Animal-cruelty documentary raises hackles (Bo Derek interviewed for film)

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Animal-cruelty documentary raises hackles (Bo Derek interviewed for film)


Lack of support from PETA and intense scrutiny didn’t stop director of Your Mommy Kills Animals


Published: Saturday, July 07

Curt Johnson wants to clear something up right away about his scorching new documentary, Your Mommy Kills Animals. He’s not an animal-rights activist. He’s a free-speech activist.


The native of Delaware believes that when American citizens can be jailed simply for what they say on a website, something has gone horribly wrong with the justice system.


Yet that is precisely what happened when the FBI fingered the group SHAC (Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty) as the country’s number one domestic terrorist threat, over outfits like Al-Qaeda. Seven members were tried and convicted, fined $1 million each and sentenced to up to five years in the slammer.


Not one of them had ever been seen committing a violent act against laboratories or industrial sites or releasing animals into the wild. They were nailed for publishing their thoughts, and the negative bottom-line effects those thoughts were having on big business.


Were that simply the story of Your Mommy Kills Animals, it would justify its existence, its sensational reaction at the last Hot Docs festival in Toronto and its inclusion tonight in the first-ever documentary section of the Fantasia festival.


But writer-director Johnson has more arrows in his quiver. He looks at the more well-known animal-rights groups like PETA and finds them wanting. He looks at the massively funded Humane Society of the United States in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and finds it sorely wanting. And he details how the extreme actions of a tiny minority inflict grievous wounds on an entire movement that would like to see animals treated ethically.


In all this he has the support of a convincing number of experts, bunny-huggers, soft-hearted celebs and hardcore lifers like ex-Greenpeace mainstay Paul Watson, of the Sea Shepherd Conservancy. Johnson did not have the support of PETA.


"We were all set to conduct 13 interviews with members of PETA when they suddenly pulled the plug," said the smart, funny, talkative Johnson this week. "I thought the project was doomed. But it helped, in a weird way. By not talking they shot themselves in the foot."


Your Mommy Kills Animals borrows its name from a visually horrific comic book PETA aimed at school kids as young as 6 years old. "I could have called the movie Everybody Loves Animals, but no one would have noticed."


Instead, research into the anti-fur organization revealed that it had a significantly higher kill rate than any other animal shelter in the U.S., as a twisted result of its "liberty or death" position. In other words, PETA would kill an animal rather than see it confined.


"When I started I knew nothing about the movement," he recalled. "My curiosity was with the terrorism aspect of the movement and how the activists were considered nuts."


Johnson and a skeleton crew talked to high profile personages like Christopher Hitchens, P. J. O’Rourke, Moby, Joss Stone, Drew Carey, Joe Mantegna and Bo Derek. He gets input from people doing real work on the ground in groups like Animal Precinct and the Animal Defense League.


And he has fascinating, sometimes unwatchable footage of animal mistreatment and noisy, angry confrontations between activists and those they believe profit from cruelty.


"I did food tests with test audiences to determine how graphic we could make it before people started losing their lunch," admitted Johnson, who worked in a New York PR firm before turning to film full-time. "We want as many as possible to see this film."


It’s a film that very nearly didn’t get made. "When I look back at it, we went through hell. We were followed by undercover agents. DVD interviews and log books were stolen from my hotel room, so we started booking two or three hotels under assumed names in every town we visited.


It’s bizarre. After everything we went through I’d think twice about doing it again. I actually despaired of it having a commercial release."


But after the Hot Docs reaction and furious activity at the website, distributors came calling. Johnson’s movie has a Canadian release set for later this summer.


"Surprisingly, it always seems as though the productions that go through hell are the ones that do well. The odds were totally against us, so it’s gratifying now to see people finally get it."


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