As often as Herman had witnessed the slaughter of animals and fish, he always had the same thought: In their behavior toward creatures, all men were Nazis. The smugness with which man could do with other species as he pleased exemplified the most extreme racist theories, the principle that might is right.

Quote from Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer’s book Enemies, A Love Story

Contemporary documentaries often ‘reveal’ certain realities, painful, happy or neutral ones, but they will be forgotten about as soon as the credits start rolling. Like mainstream news programmes, they are more about distraction than education. This is definitely not the case with Earthlings, an eye-opening documentary that brings to light the often disguised connection between consumer habits and the plight of animals that feeds capitalist society’s gargantuan appetite for goods and services. You’ll never be able to look at non-human Earth dwellers in the same way after watching Earthlings.

Narrated by Hollywood actor Joaquin Phoenix (whose smooth voice is of great help here) and with a soundtrack by musician Moby, Earthlings is divided into sections that show the different ways whereby human exploit animals: as companions (in this case, the focus is on the so-called ‘puppy mills’, shelters and pet shops), food (showing the horrors of industrial animal farming), fishing, entertainment (circuses, zoos, etc), clothing and science, the latter the source of one of the bleakest forms of animal cruelty. It’s a crash course on the main issues related to human exploitation of other species.

The film is cobbled together with footage provided by animal rights, welfare and environmental groups. Often it is made of grainy, undercover video footage which, with its low-tech texture, metaphorises the moral decay behind the atrocities that take place in slaughterhouses, factory farms, circuses, science laboratories and every other place where animals are physically and mentally exploited and hunted to death.

So what is behind all this relentless, brutal exploitation of animals and their environment? In one word, money. And the ideology that humans use to justify their enslaving of other species: speciesism. The term was first coined by British psychologist Richard D. Ryder in 1973 to denote a prejudice based on physical differences, one that regards sentient beings as objects of property. Earthlings convincingly compares speciesism with racism and sexism, as both employ similar strategies to justify domination based on race or gender. The pattern is the same.

The film harbours no illusion that animal liberation will happen overnight because of economic interests, speciesism and indifference, although animals rights is on its way to become the most vocal and numerous rights movement in this century. Earthlings argues that if we don’t make a voluntary shift towards animal equality, nature will force us to. We already have had enough evidence that the conditions in which animals are farmed is hitting back on us. Mad cow disease, avian flu, the proven link between meat consumption, heart disease and certain types of cancer are some of the best known problems related to meat consumption. The numbers are staggering: 60 billion of animals are slaughtered every year; conditions in which they are reared and killed will vary, although they are invariably cruel. Footage of a kosher slaughtershouse in America is particularly gruesome and the handling and killing of cows used for leather in India is unspeakably brutal.

The most enlightening aspect of Earthlings is that is presents images that are hard-hitting, shocking and genuinely heart-breaking, but you’re compelled to watch them because they are telling you something that you simply must know and face. You don’t see these images on mainstream media; the cynical among us who think that in the age of media saturation images can no longer shock, should think again. Earthlings shocks you out of complacency.

The film makes no attempt at appearing neutral. It has a point to make and does it. Humanity has to extend democracy and compassion to the animal nation, just as it has to human groups who in the past were considered inferior and proper subjects of property by other, dominating groups. Earthlings is absolutely essential viewing as it can change your outlook on the world and its inhabitants, and I mean it literally. I ask nothing more from a documentary film.

Earthlings is out on DVD now. Please follow the link provided to buy a copy. The quote reproduced at the top is also used in the film.