The Trial (2011)
Directed by Gerald Igor Hauzenberger
Wednesday, July 25 at Anthology Film Archives
Animal rights activists will go far to save the life of a farm pig or a chicken, but as told by Gerald Igor Hauzenberger, in his recent documentary The Trial, animal protectionism is a passion so all-consuming it can change, and perhaps even derail, your life. The Austrian activists he follows, including scruffy-looking, soft-spoken Martin Balluch, hang banners on farms using banned battery cages. But what gets them into trouble is protesting outside a luxury fur store and monitoring huntsmen.
Among those unnerved by the VGT, or the Association Against Animal Factories, are members of Austria's political elite, including the Ministry of Justice. And so the activists soon face an absurd scenario: their civil disobedience, including sit-ins and leaflet blitzes, is flagged as a high-profile crime, or "psycho terror," and treated under an anti-terrorist law. Never mind that no actual crimes are proven, or that the marches are registered with the authorities; the fox-loving vegans must face the ugly truth: Austria, for all the civility of its cops, or the gentility of its legal experts, still boasts many riffle-bearing, huntsman's ball types who won't hesitate to put a small group of politicized intellectuals and artists under surveillance. The group's members are followed, their homes searched, and their phones wiretapped. It also apparently takes a large number of Austrian troopers to arrest one activist sleeping in his bed, with his wife and terrified child present.
The harshness of these tactics resonates at a time when Americans also worry about our government's legitimizing intrusions into privacy, including recent reports of police gaining access to cellphone logs, without warrant. The Austrian example shows the state's inherent capacity to terrorize, under flimsiest of pretexts. On the other hand, the movie does bring up some questions: A farmer may be reported by activists for violating ethics or industry standards, but he seems to be within his rights to complain of banners being hung from his roof. Did the activists reach out to the legislature or enforcement agencies before venturing into direct action?
Hauzenber doesn't contextualize, and so leaves us with a romanticized portrait of lonely crusaders with moralizing hutzpah, but little room for polemic. The dramatic procession of red-paint smeared activists with pig masks and crowns of thorns, carrying crosses, is the case in point. Is shock the only therapy? The activists may find their society too apathetic to engage otherwise, but none of this is proposed, or problematized in the movie.
Which is not to say that we don't end up rooting for the underdog. The movie gets bogged down in the ins and outs of the titular trial, with too many interviews of increasingly despondent defendants, but it does make a point that their livelihoods are deliberately undermined, after months of unjust jail time and almost two years in court. The real weapon wielded against them is not so much judicial or political—the prosecutor seems to know he has no case—but economic. The monetary compensation for their humiliation is so small, the General Secretary of Amnesty International Austria calls it a joke. Still, soon after the trial, Balluch is back in the streets, where he locks himself inside a metal cage, with a giant pig float hovering in the background. He now has some sympathetic followers who recognize him from television, and so seems content to restart his "psycho-terror" campaign.