Activism sparked through screenings

Groups use documentary films as educational tools to inspire social change from students.

Alex Melonas, a political science graduate student and interviewee in “Speciesism: The Movie,” discusses the film with students on March 19 in Tuttleman Hall. | DALEXIS PEGUERO / TTN
Alex Melonas, a political science graduate student and interviewee in “Speciesism: The Movie,” discusses the film with students on March 19 in Tuttleman Hall. | DALEXIS PEGUERO / TTN

It was a packed house in Tuttleman 407 on Tuesday, March 19. More than 40 people filled the rows and lined the perimeter to secure an optimal view for the first-time screening of the documentary film, “Speciesism: The Movie.”

The event was hosted by the Temple Vegan Action Network, and included an introduction by political science graduate student and featured commentator in the film, Alex Melonas.

TVAN started a little more than a year ago in response to what members felt was a lack of vegan presence and of animal rights activists on Main Campus. The founders of TVAN include Melonas, political science Ph.D. candidate Brett Miller, English professor Dan Featherston and librarian Gretchen Sneff.

“[TVAN] seeks to educate the Temple community about animal rights and veganism through nonviolent means,” Melonas said. “TVAN holds that all forms of animal use are wrong and that veganism is a moral obligation.”

In addition to screening films, TVAN also engages in various other methods of spreading its message to the Temple and Philadelphia communities. Distributing vegan literature, promoting the sustainable health benefits of veganism and presenting students with subsequent evidence to support the change to a plant-based diet and advancing the development of vegan advocacy on campus are just a few of the many measures taken by TVAN. This particular event centered on the screening of what Melonas calls “a first draft” of the documentary, “Speciesism: The Movie.” The documentary takes the audience on an exploration of “factory farms.” The aim of the film was, first, to educate viewers on the existence of major animal rights issues called “speciesism,” and second, to challenge their traditional modes of thinking.

Audible gasps filled the room when Melonas appeared on screen in several scenes, specifically one major scene where he launches into a deeply emotional call for action against what he described as a “modern day Holocaust” against animals taking place every day, every minute, everywhere.

“I think the film series is a wonderful form of activism. It has the potential to show how animal rights and veganism is really a holistic movement, versus the more common – and obviously false – view that vegans just really, really ‘love animals,’ or worse, ‘hate human beings,’” Melonas said. “‘Speciesism: The Movie,’ criticizes our unthinking and, ultimately, what turns out to be merely prejudiced preference in favor of members of our own group. We don’t really know why, but human beings just seem more ‘special.’ In other words, the film challenges the various ways that human beings are constructed to disregard or devalue the interest, the suffering and the lives of billions of non-human animals.”

The film certainly adopted a full-frontal assault style, capturing several graphic scenes of animal cruelty. These scenes were designed to ensure that viewers are not given the opportunity to un-see what they have seen; they must confront the harsh realities of the world, Melonas added. However, the film received a positive reception from students.

“I thought [the film] was brilliant,” said Janine Gudknecht, a junior biology major. “It was informative and has the potential to be an eye-opener for future audiences. It did a good job of addressing the counter arguments that are pro-meat. I’d tell people to watch it.”

Abby Chang, a junior music therapy major had a similar reaction.

“I really enjoyed it,” Chang said. “While I cringed during some parts, those scenes were the ones that made the biggest impact on my outlook and attitude toward the film and the subject. It was a well-made documentary and it seemed that [Mark Devries, the movie’s director], made a conscious effort not to edit anyone’s opinions just to please the audience. That is what made the film respectable.”

TVAN is not the only social activist group on campus that employs the use of films, particularly documentary films, to incite social change.

React to Film is a Main Campus group that focuses on screening documentary films related to a wide assortment of social issues. Like TVAN, RTF is a relatively new group, being just one year old. It was founded by vice president Kara Lieff, a junior film and media arts major. RTF has three screenings per semester, the films being chosen and provided by the official React to Film organization.

President of RTF, Julisa Basak, a senior FMA major, said since the group is new and not well known,  turnout has been relatively low, but she hopes attendance improves as time goes on. All the members of RTF are also involved in community activism groups outside of Temple.

“Expose, engage and inspire is our mission statement,” Lieff said. “So first we want to expose people to different issues through the documentaries, we want to engage them in the topic – so we don’t want to just screen the documentary and say, ‘bye.’ We want to have supplemental activities. This semester for our first screening we had the director of Philadelphia CeaseFire come and speak afterward about the topic, and this past screening we had a performance beforehand and a Philadelphia muralist speak afterward.”

“And for ‘inspire,’ we just hope that people will leave the event with something in their head that they can think or talk about in order to make a change,” Lieff added.

Basak added, “[To] ‘react to film’ is to be able to react after the film, and just to pick up the social and political issues that are going around the nation. Try to be more involved in the community – that’s our ultimate goal. And the good thing about film is that it’s a very good medium to get more people inspired because visual and audio medium is important for people to seep the message in, as opposed to simply just reading an article or something. It’s inspiring when you can see people who’ve actually gone through these situations and then take a stand. When you see a documentary you just feel empowered and want to do something about whatever issue is presented.”

RTF’s next and final documentary film showing for the semester, is the Oscar award-winning “Searching for Sugar Man,” will be screened on April 17, at 6 p.m. in Anderson Hall Room 14.

Marcie Anker can be reached at

1 Comment

  1. Great article! It’s good to hear about student groups using film as a medium for education and critical discussion of social justice issues.

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