How to make a film about the environment? Many insist on scare tactics that warn us of the devastating effect human lives are having on natural resources, from A Crude Awakening, End of the Line, An Inconvenient Truth to the very impressive Darwin’s Nightmare. Others, like Manufactured Landscapes, Working Man’s Death and Our Daily Bread meditate on our place in front of the image as readily as our human place within the world. Emma Davie and Peter Mettler’s Becoming Animal seeks a position closer to the latter than the former – Mettler photographed Manufactured Landscapes, was the cinematographer on early films by Atom Egoyan, Patrica Rozema and Bruce McDonald, and is an important filmmaker who has refused ready mainstream absorption.
The film itself focuses on David Abrams, a philosopher who pays attention to our being in the world of being. This isn’t subject/object thinking that insists a human has consciousness, and a tree is an object for my consciousness, but that itself has a consciousness which human understanding has increasingly alienated itself from. Language is both part of the problem and part of the cure: it gives us the capacity for astonishing abstraction and distances us from the source of existence. How to be in the world rather just in our word-filled consciousness is one of the many questions Becoming Animal asks. Davie herself puts it nicely in voice-over late in the film as she flies across the Atlantic. “And I remember that in the skeleton of this plane is the bird that taught us to fly.” This is engineering as a sub-category of ontology, of our being amongst beings in the world.
Davie’s previous film I am Breathing was a gruelling account of one man’s realization that motor-neuron disease is closing his system down. It is a simple, straightforward and emotionally very demanding film about someone whose body is slowly closing itself off the to the world. Becoming Animal is the opposite as Abrams is constantly finding ways in which he can open himself up to the world around him. At one moment he touches a tree and discusses the tree as somehow touching him back. This need have nothing to do with the exaggerated anthropomorphism practiced in horror movies where trees come alive (think The Evil Dead), but where our own aliveness is so attuned to existence that things are living with no need of the anthropomorphic. How to live with nature the film wonders, while many an eco-documentary ‘merely’ instead asks how can we stop destroying nature. These aren’t so much two different questions, as one enfolded within the other. We might stop destroying it if we understand better that we are destroying ourselves. We needn’t couch this as a moral question where we must do more to save the environment, but as an ontological question which insists we need to understand much more our interactive relationship with things, and the way things interact with each other.
An important contemporary of Abrams, Timothy Morton puts it this way.“Rather what OOO [object oriented ontology] claims is that what a tree does when it ‘translates’ the wind….This means that when an object is ‘translating’ another one – when it is influencing in a causal way – it is doing to that object something analogous to what I as a human do when I act on things.” This isn’t the place to go into Abrams ideas let alone Morton’s: what interests us is this notion of causality that has nothing to do with the human. At one moment in Becoming Animal a ferocious wind whips away at the bushes and the film asks us to follow nature working on itself. This is a fairly straightforward example, but what about lightning that can prove itself an impressive tattooist? “It’s a terrifying way to get a temporary tattoo” NBC News reports on one man’s unasked for brief skin transformation. “To get the feathery looking, fern-like pattern running down this man’s left arm, he first needed to be struck by lightning.” People looking at the tattoo would assume it was man-made, but it was instead nature made. It is a point Abrams makes when looking at how rocks transform and reconfigure. As Abrams also says elsewhere, “is there really anything that is not alive? Certainly we are alive, and if we assume that the natural world is in some sense not alive, it can only be because we think we’re not fully in it, and of it.” (Alliance for Wild Ethics)
The title might seem like a bit of a misnomer. It is taken from Abrams book of the same name and anyone familiar with Gilles Deleuze’s (and Felix Guattari’s) thinking will know it is an important term for the French philosopher as he seeks to suggest ways in which we can get outside our narrow perspective on being. “Yes, all becomings are molecular: the animal, flower, or stone one becomes are molecular collectivities, haecceities, not molar subjects, objects, or form that we know from the outside and recognize from experience, through science, or by habit”. Deleuze also says “becoming animal is only one becoming among others.” (1000 Plateaus) When we see Abrams touching the tree part of the provocation is that it is a tree. The same claims made for a dog or a cat would be readily accepted, but Abrams point is that we have to stretch our consciousness to acknowledge consciousness in other things. Even to use the word thing might be troublesome. If something is alive (and nobody would be inclined to believe a tree isn’t), is it fair to call it a thing at all, if a thing is an inanimate object? A tree both moves through interaction (with the wind) and through a time that is imperceptible to the human but easily evident through time-lapse photography. If we could see perceptibly trees growing in front of our eyes we would give them the living qualities so often denied and that cinema (whether through horror movies or time-lapse nature documentaries) gives them. The tree is a good example of a living thing that we deny consciousness to partly because of the limitations of our consciousness.
The eco-documentaries we opened with are all very well for demanding we do more for the planet but are they not often locked into a narrow perspective of facts and figures? They are full of moral arguments and fiendish personal dilemmas that reveal many internal contradictions as the climate change film often proselytizes with a stomping great carbon footprint? The same with many message-friendly feature films about the environment. As Kaleem Aftab says in The Independent, “whenever I visit a movie set, it always amazes me how much environmental damage is wrought in the name of entertainment. From the generators to the caterers delivering food onto set, making a film eats up energy like no other art form.”
But how best to improve our relationship with the planet? There are many practical solutions and we wouldn’t want to undermine them. But there is also the need to change our perceptual understanding of what nature happens to be and our place within it. From James Benning’s arboreal work, including Nightfall, to Stan Brakhage films like Mothlight, from Tarkovsky’s Stalker to Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte, there are many films doing exactly that. In the latter, the film moves from following a man, to a goat, then to a tree and finally to a piece of charcoal. In Nightfall we spend ninety-eight minutes watching exactly what the title claims: watching night fall in a forest. Art doesn’t so much meet science as indicate what is inside the scientific, rather like the bird that is within the plane that Davie so wonderfully evokes. It is art that enfolds science not the other way round, and perhaps an understanding of art in all its complexity, as it finds new ways to explore being, can help us out of an impasse that is the scientific age, an age that can cure some of our ills but creates quite a few more. Becoming Animal is in a very important sense, an aesthetic documentary that doesn’t so much baffle us with science as muse over the properly wondrous in nature.