Align | In Conversation

Allison Argo

Documentary Filmmaker, USA

November 20th, 2016

 

Multiple Emmy Award-winning visual storyteller Allison Argo combines her deeply held values with her craft to make thought-provoking documentaries. Ms Argo’s films such as The Urban Elephant, Wisdom of the Wild, Parrot Confidential, and more recently, The Last Pig, take us on palpable journeys, educating us on diverse subjects to help us develop a greater sensitivity towards animals.

 

Dr Linda Koebner’s compassion-drenched words—”Hey, remember me?”—directed at a chimpanzee in your film, The Wisdom of the Wild, immediately struck a chord with me. This scene encapsulates compassion through the voice tone, the setting, and the background sounds. How do you craft your canvas with sensitivity to convey your message?

What an interesting question. I take journalism very seriously because I think it’s important to present information for people to make informed and humane choices. Let’s say the topic is chimpanzees in North America, I try to understand the history—what chimpanzees are like in captivity, why are they in captivity, and then I try to find stories that will actively illustrate these different topics. For instance, Linda [Koebner] going back to see her old friends again; it’s dramatically fascinating and exciting to be right there with Linda and the crew waiting to see what will happen.

You will see a couple of consistencies in my body of work. One is that I think of all beings—whether they are human beings—as individuals. And because of that, I focus on individual animals opposed to an entire species. Take chimpanzees as an example; if you see a cage of 10 chimpanzees, they become black furry creatures; you don’t get an insight that each one is unique. By shining a light on them as individuals, people can have more compassion because they see them not as a thing but as a being.

I also hire incredibly talented cinematographers, as I care about the quality of the cinematography like I do the quality of the sound. And I write the narration once I have edited the film because the film tells me what the tone of voice should be. I believe these elements are imprinted on my work. It’s not something I do conscientiously; it’s who I am, how I relate to other species.

 

I saw this same aesthetics when I clicked on the link to The Last Pig. I had not heard about the pig farmer, Bob Comis’s story, but the visual—of this black and white pig looking directly at me, with soulful eyes—made me curious.

The Last Pig is going to make a difference for pigs because it’s evident to see how soulful, how intelligent, and how unique each pig is. We were able to capture this essence in the fields, where we shot for almost nine months, for a week each month.

In immersing ourselves, we got to see some of these pigs grow up. You get to see the pigs through the farmer, Bob’s, eyes who goes through an evolution when he decides that he cannot justify taking them to slaughter anymore. It’s a very moving transition Bob goes through.

 

Why did you title your film “The Last Pig”?  

Bob saved eight pigs and sent them to sanctuaries. But as Bob phases out of pigs, there is going to be the last pig, whether it goes to a sanctuary or slaughter; it’s the last pig he will ever have.

 

What does the last pig endure?

Pigs are extremely gregarious and tightly bonded. It’s incredibly stressful for the pig to be in a foreign environment, without any of its herd, without any of its mates. On seeing their buddies being let off, pigs go back and forth desperately; sometimes they get so upset that they try to leap over the bars, breaking their limbs. As humane as a slaughterhouse can be, Bob says it’s never humane.

 

Tell me about the beautiful black and white pig in the opening shot.

They are beautiful, aren’t they? That breed of pigs is called Berkshires; they are so full of joy and curiosity. They [The Berkshires] enjoyed following us around so much that half of what I was doing on the farm was trying to lure them away from the camera.

 

[Laughter]

 

What do you aim to tell with The Last Pig?

The reason I made the last pig is to make people think. I am not trying to convert anyone; I hope that as people watch Bob, the pig farmer, on his journey, they go with him and ask the questions he asked himself, and be aware of the impact.

 

What makes people breed certain species?

Phoebe, who I featured in Parrot Confidential, had every kind of parrot you can imagine and didn’t realise how saturated the market was. She thought breeding parrots in captivity would stop the poachers from taking parrots out of the wild, to sell them in the black market. And then they started realising that there was a surplus of birds; they didn’t need to bring any more into the world. It’s powerful when you find somebody who has had a realisation and has made a transition in their lives. I think that’s why Bob Comis’s story is compelling. It’s one thing for somebody to stand back and say: “Pig farmers are terrible; we shouldn’t be eating pork.”

