Crucial New Narratives: my interview with Karol Orzechowski, director of ‘Maximum Tolerated Dose’
By Shannon Alberta, Guest Contributor
Like any other social movement, animal rights relies upon visionaries, artists, fundraisers, organizers, and spokespeople to get the message out to as many people as possible. Every once in a while an activist comes along whose passion, knowledge and abilities are strong enough to effectively embody all of these roles at once, blazing a trail so bright that no one can ignore it. Enter Karol Orzechowski, founder of Decipher Films and director/producer for the upcoming feature-length documentary Maximum Tolerated Dose. Taking on a subject even the most hardcore activists tend to shy away from, Karol approaches the highly contentious issue of animal testing from a perspective so inclusively ’human’ that the conventional dichotomy is dissolved.
In the interview that follows, Orzechowski not only discusses his approach and vision for the film, but also some of the unique challenges in creating a DIY documentary with the sole purpose of reaching as people as possible on an issue few would ever choose to think about.
YDV: Tell us about Maximum Tolerated Dose, and what your objectives are for the film.
KO: Maximum Tolerated Dose is a film that seeks to offer a new perspective on the fairly well-worn debate about animal experimentation. The objective of the film is to feature the stories of former lab workers/researchers and former lab animals, who are now living outside of the industry. My sincere hope with the film is that it will offer a new approach to discussing the subject of vivisection, in a way that takes into account both the experiences of animals that are tested upon and the people that do the testing. There is a lot of trauma and truth in these stories, and I think more people need to hear them. I hope that the film will be viewed by all manner of people, not just animal activists and their friends (though I hope they watch it too!).
YDV: While in previous interviews you have explained that a ‘maximum tolerated dose’ is a term specific to vivisection, you’ve also mentioned that the film title doubles as a metaphor. Can you elaborate on this?
KO: Well, MTD tests are toxicity tests that determine what the highest dosage of a given chemical, product, or drug can be before they become persistently toxic. The tests are done over 6 months initially, and then later trials can last up to 2 years. I chose the title both because of its usage in the industry, but also because of it’s quality in describing the degrees to which people will compromise their ethics, and when that line is crossed. For some lab workers or researchers, their “maximum tolerated dose” of what they see and participate in can be small; for others, the process of abandoning their practice takes years. There is something poetic and chilling about the way that the industry language translates into the emotional experiences of the researchers.
Likewise, in telling the stories of former lab animals, it becomes apparent that we shouldn’t just be talking about toxicity in physical terms (though that’s important too). The damage that vivisection causes is not just physical, but psychological and emotional. The animals who are lucky enough to get out of labs alive have profound problems that reverberate for a long time after they’re out.
YDV: Maximum Tolerated Dose approaches vivisection from several unique angles. Can you discuss some of them and why you think they will be effective in reaching a more mainstream audience?
KO: I think first and foremost is the recognition that vivisection isn’t just about the death of an animal, but about profound and lasting psychological and physical effects. I recently spent some time working with Fauna Foundation to produce a video about one of their resident chimpanzees. There are many chimps there who have endured a decade or more of biomedical research, and have been — and I don’t use this word lightly — tortured in ways that are unimaginable for most people. Their physical and emotional scars are deep and their healing will forever be in process. They now live in a loving and caring environment with access to large outdoor areas, tons of things to enrich their daily lives, and copious amounts fresh fruits and vegetables to nourish them. They have healed so much, but they will always bear the weight of their time in a 5′x5′x7′ cage. This is part of the story of vivisection that most people don’t hear, and I think it’s an important angle to explore.
I also think the fact that the film will focus on former lab workers and researchers, people who have seen firsthand (and experienced themselves) the trauma that comes from experimentation, and who have abandoned the practice… I think that is an angle that has the potential to touch a wide, mainstream audience, and hopefully begin a process of coalition building between animal rights folks and researchers who are seeking change. I have said before that I want to make animal rights films that don’t feel like animal rights films. I want to make films that my family would watch, that people who don’t care about animal rights would be willing to put on and consider. Focusing on the voices of those people with first-hand experience is crucial to that approach.
YDV: What does it feel like to take on an issue that has the ability to polarize people so quickly, and how do you cope with that?
KO: So far, it’s been quite easy to cope with – if anyone has had any scathing critiques of what I’m doing, they have kept it to themselves. But, as I said before, the point of the film is to contribute a new perspective to a fairly well-staked-out debate. That means I have to be willing to wade into the debate and offer my own thoughts. That time will come, but so far it hasn’t really been an issue.
I anticipate a couple of different reactions when the film is finally released. I imagine that pro-vivisection scientists will see the film as a biased documentary that focuses on a small minority of scientists and lab workers who couldn’t handle the requirements of their work. I also imagine that certain segments of the animal rights movement will look at the film and think that I am giving people who participated in experimentation too much of a pass, that I’m just contributing to their apologia and giving them a forum to wash their hands of it. Both of those arguments have their flaws, and I’m more than ready to address those critiques if/when they come. I would never make a film that I felt like I couldn’t defend.
YDV: From what I understand, you’ve funded all your past projects with your own money. Obviously a project of this scale is very different. How are you fundraising for Maximum Tolerated Dose, and what is the best way for readers to support your work?
KO: All of the past animal films I’ve been a part of have been done with my own funding and on my own time. I make these documentaries because I’m passionate about the issues, and I think that I have a way to contribute something new to the media that’s already out there. Making money is the last thing I think about when I’m doing this work, because I am just so happy to make the media and get it out there. I work commercially as a photographer and videographer, and though I dedicate a lot of my time to these volunteer projects, I still manage to pay my bills and keep myself afloat. Sometimes just barely, but I feel fortunate that I can do that.
Maximum Tolerated Dose is exponentially larger than the short film projects that I’ve worked on to date. To do this project right, to be able to tell a range of stories, to have good production values, to have the potential to have it screen in festivals, it needs to have a solid base of funding to work with. I’ve raised about 1/4 of the funds needed so far, and as I go into full-on production for the next two months, there is plenty more needed. If you are able to donate, please click here and know that your every dollar donated is squeezed to the fullest. Part of the reason I am seeking to fund the film as it is produced is to avoid a situation later where I need to recoup a bunch of money, and thus can’t distribute the film freely. Instead, I’d rather have the film’s budget covered when it is finished, so it can start to be distributed immediately at low cost or free. There are lots of incentives to donating, in case funding a grassroots feature-length animal rights film isn’t incentive enough.
Likewise, if you can’t afford to donate, or if you choose to donate to other animal-related projects or organizations (and good on you for it), there are many other ways to help. Donating air miles, helping with contacts, leads and research, putting me and the production team in touch with others who may be able to help, spreading the word about the film on facebook, twitter, tumblr… There are a lot of meaningful ways to help make the film happen. Get in touch and let’s work together!
If you want to stay connected, follow Maximum Tolerated Dose on Twitter, or Facebook and consider ways you can get involved! Also, if you ever find yourself in those ‘polarizing’ debates on vivisection, Karol wrote a brilliant piece on how to talk about vivisection with strangers and loved ones, which can be found here.