"The Witness" has already been rejected by animal-friendly HBO.
"We thought it was a good show, but we've aired a couple of others
on a similar topic, and have another in development," an HBO spokesperson
said. Plus James LaVeck and Jenny Stein, the Ithaca, N.Y., filmmakers,
have not heard back from "POV," the PBS series whose personalized
documentaries would be a perfect fit.
The importance of "The Witness" lies in its subject matter combined
with its unconventional voice that denounces cruelty.
Although threaded by grisly undercover footage from animal rights
groups, "The Witness" is no sermonizing shock video. While speaking
eloquently against animals being butchered for food or their coats,
it tells a deeply soulful story of redemption that is quite remarkable,
one whose unlikely center is a 44-year-old former tough guy whose
personal odyssey, from disdain of animals to being their champion,
merits a TV movie or feature film.
He's Eddie Lama.
After encountering him at a 1997 animal rights conference and hearing
his transforming story, "We understood that something very extraordinary
had come into our lives," said LaVeck. A year later came a three-day
shoot at Christmas for this film that LaVeck and Stein see as the
first of four their young company, Tribe of Heart, will make on
individuals involved in animal issues.
Lama launches the project charismatically.
He's no animal-activist stereotype--no hysterical screamer, quaint
retiree with too much time on his hands or woodsy do-gooder with
both Birkenstocks firmly planted in an ivory tower.
Instead, the voice on the cell phone from New York City could be
Joe Pesci in "GoodFellas."
"We grew up on the streets of Brooklyn," said Lama, a concrete and
aluminum contractor, in straight-talking urbanese. "You made your
claim to fame by how many asses you kicked. Everybody's middle name
was 'the'--like 'the Rock' or 'the Hammer.' The heroes were wise
guys with pointy shoes and Cadillacs, and I wasn't exempt from that."
It's hard squaring the younger mean-streets Eddie with the one in
this unnarrated low-budget film, sweetly stroking his cats and cruising
commercial areas in his customized van that exposes pedestrians
to movie-screen-size videos of farm and fur animals being slaughtered.
Responses from Christmas shoppers become the film's heart-wrenching
climax. A few seem oblivious. Otherwise, jaws drop and curiosity,
shock, dismay, even horror fill these faces. A man grimaces, a woman
turns away in anguish, their reactions mirroring the sensitizing
undergone by Lama years earlier.
"Before I was involved with animals, I didn't give a damn about
anyone," he said. "I was an alcoholic. When I got sober and selfishness
started slipping away, I found myself crying for the plight of the
homeless man. I began advocating for the disenfranchised. I would
go out in the streets and tell people about the atrocities committed
against political prisoners in China. When I did the same thing
for the animals, people would be horrified and realize I was talking
about them, because everyone who ever had a hot dog or hamburger
If personal growth is measured in epiphanies that click on over
heads like lightbulbs, then Lama is in the high-wattage club.
In "The Witness," he traces his journey with humor and passion,
including his violent "blood and guts" past and the aversion to
animals his family taught him as a kid. His U-turn toward enlightenment
began when he reluctantly agreed to cat-sit for a friend only because
he wanted to date her. The cat bonding swift, his anti-animal biases
began falling like dominoes.
Next came Moo Moo, the adopted stray that ended Lama's two-pack-a-day
cigarette habit amid swirling secondhand smoke. "It was the sense
that I was doing harm to . . . my cat, that would choose not to
be harmed if he could speak, y'know? Don't ask me if this happened,
but I coulda sworn he coughed."
Third member of this life-altering cat trilogy was Bagel, a sickly
runt when rescued by Lama. Squeezing Bagel's leg all the way to
the foot reminded him of a drumstick. So much for meat eating.
He did research, saw horrific undercover films showing animals being
trapped and killed for fur, finding no difference between them and
his cat. "I couldn't see my companion, this beautiful little creature,
be gassed, clubbed, stepped on and have her skin ripped off her
back for somebody's earmuffs."
Lama said he learned of slaughter-bound pigs being "given drugs,
having their ears clipped and their snouts smashed. A lot of them
die on the way to the slaughterhouse, a lot don't die with the first
blow and are boiled alive." Long-discarded concepts of sin reentered
his brain. "Why would pigs have to suffer this much? I thought maybe
they were these horrible sinners being reincarnated as pigs, as
food animals, and this was their punishment. Maybe Hitler reborn,
because that's what he deserves. I mean these were the crazy ideas
that went through my mind."
Channeling despair into action, Lama fixed up one of his company
vans with the mobile theater he calls Faunavision (later becoming
the name of the nonprofit group he would found along with Oasis,
an animal sanctuary in the Catskills). He began taking it out several
nights a week with two buddies, one his childhood pal, Eddie Rizzo,
whom he'd converted to veggiedom with a soliloquy in a diner describing
the brutality pigs endure en route to becoming sausage on a pizza.
Truth can be painful. Yet "The Witness" is one man's truth that
cries out for mass exposure, affirmed by film-festival honors it's
won. As for commercial TV, fat chance. "We've been told by people
in the industry," said LaVeck, "that it would never be shown on
the commercial networks, because the need to keep advertisers happy
would preclude that."
Give them crocodiling for dollars any day.
Visit The Witness
website at http://www.tribeofheart.org
Witness" can be obtained from Tribe of Heart at Box 149, Ithaca,
NY 14851 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.