It’s so much more powerful for someone to say: “Yes, I farmed pigs for ten years, and I was good at it, and I have decided that it’s not the right thing to do for me.”

I read one of Bob Comis’s interviews where he spoke about his hesitancy to allow someone else tell his story, as he is a writer. And I can understand how that feels—you aren’t sure if someone is going to do just to your story. It was brave on his part to grant you access.

Very, very brave. And I feel incredibly blessed to be allowed to tell a story. I also feel a great responsibility when I am given permission to bring your story to the public. The night before I finish a film, I usually have a long, deep cry. It’s cathartic—I have given it my best shot, and hope I did well enough because whether it’s the pigs or Bob, they entrusted me to tell their story. I pray it gets out there and does its work.

 

Did you grow up surrounded by compassion?

I never really thought about it that way. I grew up in theatre, and I don’t know if you are familiar with Tennessee Williams and other playwrights?

 

I am [familiar], with Tennessee Williams.

The way he [Tennessee Williams] sees people is through a compassionate lens. Those were the type of plays that we performed at the theatre. We also lived with the acting company all summer, every summer, and it was an exciting environment to grow up in because no one was guarded; everyone expressed their emotions freely.

I feel fortunate to be influenced by my late mother, who was bright and interested and fascinated by everything. My mother had a passion for life, right up to the last breath. She [Allison’s mother] grew up in the South, in the 20s when inequality between the white South and the black South existed; her parents had some money, so they had help. And my mother couldn’t bear the inequality. Probably a lot of my compassion towards other species was fawned by her.

 

How does your empathy facilitate responsible filmmaking?

The degree of empathy I have is the most significant component of my documentaries.

For example, when I tackled the subject of chimpanzees, I would have done anything for the individuals who we were filming. I want to deliver the chimpanzees story in the most respectful and emotionally engaging way so that others’ will see the beauty in other species. A key component of responsible filmmaking is also to share the depth of a person, Linda or Bob, while treating them with respect.

 

How has spending time with animals helped you grow as a human being?

I have grown on a million different levels. I have learned the most from elephants who I see as the wisest, kindest individuals on the planet. Having observed elephants relate to one another and understand the depth of their relationships—I have never seen that depth in any human being or any relationship between human beings—t’s something to which I aspire.

In my documentary, The Urban Elephant, a film about elephants in captivity, there is an amazing scene between two old circus elephants that had been together in a circus 30 years prior and had not seen one another since. Nobody knew for sure or suspected that the elephants had known each other 30 years ago. When one elephant was brought to the sanctuary where the other one was living, they practically broke the steel bar in getting to each other.

To witness how three decades did not weaken that [between elephants] bond was moving. And I swear they were communicating on a level that we can’t fathom. I lost a dear girlfriend when I was making the film, and I wept for my loss and wept with joy for what the elephants had regained. The elephants’ example lives with me.

The pigs are incredibly social and very gregarious with one another. If they are lucky, pigs naturally live in herds, and they are very rare as a herd. To me, pigs are the ultimate community. I tend to get a bit isolated in my work because I edit from home, sometimes there is another person, and I don’t need to go out for days at a time. I forget to connect with my community when I am that isolated. I think about the pigs—that I need to pay attention to that community, that humans thrive in communities.

 

Thank you for sharing this story of the elephant’s reunion, which allowed you to grieve your loss. Most of your films have given me permission to feel certain emotions naturally, which the human community instructs you not to feel. It’s been a cathartic journey.

That’s fascinating and so true.

 

A scene that resonates with me on multiple levels involves Lorita, the parrot, who was wrongfully caged and forced to watch the freedom in front of her. I can relate to her [Lorita’s] suffering.

You think a parrot would be an odd choice of an animal with whom to identify.

The resiliency, that’s another quality that comes to mind with the individuals that I have filmed and profiled.

They have been through so much, and yet, they are still willing to trust. And still willing to be alive, despite some terrible acts of human violence. Some of the laboratory chimps are a great example; they pick up their lives where they left off and can thrive again.

 

How did you transition from an actor to a filmmaker? 

I hadn’t found my path yet, and I went into acting. I did plays on Broadway, and soap operas then moved to Los Angeles and did movies. And I did well. But I became increasingly isolated from the creative process, which left me creatively unfulfilled.

