Sidney Perkowitz October 11 2019

We and the Earth breathe together


The 33 films in the Labocine September issue “Breath of Life” show in different ways how our planet and we ourselves breathe…or don’t. Plants support all Earthly life by using the sun’s power to take in carbon dioxide and expel oxygen. We and other living creatures do the opposite as we breathe in and out to support our life processes. If the grand global carbon dioxide-oxygen exchange were to fail through extreme pollution or climate change, that would harm or completely end us and every other living thing. And when the personal cycle of respiration fails for any individual, that means illness or death; or alternatively, if a person’s breathing can be enhanced and controlled, that can improve fitness and bring the serenity of meditation.

These themes and others appear in the films in “Breath of Life.” Many show a pessimistic view of the future of global breathing and our own personal respiration, but optimistic notes appear as well. One is the short effort Coronation Park (2015, Su Rynard). It celebrates a city park in Toronto, Canada through images of its bare trees waiting to bud into spring greenery, with the word “breathe” appearing on screen in different languages. Automobiles appear fleetingly to remind us that they spew carbon dioxide, which the trees absorb to release oxygen.

Coronation Park

These images are hopeful, but trees alone do not ensure abundant oxygen. Surprisingly, even infinitely huge forests such as the Amazon jungle barely contribute to atmospheric oxygen. Although the Amazon has recently been cited in the media as producing 20% of the oxygen we breathe, that oxygen actually has mostly come from ocean-based plant life. Besides, most of the oxygen from land-based forests goes into other processes, not into the atmosphere. The concern about the fires now burning in the Amazon is rather over the loss of its ability to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide, a major factor in global warming, and the loss of habitat and a marvelous ecosystem; but not because this or any other deforestation will deplete oxygen. Carlos Nobre, a leading Brazilian climate scientist, put it best when he said that the Amazon is “not really the lungs of the world, no.”

But trees and plants represent nature, and with the other reasons to treasure forests, failing to preserve them would cost us dearly as Deforest (2015, Grayson Cooke) shows. The film’s subtitle “H2SO4” is the chemical formula for sulfuric acid, whose extremely corrosive nature can dissolve metals. Cooke uses it instead to dissolve photographic representations of forests, beautiful monochrome slides of trees, branches and the tree canopy within a temperate rainforest in Australia’s Bunya Mountains. We watch the acid eat into the slides, making them crack, fold and distort in patterns reminiscent of deserts and harsh geological features rather than green communities of life. Against a soundtrack of real bird and animal sounds, thunder and rain recorded in the Bunya rainforest, and melancholy piano chords, the film combines the experience of living in nature with a sad appreciation of what its loss means. 

Although not explicitly about the effects of air pollution, Deforest refers to it through the use of sulfuric acid. That is a component of acid rain, the destructive precipitation that comes from the pollutants released by the burning of fossil fuels. The scientific consensus is that continued use of fossil fuels is leading to the even worse effects of global warming. If we believe the filmmakers who contribute to “Breath of Life,” pollution and global warming will also create a breathing apocalypse. Several of the films present fictional views of near-future dystopias where the atmosphere is so toxic or the oxygen level so low that people cannot properly breathe. 


Though these films show different stories told in individual styles, they share some characteristics. One is the idea that land-based plants can restore a toxic atmosphere to breathability. Though oxygenation is more complex than that, as I discussed, this is an effective “back-to-nature” symbol. Another is that the films are mostly shot in monochrome and sometimes with fog effects to represent a dark and poisoned atmosphere. A third cinematic and thematic feature in common is that the people in the films wear oxygen masks or gas masks to breathe. Whether a military-style rubber gas mask with a snout-like filtration canister, or a sleeker plastic version connected to an oxygen tank, the characters look alien and dehumanized. We the film viewers cannot read their facial expressions and neither can they among themselves. This social and emotional separation contributes to the societal breakdown that accompanies the atmospheric disasters in the films.

2042 (2010, Emiliano Castro Vizcarra), from Mexico, ascribes that breakdown to a general prophecy said to be from the Mayan culture that could also describe global warming: as time goes on, “man will conspire to destroy this divine cycle [of life],” by first destroying “the plants and the planet” and then himself, leading to a new consciousness. 2042 opens with destruction in full view as gunshots and explosions fill urban streets. A man runs desperately through the chaos and delivers the child he carries to a building protected by armed guards. It is a hospital for children, who must wear gas masks to play outside. A church bell rings and the children gather to watch the unveiling of a wonder, a single green plant, perhaps the only one left. But the final scene undercuts hope as we see the desperate man check his automatic pistol, ready for more destruction. 


Other of the dystopic films are more specific about the human causes of atmospheric failure. Smog (2014, Jad Sleiman) begins by explaining, “In the near future, factories filled the planet and intoxicated the air. Humans started living in the deserted waste where smog covers the skies and hides the sun.” Shot in monochrome among deserted industrial landscapes and piles of debris, we see 12 year old Lithops trudge through this ugly and sterile world, protected by layers of clothing and a huge gas mask with staring eyepieces. She survives for a while, but with little joy or pleasure and with her once happy life represented only by an old family photo, and a rag doll she finds. Finally, but only in death it seems, Lithops ascends into clean air and sunlight, shot in color for the last seconds of the film.

