Review: Just Animals (2022)

Mai Kivela and Saila Kivela©Tuffi Films/ Heini Mantyla

“Mum, what animal eats saussages?” asks the five-year-old Saila Kivelä in a family video shown five minutes into her documentary Just Animals, co-directed with Vasa Kuosmenan almost 30 years after. In that crucial scene she is seen seated next to her elder sister Mai, both of them sinking their teeth into hotdogs.

A lot has happened since 1993. Both sisters eat different food and they are asking different kind of questions. Saila’s favourite childhood meal (saussage soup) was substituted by the plant-based food, and Mai’s menu is not dissimilar. They are both animal activists, maybe with different type of methods to fight the fur- and pig farming, cruelty against animals and particularly – the use of gastation crates, but they nevertheless share the same goal.

The film kicks off with the footage shot in 2013, showing Saila Kivela and the animal activist Kristo Muurimaa on their night visit to one of the pig farms where they document the impossible conditions under which the animals are being kept. When one of the pigs begins squealing in pain, Kristo gets tempted to take it out to let it die in freedom, which he eventually doesn’t do. At the end of the day, what the both are doing is illegal: they are on a private property, tresspassing, breaking and entering.

That same year, Saila’s visit to another pig farm with her boyfriend Karry Hedberg will become a very public thing after they decide to publish the pictures taken on their quest. This results in a court case after they get sued for 180000€ worth of damages by 12 farmers who claim compensation for defamation, criminal trespassing and the spreading of swine erysipelas.

There is an abrupt change of mood towards the middle of the film. The optimism both sisters initially felt in fighting their cause is replaced by lethargy. Especially Saila fails to keep her spirit up. It’s a bitter realization that their well-meant deeds didn’t have the desired impact. The sobering moment for Saila comes soon after the trial, when she understands that only the farmers whose farms were filmed suffered (one has even committed suicide), and than other than that nothing has really changed on a larger scale. The meat industry has continued to operate in the same way, causing harm on two major levels: significantly contributing to CO2 emmissions and to poor nutrition, with the mass produced meat being pumped with antibiotics and full of stress hormons.

Lethargy grows into something even bigger, and the director starts examining her own methods at the same time questioning the whole movement in general: not the goals, but the means to achieving change. Towards the end of the film, Just Animals becomes a long psychotherapy session of a young woman who is seeking answers to her most pressing questions.

The focus also shifts from Saila to Mai who has in the meanwhile became an elected MP. Her every attempt to change something shatters due to typical political games which require some sort of compromise. There are discussions about the ban of gestation crates for pigs but ‘combined with the producers’ interests’, and the questions about the potential costs and the duration of the transition period are being raised. At the same time, there is no room for real discussions about the animal rights. In a sense, it doesn’t surprise that politics doesn’t care about animal rights because it’s too busy devouring human flesh.

Along that line, a brief appearance of one particular Finish politician – Sirkka-Liisa Anttila, the former Minister of Agriculture and Forestry (2007-2011) in the film leaves a strong, but bitter impression. When she refuses to give a clear answer to the question about improvement of animal rights, Muurimaa dryly remarks (with a grin on his face) that her family’s farm too, was exposed in 2007.

Just Animals is a sincere film made of good intentions. It’s an intimate portrait of a group of people dedicated to the animal activism, and strangely enough, despite of being very subjective, it does find some kind of understanding for ‘the other side’, without accepting its ways. The criticism is aimed at politicians and the mechanisms of power which protect the big industry and let the average people to continue behaving like they’ve been doing since forever.

Original title: Eläinoikeusjuttu
Country: Finland
Language: Finish, English
Year: 2022
Runtime: 80′
Written/ Directed by: Vasa Kuosmenan, Saila Kiveläa
Cinematographer: Heini Mäntylä
Produced by: Elli Toivoniemi, Juha Löppönen, Venla Hellstedt
Production Manager: Sandra Enkvist
Editor: Jussi Sandhu, Anniina Kauttonen
Sound Design: Aleksi Tegel
Composer: Karin Mäkiranta
Distribution: Tuffi films