I was married to an incredible cinematographer, and together we became fascinated by Dian Fossey [American primatologist and anthropologist] and the reports she sent back from the wild about gorillas—they were vegetarians, gentle, and that they sit down in groups. All of this was groundbreaking at that time. We started going to zoos and started seeing the inconsistencies—what we were learning about how they lived in the wild and what we were allowing them in captivity. There was this ginormous gap. And I started saying: “We need to make a documentary about gorillas in captivity,” and we embarked on The Urban Gorilla.

 

Are you a self-taught filmmaker? 

Oh yes, entirely self-taught; I never attended any filmmaking classes. I would love to go back to school now because the technology is advancing quickly. My strongest quality is storytelling along with the compassion component, which is what makes me so impassioned; it gives me the energy and the drive to get up in the morning and complete a film despite the odds. Take The Last Pig, not a penny has gone to my co-editor and the composer. And yet, it’s all about passion for getting a message out there. When I feel discouraged, all I have to do is look at a couple of images of the pigs, and I am motivated.

 

What does it take to make the switch?

Passion. Passion can motivate you. You are not even aware of how creative you need to be because all you care about, in my case, is getting the word out about gorillas living in captivity—to show their abysmal treatment. And I didn’t know a thing about filmmaking.

 

Sometimes being unequipped is the best way to approach things.

I agree. My film school was the three years it took me to make The Urban Gorilla. The turning point was when we went to Takoma Washington in Washington State. We had heard about a gorilla in a shopping mall, and we couldn’t believe it was true in the United States. So we flew to Takoma, and there was this little, tacky, low-end shopping mall, and sure enough, at the very back of the store, was a full-grown, silverback gorilla. His name was Ivan, and he had not seen another gorilla for 30 years. Ivan had been living indoors, in a concrete cube and a trailer; that was his life for 30 years.

Ivan was on display, and people would come into the store to see him, and probably buy something. This horrific sight was the real catalyst. I started producing this documentary and wasn’t able to raise any funds because I hadn’t made a film before. Eventually, the word trickled down to National Geographic, and they called me. On seeing the film, they took it on, airing it on National Geographic. The great thing was that the film helped catalyse a spark in the movement that had already started—to speak against keeping any gorilla alone, in isolation. The store went bankrupt, and Ivan was sent to a zoo in Atlanta, where he joined other gorillas to live a more natural life.

On seeing the film bring about concrete change, there was no turning back;

it was empowering and inspiring.

 

What inspired you to start your company (instead of directing for someone else)? 

First of all, I want to pick and choose my topics. I don’t want somebody to say: “Okay, you are going to make a film on widgets because that’s what is popular right now,” or, “we need more films about light bulbs or computers”; it wouldn’t fulfil my mission and my emotional convictions. And another thing is that I have never worked for anybody; I have always been self-employed.

I was asked many times by National Geographic to become a staff member, but it will go against the grain of who I am and impede the types of films I would want to make. The way my filmmaking unfolded, in the first film, I did everything myself. So I have just continued that way. I wish I could collaborate with someone.

 

How do you form your team? Apart from expertise, what qualities do you look for, and why?

The most important aspect of being on the team is that the person has to be kind and sensitive. A documentary can be only as good as what we shoot, and we cannot get any decent interview or relaxed behavior from the animals if someone is harsh or judgmental or rough. I work with wonderful, sensitive people who have the skill set.

When I was working on the chimp film, I knew Andy Young had to be the cinematographer—he had filmed primates before and understood them. We would just sit with the chimps before we filmed, and Andy would show them the camera and let them touch it (there was a mesh in between). Andy pointing to his camera would say: “This is a C300,” and the chimps would be in raptures listening to him, looking at the camera. And Andy would carry on, “This lens is, and this is the on-off button, and you can look at your reflection in the lens.” So by the time we started shooting, the chimps were cool with us. The chimps loved Andy, and the people did too; they could see how much Andy cared about and respected chimps.

 

How do you maintain a balance between the responsibilities of being the team leader and a colleague?

I struggle with those two roles [being a team leader as well as a colleague]. My part in the field is very clear. I am not a cinematographer, and I have tremendous respect for those who are. I know exactly how we fit together and use a common language. My role as a producer is to make sure everybody’s needs are taken care of. It’s hard when I am working back in the studio, with a co-editor, for instance, because I am the producer and am editing too. It’s ultimately my film, and I don’t want any hard feelings if there is an altercation.

