For Shaun Monson, traditional storytelling just doesn’t cut it anymore. Even documentaries on a single issue aren’t enough. Angela Lee reports on a unique screening event this week.
When Monson released his last film, Earthlings, it inspired oblivious carnivorous consumers to become conscious vegans. Now with his new film Unity, which premieres on August 12 in association with Specticast, Monson has an even bigger ambition – he wants to awaken your psyche.
Monson talks to Screendaily about his desire to change the industry’s market for conscious content, the core inspiration for all his films, which is to awaken our consciousness to the highest state of spiritual awareness, or Homo Spiritus, and to rise above the dualities and separation that he says has humankind trapped in a Neanderthal state of mind. He does this in a film of chapters with the help of more than 100 celebrity voiceovers.
Why did you feel the input of multiple narrators was important for the message of your film?
It just seemed natural to have a tapestry of voices instead of one voice; a chorus of voices that all were sharing the same message. Twenty-five was our goal initially and it grew. It was a miniseries that became a feature film that just extended and it kept going. I couldn’t believe we were close to 100. The more voices we had the more change and flow and different pieces and people were contributing to it. I was really happy with the outcome.
Were there any troubles in having all these artists contribute to the film? Did some have opposing views about the message in your film? If so, how was that handled?
We didn’t really have any of that. We had a disclaimer right in the beginning of the film that makes it clear the views in the movie are the filmmaker’s. Once or twice someone might say, ‘Have you considered this or that?’ But for the most part, the real challenge that we had was technical. First of all recording 100 people: you can imagine going to 100 people’s houses, 100 people’s offices or studios. They are extremely time-consuming. The editing was the most strategic because they didn’t record at the same time. So each person had a different inflection, pace and the way they spoke. So when you began to put Jessica Chastain next to Ben Kingsley and maybe Selena Gomez – each one would speak a different way until I tried one first, or third. There were technical challenges [more] than physical or moral questions that came up.
Pretty much everyone would love to see war come to end and everybody’s in check about the environment or children or the rights of women, all the different rights we list. If there ever was an issue, I saw it was interesting that it was an animal rights issue even though there’s only about 14 minutes of animal footage in the entire film and far more [footage of] killings on humans used than there are of humans on animals. That [issue] never seems to come up because we are so calloused to human violence. You could see that all day long, but the animal stuff would be like ‘Whoa whoa’, so I was wary of that and tried to not keep too much of that in there. It’s not bloody animal footage; its rather tame considering what is really out there and what animals go through. We kept all of that out.
In your previous film Earthlings many viewers turned vegan after seeing the disturbing footage of animal cruelty. What is the change/result you’d like to see from viewers who watch Unity?
The whole focus of Unity is about separation and going beyond the separation. The reason why I had to make this film was because I just could not figure out people still can’t get along no matter how evolved we are. We are still Neanderthals fighting over one tribe that’s coloured differently than another tribe, but with more sophistication. So if it’s not about appearance, which is what race would be, it would be about sexual orientation. If it wasn’t about sexual orientation then it would be about political beliefs. If not about political beliefs then it was about religious beliefs. Or it’s about class or it’s about money. There is this constant sense of separation that humankind must break free from if we truly want to have world peace. It is the only way. And what amazed me is that we have this variety of people on this planet, beings on this planet for thousands of years, and no matter what we come up with we still can’t accept our differences and let them be. We have to separate over it. That’s the whole point to the film right there.
What experience or point in consciousness brought you to become an animal, human and environmental rights activist?
Originally I saw footage of how animals were treated and that’s what turned me into a vegetarian nearly 20 years ago. Not even an activist; it was just a dietary change. That evolved to becoming a vegan and as you know the difference between being a vegetarian and a vegan is not so much just a diet but also a lifestyle. It’s not so much what you’re eating but it’s cleaning products that you want that are tested on animals, the leather on your shoes or entertainment that has to do with animals and so on. This was a broader thing. And what comes from veganism from my experience is that you increase your sensitivity, but it’s more of a path where you care a little bit more about things that you don’t benefit from.
A lot of people become vegan because they want to look thinner, be stronger, be healthier. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when you become a vegan for the sake of the animals you’re not gaining anything from it. It’s not benefiting you in any way. You are doing it for means that will never thank you. There’s something conscious that begins to happen and you start caring about trees and other forms that don’t benefit or serve you or gain from in anyway. So you begin to expand consciously. Then all kinds of stuff open up to you. You begin to hear and see things that you might not otherwise.
