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Review: Maximum Tolerated Dose (2012), Dir. Karol Orzechowski, Decipher Films, 88 mins.
Keywords: Maximum Tolerated Dose, vivisection, animal research, panopticon, Foucault, biopower, animal bodies, carceral system
Maximum Tolerated Dose is a 2012 documentary by Decipher Films that attempts to explore the culture of animal-modeled medical research from the perspective of the individuals most involved: the researchers, technicians, and the animals themselves. With interviews from medical doctors, former researchers, former research assistants, and undercover investigators, Maximum Tolerated Dose focuses its attention on the experiences inside the cell, the construction of space inside the labs, and the relations of power that derive from the production of knowledge from the animal body.
Unlike most attempts to deal with particular industries or institutions that use animal bodies, Orzechowski’s film does not indulge itself in the very real gore of animal suffering. Nor does the film lose itself in questionably founded diatribes on scientific methodologies or the anthropocentric critique of animal-based medical research. Instead, it focuses on the evolving phenomenon of animal-based medical research as a relation of power that produces trauma as reality and relates the invoked subjectivity of those involved. The thematic focuses are those subjective experiences, those stories and existential and moral crises, which culminate into intolerance: intolerance of chemical dosages, intolerance of working conditions, intolerance of captivity, intolerance of complicity, but most importantly, the intolerance of the power relations that manifest in the lives of the animals and those that encounter them in the Panopticon of the laboratory.
In his directorial debut, Karol Orzechowski weaves a story of a contentious phenomenon that is conventionally depicted as a dialectic between the pious community of science, research, and so-called progress and the ill-informed, impulsive, and haphazard community of animal rights. Navigating between these two extremes, Orzechowski attempts to shed light on the real and traumatic experiences that persist behind closed doors and that transcend the banalities of the “animal testing drama”:
the debate about vivisection in the mainstream media is essentially ossified into two caricatured positions: on the one side, you have evil scientists who hate animals and will perform cruel experiments on them at their whim; on the other side, you have naive bleeding heart protestors who don’t understand science and want everyone with diabetes to stop taking insulin and die. But those aren’t the only people concerned about the issue, and hey, what about the animals as well? (quoted in Powell)
The film introduces these narratives from the beginning. The discourse begins with an almost forlorn recounting of experiences that brought our storytellers to the lab. Rachel Weiss, a former lab technician at Yerkes Primate Research Center, tells us that she sought work in animal labs as refuge from working in restaurants while in college. Dr. John Pippin relates his naivety as a young research doctor whose decision to enter into animal research was dictated by his seizing of a 5-year grant from the American Heart Association. Dr. Ned Buyukmichi stresses that his involvement in animal research was led by his sincere belief that “this was an appropriate way to resolve biological questions." In contrast to the characterization of those involved in research as malign, insidious, or concerned only with career propagation and grant funding, these introductory narratives allow us to shed these biased misconceptions from the start.
Orzechowski allows the viewer to move beyond the archetypal and dichotomous framework of the animal research question that pits science against morality, rationality against sentimentality, the researcher against the animal advocate, society against the individual, or “good” against “evil.” It opens us to empathize and sympathize with the too-often forgotten components of the complex of medical research that are the most traumatized and subjectified: the workers themselves, whether the primary researcher or the lab technician, and the animals in use. Foucault (“The Subject and Power”) defines such a subject in two ways: “subject to someone else by control and dependence, and tied to his own identity by a conscience or knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power that subjugates and makes subject to” (331).
The focus of the film, the stories of the animals, the former researchers, and former assistants, deals with these “subjects.” Throughout, the cast shares their common thread of naive idealism, growing cognitive dissonance, and alienation. A former technician, “Isabelle,” tells us “animal death doesn’t do anything to me. I thought it was better that the animals die than stay there. I told myself that would be freedom for them.” Dr. Buyukmichi, a member of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) at his institution, felt isolated from the rest of his cohorts because he was alone in advocating for minimal animal care. Eric Thomas Bachli, another former research assistant, used phrases such as “for the greater good” and “necessary” in an attempt to cope with his encroaching feelings of alienation and guilt. He asks, “How do you deal?” Dr. Pippin succinctly characterizes the problems that these workers face: “when you compartmentalize it you can keep cognitive dissonance at arm’s length.” But eventually, as he narrates, it becomes a losing battle.
