Earthlings; I didn’t do it for money. I financed it myself but I didn’t want to keep losing money year after year. There were yearly costs for just maintaining my business.
Then someone sent me a copy of Earthlings from Mexico and another production company said they were releasing it and I’m like, ‘Who are these guys?’
So by that time I’d had enough. It was free for ten years. I talked to Brian Wendel, the producer of Forks over Knives, and he said you’re the only one who would give their film away for free, everybody else sells it. I’m pleased that Earthlings had such an impact but you know, people have expected Unity to be free as well. We had to raise money for this film because it was a much bigger project.
Now as I look back at both these experiences I see that Earthlings could have financed Unity. I wouldn’t have then had to go through dealing with investors, which took me years. If I had monetised Earthlings better it could have financed Unity itself and once I pay everybody back on Unity I’ll have that. I think I won’t get an investor again for Beings or for the new Earthlings. I’ll let Unity pay for another film and keep the cost down and not deal with all this and then we’ll probably release it online ourselves.
When you try to go the commercial route with content like this a whole new world opens up that has really nothing to do with your message. It’s just the way that system runs and you’re subjected to it and it’s not a losing battle but it’s extremely difficult. We had Unity in about six hundred screens but it was a very, very limited release and then the theatre dictated how long we had to wait until we could release it on iTunes.
You get to this whole other weird place that has nothing to do with the message you’re trying to share. Do you reach more people by going that way or do you end up having to go through this convoluted system that may or may not reach those people anyway? I’m still figuring out the right answer to that question to be honest. I’m still comparing the way I did Unity to Earthlings to see which way is the best to reach people. I’m not sure.
So what has it taught you about success?
Well, I have become a much better businessman, I will say that. I am proud of Earthlings and given the resources I had and my range of understanding at the time, I’m happy with it and what was achieved. I’m learning about more effective ways of releasing content to reach more people because we do this stuff for people to see it.
I’m becoming much savvier about content like this which might be considered a little bit unique and how you get that content out in the world in this day and age. It’s not so much about the financial success, I mean it is in a way because I would feel guilty making a lot of money off of the suffering of animals but I also feel, not guilty, but bad in a different way because due to my lack of resources it’s taken more time to get messages like this out when there is suffering happening in the world. It shouldn’t have taken eight years for Unity; there shouldn’t be ten years between Earthlings and Unity, that’s ridiculous.
I might make one movie every ten years and therefore people aren’t going to see many movies from me before I leave the planet. That’s not very efficient and that’s not sharing that message quickly enough when all this suffering is happening daily.
So when I look at the lack of resources from a business standpoint I feel it has slowed down the release of messages like this or the creation of more messages like this and that to me is the greater mistake. So now it’s about finding a way to do this so that we have the tools in our toolbox to work on future projects or spread the message of this project further and not to just totally wait on word of mouth. That’s the success I’m looking for.
For lots of vegans it’s extremely difficult to watch any kind of clips of animal suffering but you’ve talked in the past about having ‘traumatic knowledge’ and taking that pain inside, witnessing it in order to cleanse it and replace it with something else. What advice would you give to other people who want to desensitise themselves in that way without becoming disconnected?
If there is some way that you can witness such content and turn it into fuel without it making you bitter and miserable that’s probably the great secret right there. You can see whatever the new exposé is and look at it with open eyes, and turn it into fuel to help educate others. It’s a process to manage. If you get bitter and miserable and unhappy it won’t be attractive, and it won’t attract others.
We want to be inspiring vegans; we want to inspire the world. We don’t want to stick our fingers in their faces; we don’t want to be the vegan police that is always nagging at them.
If you can turn your knowledge, grim as it may be, into fuel that’s inspiring and attractive and it makes people ask the next question then you are going to be one effective teacher. You are going to be a light they are drawn to.
Too often I think we see suffering and it just brings us down, which is natural. But we’ve got to rewire our mind and attitude because we’re trying to have a positive effect on people. Whatever you do, turn it into fuel and plant the kind of seed that makes people curious to know a little bit more as opposed to being repelled. That’s the trick.
Unity is now available in over 200 countries on iTunes, Vimeo, Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu & M-GO. You can also purchase Earthlings.
As a writer, Emma’s work has been featured in other popular well-being and spiritual websites such as Elephant Journal, IVORY magazine, and she’s part of the Huffington Post’s team of regular bloggers. Her writing was also included in the Tiny Buddha book 365 Love Challenges from Tiny Buddha,released in 2015 by HarperCollins.
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