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Why was an obscure Joaquin Phoenix documentary at the center of a Ukrainian hostage situation?

On Tuesday, a prolonged hostage standoff in Ukraine ended with the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, plugging an obscure animal abuse documentary narrated by Joaquin Phoenix. The gunman, a 44-year-old man named Maksym Kryvosh, was armed with automatic weapons and grenades. He held 13 hostages on a city bus for nearly 12 hours. No one was seriously injured during the incident, although the clash began with Kryvosh opening fire on the street and throwing a grenade at a police drone.

His demands, which included Ukraine’s president recommending 2005’s Earthlings to the country, were wide-ranging and unclear. The animal rights activist, who posted a manifesto and series of wishes to Twitter, referred to the government as a terrorist organization — and asked that members of Parliament and the Orthodox Church post “I am a legal terrorist.” President Zelensky obliged one of his demands to help end the standoff. “The film Earthlings from 2005 — everyone should watch it,” Zelensky said in a brief, now-deleted video posted to Facebook. Kryvosh reportedly screened the documentary for hostages on the bus.

So, why this relatively little-seen movie? With high-profile support from Phoenix’s narration and music from Moby, Earthlings is one of the more decisive animal rights documentaries produced this century. Director Shaun Monson began filming footage for spaying and neutering pets in 1999, but instead compiled enough for a feature-length documentary, focusing on “humankind’s absolute economic dependence on animals raised as pets, food, clothing, entertainment, and scientific research,” as an early press release puts it. The film culls hidden camera footage from a number of animal-driven industries, and was followed by a sequel, Unity, in 2015.

Phoenix, who’s been a longtime animal rights activist and vegan, focused a segment of his recent Oscar acceptance speech on animal advocacy. After winning Best Actor for Joker — the other movie that some feared would lead to violence and unrest leading up to its release — he implored viewers to be more humane toward animals and the natural world. “We go into the natural world and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable,” he said.

According to The Guardian, Ukraine’s interior minister Arsen Avakov acknowledged the film’s value while stopping short of Kryvosh’s extreme advocacy. “The film … is a good one. And you don’t have to be so screwed up and cause such a horror for the whole country – you can watch it without that,” he said.