In Days of Eva (2016, Vincent René-Lortie), a young woman wears a mask and carries a big oxygen tank in a world where air has become unbreathable. We meet Eva as her wrist read-out flashes into the red zone, showing only a day’s worth of oxygen remaining. She desperately seeks oxygen or any kind of help but cannot find either. Despairing and angry, with all hope gone, she destroys mementos from her past life; then, as the oxygen warning beeps escalate, removes her mask and lies down to die, without even a vision of a more natural world such as Lithops had. 

Days of Eva

Expire (2017, Magali Magistry) features teen-aged Juliette in a future where people live indoors, fearful of a universal dense smog. When her boyfriend Mehdi messages, she takes canisters of oxygen and a mask and sets out through the smog. On the way she is attacked by two men in what could be a rape but becomes a robbery when they take her precious canisters and flee. Not seriously hurt, she reaches Mehdi at a party where young people dance while wearing their masks. The two feel the need to pierce the physical separation the masks enforce and remove these barriers so they can kiss, a moment of pure human connection in an inhuman time. 


Plastic Child (2016, Carolin Koss)provides a different kind of redemption in an unnatural world. A nameless young boy dressed in a white bodysuit with only his face showing awakens in some unknown place. He puts a tube into his nostrils that is connected to a single living plant that he carries on his back. This allows him to breathe as he crawls, walks and swims to a world filled with plastic in heaps and covering tree trunks. This is our contaminated future Earth, which he slowly explores until he encounters real grass and a path leading to a mound of soil. He kneels, takes the plant from his back and gently sets it into the soil, then removes his breathing tube. 


This symbolic return to a natural balance in the next generation is at odds with the harsh view in Grow (2015, Micah Levin), which outlines the chronological development and corporate exploitation of a polluted Earth: 2033, climate change reaches its tipping point; 2045, the Illuminet Corporation takes over New York City; 2053, with air now unbreathable, Illuminet corners the oxygen market, banning plants as alternate sources and executing people who grow them (in the Labocine film Sleep Dealer (2008, Alex Rivera), future corporations seize control of another vital resource, water).


Sleep Dealer

Grow begins as Winston Willis, an illegal oxygen dealer, meets a mysterious hooded would-be buyer of oxygen in a seedy bar, much as a drug deal would unfold. Willis is tracked by an Illuminet drone, and as he negotiates and then grapples with the buyer, violence breaks out with the participation of the Free Breathers, who rebel against corporate control of air. Willis escapes from the bar, but as the film ends, we know only that the battle for control of breathing will go on.

These fictional films properly raise the alarm about the apocalyptic future of our planet’s atmosphere. They offer no solutions beyond appreciating the importance of nature, but the documentary Grassroots (2018, Frank Oly) does. Set in Australia, its title refers both to individual “grassroots” participation in battling climate change, and to a battle plan that uses the actual roots of growing plants.

The film shows this through images, narration, and interviews, beginning with retired University of Sydney professor Peter McGee. In 2012, he lectured about his research on a particular fungus that thrives in the roots of plants where it does something special: it takes carbon from the air where there is too much, and puts it into the ground where there is too little, as explained by Guy Webb, a soil management expert and the story’s leading figure. This is a double win. Putting more carbon into the soil would be good for plants and therefore for farmers, much as the related method of nitrogen fixing has improved global crops over the last century; and locking away atmospheric carbon in the earth would reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and therefore inhibit global warming. 


These prospects inspired people like Webb, who saw the potential for a global army of two billion farmers to increase crop yields while sequestering gigatons of atmospheric carbon. With colleagues, he has raised money for initial research, but knows that more minds need to be changed and more people need to be motivated to have a wide impact. At film’s end, McGee, who started the whole thing, says that though belief in climate change is growing, “I deal with politicians who don’t care what’s happening to the globe;” an Australian farmer points out that the mysterious “they” who will solve global warming is really us, all of us; and Webb says simply that we need to accept that there is a real issue and “ruddy well solve it.” This is a key message from Grassroots: besides scientific tools to reverse climate change, we need widespread political and social will.

Ocean Takes A Deep Breath

Besides, there is still much we don’t know about breathing on the global and the individual scale, as other films in “Breath of Life” show. For instance, the animated documentary The Ocean Takes a Deep Breath (2017, Saskia Madlener) explains that the Earth’s seas participate in global breathing in ways we don’t yet understand. The film focuses on the Labrador Sea, between Labrador in Eastern Canada and Greenland. In this particular region, oxygen and carbon dioxide are carried to great depths and sequestered. Researchers are now probing how this affects sea life, the climate, and global warming. Other films display how the lungs work, the role of breathing in personal meditation, and more. Finally, “Breath of Life” is a quick course in the importance of respiration in the world and in ourselves.

About the author

Sidney Perkowitz writes frequently about science in film and other topics in popular science. His most recent books are Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an IconPhysics: A Very Short Introduction; and Real Scientists Don’t Wear Ties: When Science Meets Culture, @physp

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