I read a piece on one of your interviews with a documentary filmmaker—

 

Kate [Bewett].

She was talking about her partnership with—

 

Brian Woods?

Yes. Their [Kate and Brian’s] partnership is wonderful. I don’t have that partnership, and I would just love to. It would take an enormous amount of trust to find just the right fit.

 

How do you pick the subject for your films?

I believe strongly that my films find me. The subjects tap me on the shoulder and say: “Hey, we need somebody to tell our story, to tell the story of chimpanzees in North America or tell the story of captive elephants, can you do it?” I am motivated to take on these assignments, feeling this knee-shaking responsibility.

 

Did dissuading voices affect you on your journey?

I am affected every day. Sadly, I am not very thick-skinned. The positive feedback and a lot of gratitude from people, along with my passion, keep me going. You need not only to be financially sustainable; you need to be emotionally sustainable.

When you are not financially viable, there will be a lot of disappointments. You don’t get into a bunch of film festivals, maybe you get into one, and maybe get it onto the air, and you get it into grassroots screenings. But how do you feed your soul during these difficult times, and how do you deflect any negativity? It’s a challenge. It’s a constant work in progress for me.

 

I empathise with your situation. Wanting to tread gently in the world is frowned upon and ridiculed. 

I know what you mean; it’s hard to walk gently in the world when you step on a landmine.

 

How do you deal with different points of views?

A little bit of conflict is healthy; it’s important to hear from people who don’t share the same point of view as you. Recently, a friend of over 25 years saw my movie, and I saw hers, and we started talking about farming—the ethics of being a meat-eater versus being vegan. It turns out she [Allison’s friend] values eating meat and doesn’t want to give that up; she doesn’t want farms to disappear, and she hates to think of the world as a place where it has to be one thing or the other, be it factory farming or to be a vegan. And it was fascinating to me because neither of us likes conflict, but I am glad that she was able to express herself. The choices we make are just the right way for us.

 

You refer to your films as being critical to the educational market. How does learning affect our personal choices? 

The more we are exposed to information, the more involved and aware we become. I will give you a basic example of food. Children are raised in a certain way to eat what their parents feed them, and society governs what’s okay and what’s not good to eat.

Bob Comis, the pig farmer, talks about how he has been doing a lot of thinking. The dog Bob loves dearly lives in his house and sleeps on his bed, which made Bob question: “Why is the pig out in the field while the dog is in bed? Why is the dog not in the fields?” And it’s just because society has said it’s the norm. What do I want to eat—do I want to eat meat, or do I want to eat vegetables?

If you are not exposed to more information and more choices, you won’t be able to find out who you truly are. It’s important to inspire compassion in our society, and we need to do a better job

through television and films.

Does the depiction of animals in advertisements and movies, as well as stuffed animals in stores and museums influence the way we think of animals?

I listened to a piece on NPR’s interview with a guest from The Center for Biological Diversity, and he was talking about how animals are vital to our childhood. We are raised surrounded by stuffed animals and books and the family pet, and it’s so ironic that at the same time, we are allowing so many species to go extinct.

Part of being human is living on the planet with other species. Our lifestyles and the human assault on nature undermine the importance of that relationship.

 

Is ignorance one of the fundamental reasons we treat animals like inferior creatures?

I think that’s the case, and once ignorance is passed down through society, it [the poor treatment of animals] becomes normal, and it’s accepted. Extreme animal rights people, who are more strident than I would be, serve a purpose because they make people take notice and think. We need to be stimulated to question the norm. We are evolving. When I was a child, I went to circuses, and nobody questioned elephants in circuses; honestly, I don’t recall being disturbed by it. I didn’t know how deep, sensitive, and intelligent elephants are, and how they relate to one another because I hadn’t seen a story like that of Shirley and Jenny.

 

Decades ago, while on holiday—I must have been all of 19 or 20—I visited the Singapore Zoo, posed with and paid for Polaroid’s with orangutans and on my way out even bought a couple of stuffed orangutans dolls. The proximity to the orangutan’s and their docility didn’t raise red flags; I was thrilled at being in their midst. However, several years past, my conscience probed me: were the orangutans drugged? Acknowledgement of the abnormal circumstances made me research and arrive at conclusions, which in turn made me act on my personal decisions.