The stories of the animals further reveal a realm of alienation and subjectification. Rachel Weiss repeatedly references a chimp named “Jerome” whom she worked with and cared for at Yerkes. She did not want to remember Jerome, though, and she took no photos of him, because his story was too much for her to bear. Jerome was one of the first chimps to develop AIDS as a consequence of being injected with HIV. She asks, “Have you seen a chimp cry?” Jerome deteriorated towards his death. Along the way, he began to lose visitors and caretakers because he was too intense of a sight to handle, except for Rachel. As Rachel describes it, Jerome’s became a story of “data and deadlines.”
Gloria Glow of Fauna Sanctuary is brought into the film to tell the story of “Darla,” a 17-year old, highly traumatized macaque. She has two sets of tattoos, indicating she was used in at least two separate institutions. The only paper work that Gloria was able to obtain regarding her past suggests that she was used in separate studies regarding menstruation and anorexia. Upon her transfer to the sanctuary she lost the only primate relationships she had and her mental state made it difficult for her to integrate into the population.
The film uniquely moves beyond the walls of the laboratory and into the jungles of Cambodia surrounding the ancient city of Angkor Wat. There, wild primates can be seen in the trees surrounding the city, as what can only be assumed to be poachers approach. The poachers then capture the primates and stuff them into bags as they begin their long journey in the illicit primate trade. The footage here is possibly the most intense in the entire film, as the viewer watches the swift and discrete transition of a life of freedom to a life of captivity and imprisonment. The viewer then follows the captured primates to a holding facility in rural Lao PDR before they are to be distributed among the various markets that demand them. These are the first moments of structural and spatial separation and deprivation along a lifetime of animal research. By taking us to this initial point of individualization and subjectification, Orzechowski can emphasize the power relations of animal research that are more than “evil” scientists or tortured animals.
In a contrast to the somber tales of lab animals who either were killed or had their spirits killed, Orzechowski takes us on a trip to Spain to follow the work of Igualdad Animal. He takes the viewer into a beagle rescue that occurred in 2011. What follows is footage of beagles that have found reprieve from the “deprivation” of the cage. An activist from Igualdad Animal relates the story of one beagle in particular whom he described as a former “inmate.” The theme repeats itself as he characterizes her state at the time of the rescue as a state of “deprivation,” an incomplete, traumatized being. After rehabilitation with the activists, she is now “complete” in his words.
The cast’s personal narratives and the accounts of the animals’ lives can be considered instances of power struggles. The roles of these central players are constructed by the very power relations that define them. Dr. Lynda Birke, author of The Sacrifice: How Scientific Experiments Transform Animals and People, narrates much of the film. She describes the common elements of animal research as it has evolved over the last century as increasing standardization, simplification, decreasing diversity, and separation. These elements are the very same that characterize the disciplinary society. The standardization of space within labs, the standardization of species, and the standardization of breeds alludes to a certain Panopticism that induces in the animal “a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault, Discipline and Punish 201). In the lab, the construction and standardization of space subjects the workers and the animals to their roles, “born mechanically from a fictitious relation” (202). In reference to the Panopticon, but applicable here as well, Foucault describes as one of the only necessities for the proper functioning of power to be the proper arrangement and separation of space. In the film, Birke makes a reference to the “analytic” and the “naturalistic” animal, so characterized by sociologist Michael Lynch. Lynch asserts that the construction of space, of species, and the whole phenomenology of the laboratory and medicine are the processes that transform the “naturalistic” animal into the “analytic” animal. Birke elaborates on this notion, “[c]onstructing lab animals – both literally and discursively as fundamentally necessary to the pursuit of medical knowledge – is an important facet of disciplinary power, part of wider systems of medical/scientific surveillance” (170). It is both the lab animals and the people who must work with them that become individualized in this subjugated way. Orzechowski illuminates this with woven narratives of control, alienation, regret, cognitive dissonance, helplessness, and suffering.
