Attempting a more shaded vision of an issue that's all too easy to view in strictly black-and-white terms, Curt Johnson's documentary "Your Mommy Kills Animals" takes an expansive look at the American animal-rights movement, and all the savagery, nobility, and hypocrisy therein. Though told via a rotating gallery of talking heads and overly reliant on obscured images repeated ad nauseam (we see the same decontextualized image of a helpless puppy being smacked in the head at least four times), "Your Mommy Kills Animals," the title of which is ironically lifted from a grotesque PETA comic book intended to scare children witless, makes for a surprisingly level-headed, appropriately balanced primer on the current state of this multifaceted activism.
Beginning in a fittingly lofty fashion by invoking 19th-century British social reformer William Wilberforce, whose views on abolishing slavery and child labor were concurrent with his stand on animal rights, Johnson's film goes on to relate, with implicit incredulity, that animal rights activists in the U.S., and specifically those who exert whatever force they can through such organizations as SHAC (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, who targeted animal testing labs) and ALF (Animal Liberation Front), have been placed at the very top of the FBI's list of domestic terror threats. If there's one major narrative thread throughout Johnson's film, it's that of the SHAC 7, including activists Kevin Kjonaas and John McGee, who are heading towards federal indictment for "terrorism" and internet stalking. Yet Johnson has more on his mind than simply laying bare the facts of protestors whose punishments have far outweighed their crimes: images of wronged cats and dogs and the astonished, victimized wide puppy-dog eyes of Kjonaas and McGee aside, Johnson's film is refreshingly sober, the work of a documentarian more interested in surveying intractably fraught terrain than furthering the propaganda of his subjects.
Yet the film is also undeniably humane and sympathetic, even as it calmly eviscerates groups such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), whose tactics have undeniably done more harm than good for public relations, not to mention for the livelihood of the animals they have claimed to protect - they have a higher annual euthanasia rate for their animals than the Humane Society, often scattering the corpses of cats and dogs they've put to sleep around animal laboratory and testing sites in order to make a grotesque point. Using the voices of others, (perhaps too) often Center for Consumer Freedom fighter David Martosko, Johnson further delineates the connection between some animal-rights activists' tactics and those of crazed pro-lifers, both of whom would justify violence, or in extreme cases, murder, of those doctors who would carry out such procedures, as a moral equivalency. Then, of course, the point is made that since their views are backed by administration policy, pro-life demonstrators aren't normally targeted by the FBI. Even if Johnson's film feels long, and it makes its points in an endlessly looping, if fascinatingly, circular fashion, it's also fully engaging in its constant questioning of what constitutes a terrorist in the U.S. today, and how that definition can seem at once vital and arbitrary.
Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor at the Criterion Collection.