It can almost become addictive and everything else in the world becomes less and less appealing. Especially duality. I said this in the movie. The duality storyline, the news – you lose interest in the news, you lose interest in sports because there’s two people fighting. You lose interest in politics because two sides are competing. You lose interest in movies because they’re about a protagonist and an antagonist and you begin to start seeing something beyond that. And it pulls you to a new direction which is a bit unknown in this world, but that’s how my activism started.
Was there any certain issue that really inspired you to create this film, or was it about all the current social, economic and cultural problems?
I would say it’s a culmination of all those things. Each one of those issues reminded me that duality was still alive and well. Mostly like I said earlier about why we can’t get along, what we come up with, why we are still at odds with each other. And with the environment and the animals. And that was just mirrored in those issues, whether it was social activism, environmental issues, welfare issues. It seemed like it was pointing back to the same problem: perceptions, opposites and separation, all of those splits. It nagged at me so much that maybe this should be a book, but I don’t know how to write books, and am more interested in film. So I decided to put it into a film but I didn’t know how. You have all that doubt. But it’s important and worthy to make a documentary about it.
What made you choose film as the choice medium for your activism?
It just seems that media is invasive of the world more than any other media in the moment. There’s a great book about it, when they first invented the camera and how they set it up. They just filmed ducks in a pond or a train pulling up to a station. And they put it in a room and people walk in and see something they never before seen in history in the history of humankind. No one had ever seen a moving image from another part of the world. You must imagine what a marvel that must have been to humanity in the late 1800’s to see a moving picture. When the train moved forward they ducked because they felt like they were there. And so that medium of film was born and so powerful. Now you can send it on your phone. You can send it anywhere in the world, it just seems like the best way and so it became the only way to share a message like this.
According to the press release, Unity took seven years to make. How did financing come together? What was the budget?
We did the film for just a little over $2m. It came in in stages. It took us eight years to put together. It started off as mini-series – the film is in chapters – so each chapter was going to be an episode. It was originally supposed to be a five or six-part mini-series and I wrote it so that each chapter was about 45-60 minutes long. We didn’t raise enough money for it so we decided to make it shorter, into a feature.
The budget dictated some of the constraints and it was hard to raise money because it didn’t seem like a good [prospect] to investors because they were [not] sure they would make their money back. I won’t disclose [who they were] for their privacy but we had to make really attractive offers because of the risk they were taking. So step by step we raised a bit and more. I call making the movie an installment plan. I don’t recommend it to anybody. But that’s how we did it and eventually we got it finished.
After the premiere, how will the film be released? On Demand? DVD?
Not yet, it’s a theatrical release on August 12 here in North America, then internationally on August 12 and 13 with more dates to follow [via Specticast]. It will have a run for 8-10 weeks in international theatres.
Unity seemed like it should have been the prequel Earthlings. It ties everything together in one circle from the very definition of universe and one aspect of that is Earthlings. What you eat, what you embody.
Earthlings is a movie about one issue, which is how we treat animals. Lots of documentaries focus on issues. The welfare and institutionalised children, environment, education, penguins on thin ice – whatever the case may be. There are individual issues that are worthy of having a film about them. Maybe it’s not building a dam in the rainforest, but that would be more people knowing. I think that the treatment of animals is one of the last blind spots that humanity has yet to embrace. It took them a long time for equal rights for all. There’s still racism in this world. Equal rights, we’re seeing this right now. Some people have a hard time with it. But it’s getting okay, we’re getting better. We’re evolving.
But the treatment of animals is still one of the last blind spots that humanity has yet to embrace because they’re not us. ‘Us’ is a weird word to use from an earthling’s perspective, because how do you separate what ‘Us’ is? An earthworm is an earthling. The Queen of England is an earthling. It’s weird when we begin to separate what ‘us’ is from each other. That’s the problem right there. So I think individual movies about those issues are valid. I also made the film to explain that there’s a broader issue that can be correlating all of it together. So you’re right, it might be better to make Unity first and then have people turn to specific details on those issues. We just happened to go the other way.
What is your next project?
There will be an updated version of Earthlings, which is about 10 years old now. It’s on standard definition, and we’ve been gathering for two years high-definition footage of the treatment of animals. So we’re going to do an updated one. Beyond that I’m working on a project that’s animated. I have a hard time making movies that’s just about something that happened to a guy and a girl. I’m losing interest in stories and I’m more interested in stuff that have a deeper impact on people’s psyche or way of living. If there are stories in there then it would interest me. I don’t think I’ll just make documentaries. But traditional storytelling doesn’t seem to be enough to me anymore. I’m curious if that can be pushed farther and also have commercial value to the industries so that there’s a market for conscious content