Exactly. I get angry when circuses, and in some cases zoos, don’t do anything to educate you. For a child to see an elephant parade around a circus ring in a tutu, with a headdress on, and a guy with a hook prodding an elephant is no way to see an elephant. Or to see wild animals in stressed out situations in environments that are unnatural is not the right context. A child can learn better values and have a better understanding of species by watching countless great documentaries.

 

Your film, The Urban Gorilla, reveals timber logging in Congo, Western Republic of Africa, as the primary reason for gorilla deaths. This situation is similar to logging rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia, which is wiping out a species of the great ape, orangutans. Besides, orangutans are killed to procure the babies—to sell as pets and for bush-meat trade. Is this situation—killing of animals—a result of a combination of greed, corruption, and poverty, or is it about apathy and indifference?

The situation is a combination—greed of the palm oil manufacturers and consumer convenience. It’s hard to find a bar of soap that doesn’t have palm oil in it; not many of us are looking for the ingredients in soap like we do food. In some cases, it’s desperation—the poor people at the bottom of the food chain are working for day wages, cutting down the rain forests.

 

The situation is similar to the workers in slaughterhouses—they are right at the end of the chain.

Yes. In the factory farms, most of the workers are undocumented immigrants who have low wage jobs. When you get into elephant poaching, you bring in another group. I don’t know if you have read about—

 

The ivory trade?

Yes, ivory trade that is used to fund terrorist groups. Now is that greed or power mongering? It touches into every negative human realm.

 

How are baby gorilla’s rescued from poachers and what’s the incentive to hand them over? 

Sometimes, baby gorillas are confiscated; they are not willingly handed over. In some cases, the gorilla gets sick, and poachers know they can’t care for it. Poachers are trying to sell the baby gorilla on the black market, and nobody wants it, so they want to get rid of it. Many years ago, a lot of babies were so deeply traumatized and had received such poor care that many of them didn’t survive.

 

Shirley, the elephant’s, story pained me, making me feel helpless. What cushioned it with humanity was Solomen James, Shirley’s keeper. Can you share something about Solomen and talk about the attachment between animals and humans?

I had filmed Carol Buckley, who with Scott Blais had founded the Elephant Sanctuary, years prior, and had contacted Carol to shoot a story with her. One day I was informed of an elephant called Shirley, who was being transferred from Louisiana. Shirley was the poster child for circus elephants—she was crippled.

I flew with my crew to Monroe, Louisiana, not knowing who was taking care of Shirley; it was Solomen, and he was painfully shy. I wondered how I was going to get him to open up, talk on camera. But Solomen turned out to be extraordinary because of his love and connection to Shirley. I asked Solomen how he felt about Shirley’s life, and he said, “Well, it makes me really sad that she is all alone. She should be with other elephants, but I try to do what I can with her.” It was a huge deal for him to travel to Tennessee—he had never been on an airplane, but he was willing to for Shirley.

At the sanctuary, when Solomen [James] took the chain off her legs, he looked up at me and said, “I don’t know who was the first to put a chain on her, but I am glad to know that I could take it off. She is free at last.”

All four of us in the crew burst into tears. The soundman, who was holding the boom pole with both his hands, had tears streaming down his face; it was so eloquent, so beautiful. There is this black man from the South talking about taking chains off this individual. It was extraordinarily profound.

 

How do the circumstances you witness— like the cockatoo in a cage or the elephant in a tiny space—affect you? And how do you disengage, if at all? 

You mentioned Lorita [the parrot]—I haven’t thought of Lorita for a couple of years — and I immediately start crying; I am choking up right now. That is one of the most tragic stories I have ever encountered — a bird that was wild a year ago and is now in this tiny, substandard cage, being fed a terrible diet. And there is a family of parrots around her, flying through the trees, and Lorita is calling to the parrots, which tears me apart; it breaks my heart.

The pig film has been particularly challenging too because we filmed the pigs over eight months, and I got to know the pigs, the farm, the farmers; they are part of my DNA. For the past year, I have been living in such an emotionally difficult place—I have been editing and living with the images of pigs that were slaughtered.

