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Animal liberation goes to the movies

BoldNative_JoaquinPastor_asBold Native is an entertaining road movie and adventure feature film about an underground movement and the draconian laws imposed by governments on activists who are deemed terrorists. Louis Smith talks to the film’s writer and director Denis Hennelly.

Denis, what is Bold Native about?

Bold Native is the story of Charlie Cranehill, an animal liberator wanted by the U.S. government for domestic terrorism.  It also follows his CEO father, who is trying to find Charlie before the FBI does, and a young woman who works for a non-profit lobbying organization to improve animal welfare conditions.

And it is in general the story of people who risk their freedom for the lives of nonhuman animals.

The film is in many ways our tribute to the revolutionary cinema of the 60s and 70s, films we love that challenged society and explored issues within the context of a dramatic narrative.

Since we were telling the story of people who fight for life and freedom, we wanted the film to have a playful spirit, as well as taking a serious look at the conditions nonhuman animals endure and the increasingly draconian laws that are working to stifle dissent.

Without naming names, is Charlie a completely fictional character, or is he based on a person or persons who have fallen victim to these new laws?

We researched the subject for about eight years as we wrote various drafts of the script, so we were obviously influenced by actual events and people.  But all stories and characters in the film are fictional.

Is this your first major work?

Open Road Films first feature was a documentary called Rock The Bells, a film about the Rock The Bells Hip Hop festival and the last performance of the Wu-Tang Clan before ODB’s death.  You can see more about it at

Bold Native is our first fiction feature film.

What is your background in the movement, and what inspired you and your friends to make this movie?

The filmmakers (producer Casey Suchan, producer Mary Pat Bentel, writer/director Denis Hennelly, and cinematographer Jeff Bollman) are all longtime vegans or vegetarians and have been interested in animal rights issues for many years. But beyond our own personal choices and charitable donations, we were not actively involved with the animal rights movement.

Through the process of making the film, we’ve met many activists and organizations and have been volunteering our time to do video work for them. We’re committed to using our skills to help animals and educate the public about animal rights.

Our inspiration to make the film was to tell the story of animal liberation and change the public perception that members of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) are terrorists.  Even if you disagree with their tactics or consider them criminals, the day we start calling the saving of a life a terrorist act, we have lost our humanity.

The central character Charlie seems to embody the struggle between animal activists and the US government, who use vast resources and oppressive, strong-arm, anti freedom laws now enacted in America to persecute otherwise law abiding citizens under the guise of anti terrorist measures.  What is the general feeling of Americans, in your experience, about these new laws and how they interfere with their democratic right to voice their opinions?

BoldNativePosterOur film is about people who would be considered ALF members. As such, they are breaking the law.

However, laws like the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) have been used so far primarily to target above-ground activists for conduct which seems entirely within the bounds of constitutionally-protected free speech.

The fact is that ALF members are seldom caught. Animal enterprises and the government seem to be going after easier targets, namely people who publicly fight animal enterprise through boycotts, protests, civil disobedience, and education.

It is not only disturbing from a civil rights perspective, but also a strategy which could potentially backfire; if above-ground protest activity is criminalized, why would people engage in that instead of choosing to anonymously break the law in ALF. actions?

In our experience, Americans are completely ignorant of these new laws. Even within the vegan community, people are unaware of AETA and similar governmental attacks against animal activists.  Hopefully, Bold Native will help educate people about the issue.

Do you believe the US government has gone too far with these new laws?  Is it fair to label animal activists terrorists?

We believe these new laws are unconstitutional and un-American. They are essentially thought crime legislation. Punishment for the same crime (e.g. vandalism, theft) is increased based solely on the philosophy and thoughts of the perpetrator.  That’s clearly wrong.

Animal liberators and activists are not terrorists. Neither are they violent, a word which is often used to describe them. Violence is the exertion of force to injure or abuse.

It seems clear to us that injury and abuse can only occur to a sentient being, not a piece of property.  The destruction of property can be used to injure or abuse someone, but in the case of the ALF, they do it to slow or stop animal exploitation, not to hurt the property owner.

All animal rights advocates are fighting for an end to violence and terror, which is the business of animal exploitation industries.

How have the new laws affected the movement in the US?  Has it scared people away from getting involved?

Again, I don’t think most people know about these laws. Once you become active in fighting for animal rights, you will probably hear about them.

I think it has caused a level of concern and confusion about what is legal and what isn’t.  And the fact is that these laws are new and have not really been tested in the courts. So there is not clear precedent about what they cover.

And I think most activists consider them unconstitutional and expect they will eventually be overturned on appeal.  In the meantime, everyone seems concerned with keeping the movement growing and continuing to educate.

There is no doubt that the consciousness regarding these issues is increasing fast; it is the fear of this that has led to these laws as those who make their money from animal exploitation worry that the public will not continue to support it if they really understand what it entails.

This movie seems to be about trying to get people to think, what are you hoping they think about after seeing it?

Our modest goal with the film is that after someone sees it, they’ll think twice the next time they hear an animal liberator or activist referred to as a terrorist. We also hope they consider how their personal choices affect other sentient beings with whom we share the planet.

How hard was it in the current climate to make this film?  Did you encounter any funding and distribution problems trying to put together an animal rights film?

We self-financed the film and are self-distributing it. We made preliminary attempts to get others on board for both financing and distribution, but the fact is that we’re challenging the dominant economic status quo with this film. That’s not something corporations want to do.

We are, however, relying on the donations, support, and help of many of dedicated activists and individuals to help us get this film to the audience.

The film seems to combine the two underlying themes of animal rights and the US government’s suppression of freedom of speech.  Is this just an animal rights film or is the animal rights situation just a small reflection of a much bigger issue that crosses many fields?

This is definitely not just an animal rights film. We’re first and foremost filmmakers, so we hope it’s also an entertaining road movie adventure film about an underground movement.

Also, animal rights are the most potent example of the way we use the status of the “other” in order to exploit and abuse; as such, it’s a good place to start discussion regarding any social justice movement.

When and where can we expect to see it? Can it be downloaded from the net?

We’re just beginning the process of figuring out how to distribute the film. We’re  working with activists in [countries including] Australia to set up screenings of the film.

And we will be selling a region-free dvd internationally through the website. We are trying to figure out digital downloads, so hopefully that will be an option as well.

Lastly, why should we encourage our non animal activist friends to see this movie?

Because it’s awesome! During the test-screening process for the film, we primarily showed it to non-animal rights people because it was important to us that it play well for people who either didn’t know anything about the issues or were aware of them but weren’t on board with animal rights thinking.

By the end of the editing process we had a film that reached out to these people, educating and moving them without seeming preachy or judgmental. And one that was a lot more fun and playful than they expected, while still being shocking in its portrayal of animal use and government repression.

Bold Native is currently screening in the US and is due to screen in Australia shortly. Visit the Bold Native website for more information.

Louis Smith is a vegan animal rights activist and member of Animal Liberation NSW.

Images from top: Joaquin Pastor as Charlie Cranehill in Bold Native; Bold Native poster.

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