From John Ford’s Hollywood Westerns to Michelangelo Antonio’s high modernist Red Desert to Werner Hertzog’s austere documentaries, cinema has long used landscapes and natural ecosystems to explore humans’ interior selves. Empty or claustrophobic, abundant or acrid, landscapes have become a visual shorthand for a person’s essential nature. Less often are humans found to be metaphors for the environment, which makes sense, because film is a medium that tells stories about human cultures. For the last century, the environment has remained at a distance, solid and unchanging as stories traverse it.
Of course, that distant ecosystem is no longer possible to imagine. Given the rapidly changing climate, humans are increasingly subject more and more routinely to catastrophes brought about by anthropogenic climate change. Even mainstream films have followed suit: Take Shelter (2011), Melancholia (2011), and A Serious Man (2009) use human breakdown and failure to speak to the ways that the climate—and the very environments that we need to live—is radically changing. While Earth was once imagined as the stable environment where human history occurs, it is now understood as the site of a radical transformation that may render it inhabitable.
This imaginative shift, which links human existence and radical climate change, challenges the seeming permanence of nature and forces us to reimagine the nature of the earth itself. And this helps the public comprehend the immediacy of climate change. One of the structural challenges in combatting climate change is dealing with its inherent invisibility. While spectacular catastrophes emerge sporadically, often the most insidious instances of climate change happen outside of the scope of human perception.
This Labocine spotlight highlights films that frame climate change as intimately linked to the human experience. These films either reject or reimaging the vast, unchanging landscape so common to cinema and reimagine the natural world as in flux and affected by human action. Whether they render the victims of climate change visible or seek to illustrate the interdependence between human and ecosystem, these works speak to very intimate ways that people cannot be disentangled from what's happening to our larger environment.
In Tidal Wave (2005), Salise Hughes explores the relationship between ecological disaster and the human experience. In the piece, a narrator recounts a recurring dream that he has had since childhood, in which a tidal wave overcomes him. As the story unfolds, the film juxtaposes archival, sepia-tinged images of urban life with the central figure’s interior, which has been replaced with short of the ocean and marine life. The removed sensibility of the narration (he is, after all, recounting a dream) and the anonymous urban atmosphere create an abstract human life. The interior, in this case, is the environment, or the ocean images that reside in the central figure.
Similarly, Routes (Karina Smigla-Bobinski, 2002) blends an intimate portrait of a human figure with the inhumane trajectories of the natural world. In short, experimental piece, a woman’s face is placed behind a piece of translucent glass, while large droplets and trickles of water run across the glass’s surface. The water appears to reflect the woman’s face more clearly than the view of her face behind the glass. The work challenges the singular nature of personhood, creating a series of humans that are more clearly rendered in water, even as they become more fragmented and dispersed. By collapsing the human with its most significant, natural element, Smigla-Bobinski’s work speaks to the greater intimacy between the human subject and its larger environment.
While Bridge in an Electrical Storm (Al Razutis, 1973), lack the human body or any glimpse of the human form, it combines the natural event, technological and infrastructural apparatuses, and human perspective. Using a combination of film and video imagery, the camera crosses the San Francisco Bay Bridge in a “radio and video storm.” Here, the world is explicitly technical. However, given the current moment, that non-natural storm lends itself to a whole different abstract world—one in which the catastrophes of the present are literal human creations. The camera’s position of looking through the windshield places the spectator in the central of the storm, as both creator and victim.
Deep Weather (Ursula Biemann, 2913) likewise shifts perspective between massive phenomena and the human experience. The piece starts by showing the spectator the vast oil pits of Canada. By using extreme long shots, those radical changes to the Earth distance the destruction of the planet, even as the voice-over describes the landscapes toxicity. However, when the film shifts to Bangladesh, to observe the changes on a micro level, the camera comes close and lingers on the daily activities of the seafarers who are trying to keep their lives intact.
Ursula Biemann, still from Deep Weather, 2013, video essay, 9 minutes and 18 seconds. Courtesy of the artist.
Finally, Sila and the Gatekeepers of the Arctic (Corina Gamma, 2015) speak of worlds in which the distance, or metaphor, that separates humans from their climate has been entirely eradicated. In this documentary, humans are the place they live, like rhizomatic roots that give and take back from the ecosystem that supports them. Weaving together images of Greenland’s local population and the climatologists that have come to study the icecaps, Sila loses the metaphor of the ecosystem as a metaphor for humanity and turns it on its head. We, instead, are reflections of the climate’s consciousness, and, as such, are both integral and subordinate to it.
One of the structural challenges in combatting climate change is dealing with its inherent invisibility. While spectacular catastrophes emerge sporadically; often the most insidious instances of climate change happen outside of the scope of human perception. Ocean temperatures increase, for example, or ice shelves collapse far away from the major centers of human population. Film and video-makers, however, have long striven to connect the vast imagery of our ecosystems to the intimate human experience--our ways of looking at the world. This spotlight will highlight films that frame climate change through human perceptions. Whether they render the victims of climate change visible or seek to illustrate the interdependence between human and ecosystem, these works speak to very intimate ways that people cannot be disentangled from what's happening to our larger environment.
About the author
Kirsten Strayer is a writer, curator, and film scholar who has published in academic journals, anthologies, and pop culture magazines. Her recent anthology, Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, was published in 2014 by Routledge Press.
Cover Art: Space Sculpture "Morning Star" by Karina Smigla-Bobinski