On the other hand, in Shirley and Jenny’s story, the focus is on a joyous reunion. We knew Shirley and Jenny were going to live out their lives together, but these pigs were in the slaughterhouse. And though I was a witness, I couldn’t have stopped the slaughter physically; it would have been inappropriate. And yes, I feel complicit.

 

Your commitment speaks to your passion. You had to endure the suffering along with the pigs, to tell their story. It must be especially difficult for you, as you are a sensitive and empathetic human being. 

Well, thank you; that is very generous. Sometimes I get to have these amazingly rich experiences, not the slaughterhouse one, but just being able to live on a farm for a period of time, or get close to elephants for a year—what an extraordinary gift. So I feel selfish to have those experiences and yet carry the emotional burden of some of the things that I have witnessed.

Take Anita Krajnc; she is an amazing woman who has started the Toronto pig save. Anita is in the second phase of her court battle in Ontario, Canada. In the summer, Anita’s group goes out to the stoplights with water—to give water to the overheated pigs being transported to the slaughterhouse. Anita was arrested this summer for providing water to pigs. I don’t know how the case is going to turn out, but Anita’s group says it’s important to witness what’s going on, so the cruelty doesn’t go unseen; so we don’t sweep it under the carpet.

 

A large part of your job must be waiting on location; what are your thoughts in those moments?

It was between shots, in times of waiting, that I learned about the impact of the dairy and egg industry from Bob [Comis]. I had turned a blind eye, or I just wasn’t exposed to what dairy cows go through.

Chatting with Bob, as we waited for the sun to be right, made me realize that I couldn’t eat eggs anymore or drink milk or consume any dairy products.

I am the one who is responsible for thinking ahead, so a lot of time is spent brainstorming on what the next shot is going to be. My favorite time while filming The Last Pig was at the end of the day. During the summertime, the days are long in upstate New York, and we would get up at four in the morning, and we would shoot until nine in the night, sometimes even later as the last of the light is beautiful. We’d usually bring a bottle of red wine, and sit there in silence, taking in nature. It’s so rare that I slow down and exist in the present, especially in a beautiful natural setting listening to the gentle nursing of the pigs and pigeons flocking around. I still draw from upstate New York.

 

Do you have a fixed working process, or do you allow room for natural progression, to let things surprise you along the way of filming?

Films tend to be different—some by their nature are more spontaneous, while others have a clear blueprint, like the one with frogs. Of course, they were surprises along the way—you don’t know what frog the scientist is going to find in the jungle! A lot of field directing or field producing demands you have a game plan, but when things fall through or get turned around, you have to think well on your feet, be spontaneous, and be good troubleshooters. It’s also important to be open to things that you have not anticipated; that is where the magic happens a lot of times. For example, I wanted to find a local pet in Costa Rica, where we were to film wild birds, parrots. And suddenly the soundman came running to me and said: “There is a parrot in the cage, there is a parrot in the cage.” He had been gathering ambient sound, and he started hearing “ola, ola.”

 

You sound like a parrot.

[Laughs]. The soundman looked a little closer and under the tree was this little cage with a parrot in it. We asked if we could film the parrot, and the owners agreed. I hadn’t planned on that, and to me, it was one of the most moving stories I have ever encountered.

 

How do you generate funds for your films?

Funding is the hardest part of filmmaking. I am not good at asking for money. Grants demand a considerable amount of time, to fill out applications. I haven’t yet got a grant, so, I am a little discouraged. But I have done campaigns, and there is a tremendous amount of work involved, but it’s wonderful when you have this little flock of angels who believe in your project and want to see it be successful. National Geographic and the Nature series on PBS have funded a lot of my films wholly; the flip side is I don’t own any of the rights.

 

An interesting aspect of your films—from the scene in your documentary, The Wisdom of the Wild, of Dr. Linda Koebner and the chimpanzee, to The Last Pig, of the pig’s story set against the backdrop of beautiful fields—is that you draw us into harsh realities of life in a poetic manner.

I don’t know if Kate [Blewett] mentioned it or not, but when you deal with painful stories, you have to find something to temper the harshness and the pain. There is an irony with the pigs—they lived in a gorgeous place, and they had beautiful lives, and the irony is that this is the slaughterhouse.

 

Are you content being a filmmaker? 

Getting behind the camera makes me feel so much more connected to what I do,

and believe I am using much more of myself to offer the world.

 

Learn more about Allison Argo.

 

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