Indie film ‘Bold Native’ explores the ethos of animal liberation
“What is freedom? Are we born with it, or do we earn it? And if you deny freedom to the quiet ones—those who have no voice—can you be free yourself? Or are you caged by your own lack of compassion?”
These are the opening words in the film Bold Native, as spoken by the film’s protagonist, a young man named Charlie Cranehill. Charlie is a strong believer in American freedom. But he’s also a domestic terrorist wanted by the F.B.I. and his own freedom survives only so long as he can evade the authorities.
As the leader of a small cell of animal liberators who call themselves Bold Native (and whom the government are after for millions of dollars in property damage), Charlie’s life and livelihood are dedicated to freeing animals from injustices inflicted upon them by humans. The fiction feature length film follows Charlie, documentary-style, over a two year period as he organizes 35 simultaneous liberation actions—the largest ever coordinated in the decentralized, loosely organized movement known as the Animal Liberation Front, or ALF.
When writer/director Denis Hennelly sat down with his Open Roads Film partner, Casey Suchan, to start work on the film, they were vegetarians with a sprouting interest in animal rights. Having primarily done documentaries before, the team wanted to write a fictional story about something thought provoking—animal liberation seemed like a prolific and poignant topic to tackle. The more they researched it, the more impassioned they became, especially about what Hennelly calls the “systemic pressure aimed at this movement” and the role corporate power has had over shaping related government policy. Their focus (and the story’s villain) became the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which was heavily lobbied for by agribusiness and the meat industry and signed into law by President George W. Bush. The act makes property crimes against animal enterprises (such as farms) acts of terrorism.
“That was a big reason we wanted to make this film—I don’t think it’s alright to use that word [terrorist] so loosely,” says Hennelly. “While animal liberation actions may be a crime, and can be prosecuted, we don’t need hundreds of millions in terrorism money going toward fighting them.”
Contemplating the movement’s ethos, the film depicts the full spectrum of animal rights activists through its characters—on one end is Jane, who works within the system to get incremental improvements made at fast food corporations; on the opposite end is Riley, the radical ex-girlfriend who resorts to shocking acts of retaliatory violence. In the middle—the moral compass of the film—are Charlie and his loyal, irreverent and goofy sidekick Sonja (played by endearing up and comer Sheila Vand), who adhere to the ALF’s unwritten law, “Never hurt anyone, animal or human.” All the while, Charlie’s father, Richard, played by television star Randolph Mantooth, embarks on a journey to find his estranged son before the F.B.I. does, and in the process transforms from a burger-pedaling, millionaire fast-food executive to a believer in Charlie’s version of freedom: one which applies to all creatures, two-legged or otherwise.
The narrative is punctuated with real, contemporary footage of animals in factory farms and laboratories—monkeys clamped down and prodded in the name of science; cows sinking in deep pits of their own excrement; and chicks getting their beaks clipped off. It’s hard to watch, but even harder to ignore.
“There is a quote I like that goes, ‘We must not refuse to experience with our eyes what they must endure with their bodies,’” says Hennelly. “That helps put my pain at seeing something like that in perspective. The light of observation is important to making change.”
Wince and grimace as audiences may, the filmmakers felt that including the footage was necessary to the story.
“Unless you see the chains, you don’t know what [the characters] are trying to cut,” says Hennelly. “We wanted to give an emotional sense of why they’re willing to give up their freedom.”
As the viewer awaits Charlie’s fate as a wanted terrorist, these intermittent glances into the lives of confined animals artfully poses the question, who is really inflicting terror here?
But the philosophical exploration of animal rights is merely the backdrop of the film. Equal parts thriller, drama and comedy, Bold Native is—more than anything—an adventure tale.
“As involved in [animal rights] as Denis and Casey are, they never let go of the priority to make a good film,” says actor Joaquin Pastor, who plays Charlie. “They are filmmakers first. That’s what allows this film to reach hearts, because it was made by filmmakers, not by activists.”
Pastor lived in Santa Cruz from fifth to 12th grade and became interested in acting while attending Harbor High School. Bold Native is his first lead role—and getting in Charlie’s head proved to be a transformative process for the vegetarian of five and half years. “It was a bit of an academic process,” Pastor says. “There was a lot of learning involved.”
Because of the unconventional message and lack of big Hollywood names, Bold Native couldn’t attract initial funding and was created—beautifully—with nothing more than a crew of four (including Hennelly, Suchan, producer Mary Pat Bentel and cinematographer/sound guy/lighting guy Jeff Bollman) and a tiny budget. Now released, the film faces further obstacles due to its subject matter. Although the Bold Native family feels it more than qualifies for the film festival circuit, it has yet to be accepted to any. Instead, the filmmakers have taken up a self-distribution model, marketing the film through their website, boldnative.com, and selling it on iTunes. But, largely thanks to a slew of sold-out screenings from San Francisco to Los Angeles to New York, the DVD is already in its second edition, and more screenings are in the works.
The film will screen at UC Santa Cruz on Feb. 16. “Diet for a New America” author John Robbins will speak, as will the director and producer.
“The powers that be don’t want to hear about something that’s radical,” says Pastor, pondering the film’s marginalization. “So I think the way this film is going to live is going to be from hand to hand, person to person … it’s going to be a grassroots effort. It’s going to be word of mouth. I think that’ll be the way this film survives.”
Join the director, producer and guest speakers for a screening of Bold Native from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 16 (the film will screen at 6 p.m.) at Kresge Town Hall on the UCSC campus. Admission is free. Bold Native is also available on DVD and on iTunes. Learn more at boldnative.com.