It wouldn't take much tweaking to transform I Am An Animal from a grim, morbidly fascinating HBO documentary into a scathing mockumentary satire of animal-rights excesses and the price of pursuing notoriety at any cost. It wouldn't even require a name change, though some moments throughout would seem far-fetched even in a fictional context, like when PETA head Ingrid Newkirk advises an underling to come down "like a ton of bricks" on a PETA operative working undercover in a turkey-processing plant for not coming up with usable secret-camera footage, because when the earnest do-gooder "screws [PETA] over, he's screwing the birds over." There's an even more jarring sequence where the PETA brain trust casually discusses what kind of shocking iconography should accompany their latest advertisement: How about Japanese internment camps, or African slavery? Would Holocaust imagery be kosher? Then there's the simultaneously tender and ridiculous scene where Newkirk lovingly ushers a rescued turkey into a sort of makeshift hotel room, complete with mood music.
Animal chronicles Newkirk's passionate crusade as she attends to her cult of personality; it follows her from strategy meetings and press conferences to star-studded galas and flashy stunts like rubbing fake blood over a Jean Paul Gaultier storefront. Newkirk's private life is her public life; her work consumes the totality of her being. She was sterilized at 22 because she "came to think there was something wrong with wanting your own child," and she divorced her first husband because she simply didn't have time for him.
For much of the public, PETA has become synonymous with animal rights. But, as Newkirk's army of critics argue lucidly in I Am An Animal, if the controversial animal-advocacy group is similarly synonymous with desperate publicity stunts, leering celebrity T&A;, sub-Adbusters pop-culture mockery, and alienating extremism, is that really a positive development? Animal includes plenty of jarring, horrifying footage of animals being tortured and abused. Yet Newkirk's shrill self-righteousness, unbending zealotry, and media whoring undermine her cause on many occasions. Matthew Galkin's oddly moving documentary echoes the superlative recent Ralph Nader doc An Unreasonable Man in its unflinching, multidimensional portrayal of a complicated, controversial figure led horribly astray by the best intentions.
Key features: None.