Hot Docs 2022: ‘Just Animals’ is an Intimate Look at the Importance & Emotion of Animal Activism

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Just Animals - But Why Tho
Content Warning: Just Animals and this review discuss animal abuse.

Cows tortured with electricity until their slow and painful death, foxes frantically scratching their cages to try to escape hell, baby chicks forced to walk on excrement, pigs being unable to turn around due to the minimal space in their cages, piglets crushed to death, a fox looking into your soul through his cage’s holes as if begging for help. These are just a few examples of the terror and desperation millions of animals experience inside farms, before being butchered to be served on plates or displayed in shops.

It’s a terror that brave animal activists capture to give them a voice and fight for their rights. But this activism comes at a heavy emotional price, particularly when the rest of humanity seems not to care about the cause, and the documentary Just Animals, directed by Vesa Kuosmanen and activist Saila Kivelä, analyzes this toll from an intimate perspective while always reminding us what is at stake here: the life of millions of living beings that deserve a decent existence.

Just Animals follows three subjects. Kristo Muurimaa is a hardened activist who has seen so much animal cruelty while documenting life inside farms, that he now seems to be completely numb to emotional pain. Sisters Mai and Saila Kivelä have chosen different paths to help animals: Mai, the older sibling, is pursuing a political career to push for animal welfare laws, but Saila is struggling with her activism; after working with an underground activism group that broke into farms, filmed, and exposed extensive footage of pig cruelty, she had to go through a long legal battle, and now is questioning the significance of her actions. Can she help these animals? Despite the shocking details she helped expose, the general public seems to be indifferent to animal pain. Is it worth it to keep fighting despite this?

After the trial is over Saila confronts the farmer whose cruelty she helped expose. They respectfully meet and walk through the now empty farmhouse where, previously, dozens of pigs were forced to sleep and give birth on top of their own excrement. Despite the sincerity and respect, this fascinating meeting gives us food for thought: the stubborn farmer clearly doesn’t understand the cruelty of his actions and insists he was taking good care of them, while Saila realizes that maybe it was wrong to point fingers at this single farmer. After all, it’s the system the one to blame because it allows this cruel treatment to persist. Later on, however, we learn, through Mai’s efforts, that changing the system is deeply frustrating too.

Vesa Kuosmanen and Saila Kivelä express the latter’s feelings with the aid of creative brushstrokes. Similar to what we see in Justine Bateman’s Violet, big white text appears on the screen to communicate Saila’s mindset. Furthermore, surreal fiction segments capture her confusion, pain, and frustration at the indifference of the country toward animal cruelty and the little impact of her actions toward creating real change. Saila’s interview with Kristo is quite powerful too; she tries to understand how he’s managed to keep going all these years, watching hundreds and hundreds of animals in excruciating suffering. The brilliant decision to show both sides of the equation during the interview strengthens the emotional impact of these scenes. The film does falter when analyzing the Kivelä sisters’ relationship in the latter half due to a lack of focus, particularly in comparison to the other pieces of Just Animals.

There’s an abundance of harrowing footage of abused animals in the film, but it is never used in an exploitative manner. Instead, it organically illustrates exactly why all these activists are fighting and why Saila is in such anguish. Some will say that they are “just animals” and don’t deserve humane treatment while many will just turn their heads to the other way to avoid feelings of guilt, but the footage and testimonies that Kuosmanen and Kivelä provide are condemning. How can we care so little about these living, breathing creatures that feel as much pain as we do? 

Just Animals is a creative, raw, and intimate psychological portrait of true heroes trying to give voice to the voiceless in the middle of an overwhelming sea of selfishness and indifference. It’s a portrait of emotional struggle that conveys more humanity than any meat company ever will. And most importantly, it’s a film that raises awareness of an ongoing battle to give animals the life they deserve.

Just Animals had its North American premiere at Hot Docs 2022. Cover image courtesy of Yellow Affair.


Just Animals
  • 9/10
    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL;DR

Just Animals is a creative, raw, and intimate psychological portrait of true heroes trying to give voice to the voiceless in the middle of an overwhelming sea of selfishness and indifference. It’s a portrait of emotional struggle that conveys more humanity than any meat company ever will. And most importantly, it’s a film that raises awareness of an ongoing battle to give animals the life they deserve.