In his documentary “Maximum Tolerated Dose,” Karol Orzechowski brings a new perspective to the world of animal testing by including the stories of both the animals that have experienced it firsthand and the scientists who performed it.
The film’s title refers to the highest dose of a chemical that will produce the desired result but will not cause unacceptable side effects. The maximum tolerated dose, or MTD, will then be used to determine whether the chemical has any dangerous long-term effects.
According to Orzechowski, the title was meant to signify more than just its scientific meaning, however, and Orzechowski stated in an interview on the Striking at the Roots blog, “I also use it as a title for the film as a kind of metaphor for the former lab workers who are featured in the film: in the same way that the animals they work with have a line between toxicity and death, many lab workers have an ethical line that they walk like a tightrope every day. In that sense, it is a chilling use of language by the industry, and a perfect title for the film.” The MTD test is incredibly controversial. The film’s website states, “[It is controversial because] of difficulties in extrapolating findings to more realistic doses, and in extrapolating results from animals to humans.” Orzechowski explores the ethical questions it raises in his film, which will be screened in Rockefeller Hall 300 on Thursday, Oct. 2 at 7 p.m.. A skype session with the filmamker himself will follow. the event.
His inspiration for the documentary came from meeting people who had been involved in laboratory work, as the traumatic experiences of a rarely heard part of the animal testing controversy were the driving force of the film. In an emailed statement, Orzechowski wrote, “As a filmmaker, I had done a bunch of short films and I felt I was ready to do a feature length film. Specifically, I was already an animal rights activist and I had my eyes open for a ‘big story’ that might make for a good feature length documentary about an animal issue. When I met two people who formed the basis for the film through the stories of their experiences working in laboratories, I knew I was on to something significant.”
The process of making the film itself was long and arduous, and it took an emotional toll on Orzechowski, he shared. In the same Striking Roots interview he stated, “Shooting the film involved doing a bunch of investigative work, which was very challenging emotionally. I won’t get into the specifics of the investigative work we did, but each part of that involved a great deal of stress. I was personally involved in some of the major work we did, and it was quite rough on me. Investigation always involves a certain amount of subterfuge with people, which I really dislike, as well as often leaving the animals behind once you’ve obtained documentation.” Despite the difficulties faced during the making of the film, the end result was exactly how Orzechowski first envisioned the project: “I didn’t have to make any major changes to the film from what I had wanted to do in the first place… the benefit of being your own producer / director!”
Long before he started working on “Maximum Tolerated Dose,” Orzechowski was involved with animal activism in non-traditional ways: “I got my start in animal activism by being a producer and tech supervisor on the Animal Voices radio based out of Toronto, which at that time was hosted by Lauren Corman.” The radio show was a crucial starting experience for him, and led to many opportunities for his future projects. “Being a part of that show was very formative in terms of how I understand animal issues, and it also helped me to make connections in the Toronto AR community,” wrote Orzechowski. “Beyond the radio show and the film, I have made a pretty wide range of other animal rights short films, and was also involved with the Toronto animal rights community for a number of years, attending protests, events, and so on.” Some of the short films he’s worked on include “Field Trip” (2009), “The Rhythm” (2010), and “Open Rescue: Hens” (2010).
Film is an important medium to Orzechowski because it allows for him to convey his ideas. His love of filmmaking started in his late years at York University. He said, “I first got into filmmaking through a course called Feminism and Film that I took during my 3rd year of my undergraduate degree. The professor for that course, Allyson Mitchell, showed a very broad range of material during the course, but I was especially struck by the more ‘punk rock’ productions that we watched.” That was fitting since much of his earliest work was entrenched in the punk rock scenes of Peterborough, Toronto, and Ontario, as stated on his website, decipherimags.com. Those productions changed his perspective on what was really needed to make a great film. “Not only were these women making awesome films about subjects that were important to them, they were doing so without any budgets to speak of,” wrote Orzechowski. “It sounds funny, but until that point I really thought you needed a lot of money to make a film. What you really need is passion.” That passion for filmmaking only developed and grew even bigger from there: “I love filmmaking because it’s a great way to communicate complicated ideas in a way that people can understand.” Through films, Orzechowski could take the most complex concepts and simplify them to his audience without taking away the ideas’ integrity and profundity.
That desire to make people understand something complicated certainly came into play while making “Maximum Tolerated Dose,” as he brought in the perspectives of people who aren’t usually included when discussing animal experimentation to paint a more comprehensive picture of the subject: “The reactions that I’ve gotten from audience who have seen MTD tells me that we succeeded in getting our message across and our message was this: if we’re going to see a shift in how scientific research is conducted, and specifically about how animals are used, we need to be willing to hear the stories of people who have and are still currently using animals for research. If we don’t understand the culture of animal research, we’ll never be able to change it.”