Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Witness – a screening and a review

One of the most moving – and surprisingly delightful – documentaries in the world of animal rights advocacy is now free to view online. I reviewed it when it came out over a decade ago (reprinted below). Here it is: the gripping story of a “wise guy”-style New Yorker who became a passionate animal advocate – and a never-look-back vegan.

from The Aquarian, Summer 2001

Animals 'R Us

The Witness
Directed by Jenny Stein
Tribe of Heart, 2000 
Available from the filmmakers at 

Reviewed by Syd Baumel

Judging by the shocked, wounded looks on their faces during The Witness's final scenes, you’d think most New Yorkers believe fur grows on trees. But then most people act as if it did – along with hamburgers, chili dogs, and milkshakes.

The Witness is about a man who has broken free of this mass denial of the brutal realities of commercial animal exploitation. It should be the story of all conscientious people.

Eddie Lama is a successful New York architectural contractor with a Brooklyn mean-streets background and a matching accent that says "not your stereotypical bleeding-heart animal lover." He could almost pass for a goodfella, were it not for his obvious gentleness and wouldn't-hurt-a-fly eyes.

Those stunned, tearful New Yorkers owe their rude awakenings to Lama's decision to convert one of his company's vans into a kind of moviemobile. Through an open side door, a video screen displays heartwrenching underground films of man's inhumanity to animal – of wild critters caught in leghold traps, of factory-farmed animals confined to concentration camp crates and stalls. As Lama puts it at the very beginning of this award-winning film by husband and wife director/producer team Jenny Stein and James LaVeck: "There's a school of philosophy that defines a miracle as a change in perception."

The Witness is about Eddie Lama's perceptual miracle and how he's trying to spread it around – "to reach that critical mass" – so the ultimate miracle can befall billions of defenseless animals.

Though this is a film about heartbreaking tragedy, The Witness is infused with warmth and humour. Interspersed with his surprisingly erudite (. . . for a goodfella) tutorials on animal rights issues, Lama tells a frequently comical story of his awakening. Self-deprecatingly funny, not strident, he's an irresistable ambassador. Even when he's shocking those strolling New Yorkers, it's a sympathetic, lissen up friends voice that later thanks them for watching. After all, a few years ago Lama himself thought animals were just "ambulatory organisms."

As Lama tells it, he inherited a neurotic squeamishness about "dirty" animals from his mother. It took an attractive woman's request that he babysit a cat to make the bachelor break precedent. "I figured I’ll get a date out of this," Lama chuckles. To his astonishment, he wound up falling for the feline. And the next time the woman asked him to foster a stray cat, the love bug bit even harder. "Moo Moo" became as precious as if it were his own child. And so it was that one evening, as the chain-smoking contractor ignited cigarette number 35 in his smoke-filled apartment, he suddenly found himself sizing up his pint-sized companion a whole new way. Comparing their relative dimensions, Lama recalls thinking, "If I’m smoking one cigarette, he’s smokin’ ten." Insights followed like a line of dominoes. "This animal had no choice. He couldn’t possibly get up, go to the door, turn the knob and say, ‘Look Eddie, I’m gettin’ outta here – it’s just too much smoke here!’ The sense that I was directly doing harm didn’t sit well with me. . . .That, with the fact that he was sitting right there looking at me. Don’t ask me if this really happened, but I could have sworn he coughed [a big laugh from Lama – one of many]. . . .I said, 'that’s it,' and the cigarette was extinguished."

It was the thin edge of the consciousness-raising wedge. One by one, the veils of denial started falling. Lama abruptly stopped eating meat when he realized the chicken legs on his brother's supper table were shaped like the gams of his cat. "I just stared at the carcass – vestiges of a bird. I saw it for what it was. Plus, I had another animal I was going to go home to. How was I gonna explain to him?" Today Lama would have several animals in his home and office menagerie to explain to. And at least one employee has followed her boss into vegetarianism.

Thanks to The Witness, Eddie Lama's miracle is spreading far beyond the streets of New York. Thousands of copies have been sold, half a dozen film awards have been won, many hearts have changed, small screenings are being held all over the continent – and Stein and LaVeck still struggle to find a television network with the courage to broadcast their acclaimed hot potato to a mass audience.  
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