Perhaps the most notable shortcoming of the film is its tendency to only trace a rough sketch of the sweeping relationships of power that characterize the entire medical industry. The film’s visuals reveal to the viewer all of the elements of an industrial complex. Throughout the film, the imagery shifts from models wearing cosmetic products, to pharmaceuticals, to incoming shipping freights (perhaps of live animals, cosmetics, or medicine), to the jungles of Southeast Asia, to the graduation of what can be assumed to be medical students. The film navigates the scenes of consumption, production, exploitation, and captivity as allusions to structural and systematic embeddedness of animal research. Yet this analysis appears a vestige as the array of images ends. These modalities of power that constitute a whole complex of relationships—global, economic, social, ecological—are only hinted at in the film. There lacks a total and explicit synthesis of the themes and concepts strewn throughout. As the film closes on the concept of “letting go,” the viewer is told, “something needs to change,” but is left with only frayed ends of a systematic problem. Without a concrete look at the underpinning structures and functions of the phenomena, beyond the stories, it is difficult to walk away with a sense of purpose; we finish with only a taste of the problem. But perhaps because of limitations and the film’s scope Orzechowski cannot delve deeper.
Overall, there are certain aspects that leave the viewer wanting more. One example would be the role of governments and academia in constructing the “necessity” of animal research. Industry-front groups, lobbying, legislation, grant-funding and writing, and job security all reinforce the phenomenon of animal research (Greek & Greek). Another example would be the dynamics of the illicit wildlife trade in Southeast Asia. What drives the poachers to become subjected to the medical-industrial complex? A study by TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade watch-group, indicates that most poachers in Southeast Asia are in poverty and are driven to the trade out of rural desperation in a rapidly modernizing global economy. These dynamics are also too-often left out of the discourse surrounding animal research and its global reach. These marginalized voices deserve a platform to reach a Western audience in order to construct a more full understanding of the medical-industrial complex. Because of the film’s thematic focus, these perspectives serve only a transitory function. Perhaps it opens doors for Orzechowski’s future work.
Considered in its entirety, Maximum Tolerated Dose is a film about sacrifice. It is a film that examines a certain set of circumstances and conditions under which animals become incorporated into society. It is a film that examines the factors involved in becoming involved in medicine and science. These are sacrifices, dosages that must be tolerated in the power relations of the bio-political strategy:
I don’t think that we should consider the “modern state” as an entity that developed above individuals, ignoring what they are and even their very existence, but, on the contrary, as a very sophisticated structure in which individuals can be integrated, under one condition: that this individuality would be shaped in a new form, and submitted to a set of very specific patterns. (Foucault, “The Subject and Power” 334)
Animal-based research is spun as a tale that leads to salvation, salvation from suffering, from disease, or even from death. These are the stories that the cast chronicles repeatedly throughout the film. “Necessary,” “For the greater good,” “Necessary evil,” “Progress”; these are the facades that the researchers, assistances, and technicians construct above an undertow of growing intolerance. In the end, they all reach their tolerance, and so do we.
In spite of its analytical limitations, Maximum Tolerate Dose stands as one of the most novel and complete documentaries in the field of critical animal studies. Taking the viewer beyond the hype of the animal research drama, Orzechowski focuses his attention on the subjectified and individualized interplay between the animal and the researcher. By doing so, the totality of power relations intrinsic to medicine specifically and our socio-ecological order broadly can begin to be outlined. The intense and stunning visuals sewn throughout reinforce this dynamic. Balancing words with visuals, narratives with factual information, and emotion with reason, Karol Orzechowski brings us a film that escalates our intolerance as well. In a sense, we are left wanting in the best way possible, wanting understanding and wanting resolution.
In this central and centralized humanity, the effect and instrument of complex power relations, bodies and forces subjected by multiple mechanisms of “incarceration,” objects for discourse that are in themselves elements for this strategy, we must hear the distant roar of battle. (Foucault Discipline and Punish)
Birke, Lynda. “Animal Bodies in the Production of Scientific Knowledge: Modelling
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Powell, Dylan. “Interview with Karol Orzechowski (Maximum Tolerated Dose).” 2011
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