Skip to main content
Contribution to Book
Was Blind but Now I See: Animal Liberation Documentaries’ Deconstruction of Barriers to Witnessing Injustice
Screening Nature: Cinema Beyond the Human (2013)
  • Carrie Packwood Freeman, Georgia State University
  • Scott Tulloch, Georgia State University
Many pro-animal documentaries are built around footage taken by undercover animal activists uncovering abuses in industries such as agriculture and fishing, fur, marine parks, and biomedical research labs. This analysis explores the central role of undercover activist footage in recent documentaries: Earthlings, The Cove, The Witness, Peaceable Kingdom, Behind the Mask, Fowl Play, and Dealing Dogs. Considering both form and function, I investigate how this undercover footage works in terms of providing an inherent critique of power in our relationship with nonhuman animals – a sense of witnessing a crime that is an injustice both in terms of causing animal suffering and silencing their voice and agency. I interrogate if and how these films allow for a restoration of animal agency, voice, and dignity alongside (or despite) the frequent portrayal of nonhuman animals as victims in need of human mercy and rescue. Through the power of nonfiction, these documentaries challenge anthropocentrism by making nonhuman animals a central, serious character and plot point and characterizing their treatment (however legal) as criminally abusive. But in revealing this violence, this power over, to what extent do the films challenge what Derrida calls the “violent hierarchy” of the human/animal dualism to qualify as posthumanist cinema in the 21st century? Drawing upon DeLuca’s notion of an “image event,” we examine how filmmakers utilize the critical rhetorical techniques of image-based environmental activism, such as antagonism (visually undermining the façade of industrial and moral “progress” via exposing its dirty and unjust foundations) and disidentification (showing human protagonists siding with the nonhuman, placing themselves vulnerably among them at risk from human antagonists). To what extent do filmmakers fulfill a role as critical rhetoricians by providing context for the undercover image events that 1) legitimates animal activism as justified and 2) situates it as part of a historic heroic struggle for justice?
  • undercover video,
  • surveillance,
  • activism,
  • animal rights,
  • panopticon,
  • rhetoric,
  • documentary film
Publication Date
Fall 2013
A. Pick & G. Narraway
Berghahn Books
Citation Information
Carrie Packwood Freeman and Scott Tulloch. "Was Blind but Now I See: Animal Liberation Documentaries’ Deconstruction of Barriers to Witnessing Injustice" OxfordScreening Nature: Cinema Beyond the Human (2013)
Available at: