Eleven filmmakers joining forces for Environment and Climate Change
An essay by G. Roger Denson
Where news fails to elicit empathy… when scholarship doesn't compel action… While dire warnings don't bring the sacrifices required… it just might be that art and entertainment can inspire how we take control of conditions spiraling out of control. Especially art and entrainment significant to the development of a culture, and now to the crucial interdependence of a growing global culture. One that reflects the conditions compelling the art and entertainment to be made. But especially the conscious and unconscious beliefs and images we hold of ourselves and others, wether we know and like them or not.
This at least is the rationale informing Art For the World https://www.artfortheworld.net/, a non-governmental organization associated with the United Nation's Department of Public Information, as it works to expand cultural dialogues among nations through each nation's artists by commissioning and showing art in all media reflecting the most pressing issues of the day. In the last year, Art For the World settled on the cause of expanding climate change awareness until nature-based solutions to every local habitat around the world has been communicated and enacted. Such an expanse of territory, and even more daunting, such a diversity of ideologies to which climate change solutions must appeal, can be most immediately reached by cinema. No other medium is as well suited to attracting audience attention beyond the usual governmental agencies and private foundations that debate what to do to mitigate if not prevent the climate change crises where they are most urgent.
After surveying scores of artists representing metropolitan centers, small towns, indigenous rainforests and remote island societies, Art For the World commissioned a selection of eleven short films for its first global distribution. The filmmakers, many internationally-renown, others being introduced outside their nations, represent the diverse societies facing alarming crises not just in weather deviation, habitat and geological reformation, but as well in the reformulation of ideologies and rituals, both secular and religious, that we have all variously and long believed to be reflections of the world and its creation.
In naming the first collaborative film INTERDEPENDENCE, Art For the World's director, Adelina von Fürstenberg, is commemorating the 1970 poster produced for the world's first Earth Day in San Francisco by the renowned artist, Robert Rauschenberg. From that day up until his death, Rauschenberg's commitment to the future of life on Earth was unwavering, compelling von Fürstenberg and her associates to commission eleven short films by internationally recognized filmmakers. Together the artists comprise a miniature, if provocative, United Nations of Artists representing even the most remote and indigenous societies. In this, Art For the World acknowledges that its first cinematic climate change commission is to convey that nothing short of complete global participation and sharing of responsibilities by the largest possible assembly of world nations is required for reversing the alarming changes being registered with rising carbon emissions around the world. And thereby nothing less than reaching and resonating among as wide a swathe of humankind must be their goal. Representing the trials and traumas presented by climate change in Morocco is Faouzi BENSAÏDI. In Iceland, Ása HJÖRLEIFSDÓTTIR. In Portugal, Salomé LAMAS. Switzerland, Bettina OBERLI. Afghanistan, Shahrbanoo SADAT. Chad, Maha-mat-Saleh HAROUN. China, Leon WANG. India, Nila MADHAB PANDA. Brazil, Daniela THOMAS. Italy, Silvio SOLDINI. And New Zealand, Karin WILLIAMS.
Having premiered with and received a warm reception at the October 2019 International Film Festival of Rome http://www.riffga.com/, the film is now being distributed wherever there is an audience receptive to global ecoactivism. The film is a marvel for never resorting to preaching, as the filmmakers presume the greater history of global warming and its repercussive waves of species and habitat devastation is well known by its audience. What is most unique in this film is that indigenous societies, many isolated from the modern nations, aren't just subjects, but are represented as already being participants in the activism within their societies, and now in the global sphere of United Nations Artists. A large part of the film's expansive accessibility, in fact, can be credited to the representation of the past and present struggles with climate change and industrial pollution among the indigenous peoples of Brazil, Chad, Afghanistan and the Pacific Islands, including glimpses at the lasting effects of their colonizations by remote empires.
What is not shirked, however, is the fact that the present-day technologically-proficient societies on each continent share the blame for extreme deforestation and high carbon emissions. Also emphasized is to what extent low-tech indigenous societies have borne the most tragic repercussions historically and in the present. But rather than dwell on our differences, the various scenarios enlarge the universal tragedy of decline. For as the habitats of humans, animals and plants may be specific and local, they are repercussive universally. Von Fürstenberg relays that such "key themes of the film reflect the intertwined relations between the human society and the natural environment aggravated by climate change on multiple dimensions and scales. In short, changing climate is reflected in the simplest responses of people in their everyday relations with humans and animals; the jobs they keep; the possessions and foods they buy. Environmental pollution and climate change affect the availability of goods and services. And of course the politics of climate change determine the national and international policy and stability". https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NvD6V3QO1bM
Stirring in ways tragic, comic, absurd, futuristic, historically mythopoetic, audiences are brought to tears, made angry or to laugh, often within the same segment. That such subjects are handled with considerable grace and humor, rather than issuing polemics of blame, is more than the diplomacy required to unite enemies. The "diplomacy" resides in the distinctive genres supplied by the artists, ranging from docu-fiction, drama, comedy, and video art, according to what each artist deems to best suit the portrayal of the challenges unique to a region and society while engaging global audiences as a whole. In fact, the film as a whole is a study in how to make narrative genres vehicles for the unique cultural dynamics at work in causing, identifying and mitigating the environmental damage already being sustained by each community. And though no one can predict what viewer societies will be inspired, angered, mobilized or numbed by the succession of disparate scenes, or even whether the damage already inflicted upon the earth can be mitigated, the scenes alert us to the losses we never think of in our daily expenditure of energy, emission of carbon, application of pesticides, discard of plastic products.
In its propensity for entertainment, the film is a superb foil for the media news addict, in that it disarms viewers of the armature of scenarios that we encounter daily in the media. Whether sagacious or rueful, absent are such realpolitik scenarios as military threats and interventions; resurgent authoritarianism; nuclear competitions, religious strivings to displace secularism in a renaissance of faith; even the expected incidence of deliberate and unbridled fires consuming endangered habitats, animals and indigenous societies. Instead of such extreme indictments, we are all held suspect, as well we should be, for our modern and postmodern material indulgences and apathy, at the same time that we are reminded of the idealism of the United Nations' proposed checks and balances as each film takes us to a different nation and crisis.
The best art arguably rewards us for discovering for ourselves the lessons of life, rather than feed us those lessons as rote universals. Except for the one film that happens to represent a viewer's specific cultural perspective (which doesn't mean that every viewer will find his or her relative perspective represented) the remaining filmmakers escort us to a cultural paradigm distinct from the one we inhabit, with any one of these depictions impelling us to regard the nations of the world as individually flailing, if not failing, in their mission to bridge and negotiate differences. And yet, despite so many tensions threatening to fracture the global order into irreparable pieces, the mitigation of Climate Change unifies us in our joint representation of the member states forming the United Nations--particularly the effort to rein in the global warming that is accelerating the rate of glaciers melting and the subsequent or imminent submergence of islands and coastal nations, the species of insects, animals and plants driven to extinction, or its brink. It's to the artists' credit that even in their shared goal, one scenario make us cry, another makes us angry, still there are those that make us laugh at ourselves for being so small and so blind.
In Last Dance, by ÁSA HJÖRLEIFSDÓTTIR, a relationship between an Icelandic heterosexual couple is reminiscent (if not quite attains) the kind of existential angst that Ingmar Bergman deployed to rip the relationship apart, even as that angst alienates them from the society that formed them and keeps them from self-conciliation. But whereas Bergman took on such motifs as war, religion and social class as the external catalysts for personal alienation, Hjorleifsdottir cites shabby technology, unbridled urban development and societal apathy as the anima of despair. Just as iconically, Megha's Divorce, by NILA MADHAB PANDA, invokes an array of classic Indian comic-dramas by dressing its actors with gas masks to survive the air that afflicts whole families with asthma. The tension felt in laughing when we should be crying over the demise awaiting Panda's India is resonant in the divorce court scene where bad health due to climate change is grounds for divorce and familial dissolution. Indigenous societies particularly stand out as victims of the industrial societies a continent or more away, even as their environs supply beautiful land and seascapes indifferent to the life withering within.
As might be expected, the indigenous societies are represented as purer or closer to nature than postindustrial societies, with pantheons of creator and nurturer gods to show them the way until "civilization" encroached. Tuã Ingugu, by DANIELA THOMAS (Brazil), is a timely reminder of the disruption facing Brazilian forest societies. But rather than implicate the Brazilian government, corporations and farms with overt deforestation, it depicts the more gradual drift away from tribal traditions that the lure of modernization poses, despite that the industrial poisoning of the region's waterways by pesticides proves as much toxic to the people's creation narratives, given that water has up to the present been the great gift of the gods. Why worship a god that poisons its people? is one view implied. But for the contemporary media society, the perspective is inverted: Why worship a foreign harbinger of the "dead and fetid"? In Ka Mau Ka Muri (Backwards to the Future), by KARIN WILLIAMS, the modern societies are analogized as the "new gods" filled with promises of a brighter future but deliver only the dim prospects of overcrowding, tourism that brings pollution, and a shrinking food supply. MAHAMAT-SALEH HAROUN's Lac, depicts in the space of a single generation, the daughters of the fisherwomen of Lake Tchad becoming at an early age more discouraged than their mothers when after three weeks they have caught only three fish, prompting them to adventurously devise their own handiwork, which becomes much in demand at the local market. And in SHAHRBANOO SADAT's Qurut (Recipe of Possibly Extinct Food), music from the silent film era renders a comic irony underscoring the looming extinction of local food production--including the laying out of a yogurt product in the sun for months at a time before it is ready to eat--as things already consigned to the past become quaint more than remorseful.
There are the wrenching scenarios, as there should be, especially in depicting and predicting the depletion of animal and habitat sustenance. Look forward to crying through LEON WANG's pragmatic Hungry Seagull and BETTINA OBERLI's mythopoetic Kingdom. Apart from editing his footage and supplying exquisite mood music, Wang allows the gulls to tell us their saga in successively longer flights away from their nests, where hungry babies await impatiently while the adults search for depleting schools of fish. It's an effective scenario that steers close to the reality that afflicts uncountable habitats around the world. The demise of species, especially birds, is so far the most horrific reality of pollution and climate change, and Wang doesn't spare even the nestlings. Oberli's mythopoetic last human alive at least figuratively and literally mitigates the meltdown with interspecies INTERDEPENDENCE. Her exquisitely lit last habitat, not unlike a homeless street nomad's, is populated by a single woman who helps the last animals and plants survive perhaps a few months longer by covering a glacier with hand-sewn swaths of cloth to slow its meltdown, and with it the extinction of species, even if for only a few weeks, days, hours. Only her dreams reveal to the audience the normalcy she has lost: a husband and baby girl nowhere to be seen when awake. The film is perhaps the most startling beautiful, imaginative and haunting of the selection, despite it being the most severe. SILVIO SOLDINI's Olmo, which is Italian for 'Elm', is a poignant yet unsentimental essay in loss that will achingly resonate for anyone who has survived a beloved tree, especially an old giant that holds up a vast canopy. In naming the old man after the tree, then depriving his grandson from ever seeing his namesake, Soldini sends out a shock that few old men suffering from asthma (no less due to the demise of trees) can endure. FAOUZI BENSAÏDI's droll comedy, A Sunny Day, is the antidote we need to restore our laughter. But it is a dark comedy that pictures zoos that substitute videos of animals for their now extinct subjects. Of course in such a dystopic atmosphere, no sunny day can go unaccompanied by sirens on the streets compelling pedestrians to seek shelter or don heavy protection from solar radiation flares.
The only enigma among the group of eleven films is SALOME LAMAS' Extraction: The Raft of the Medusa, a tableau-like minimalist dance comprised of a cluster of nearly-nude, limb-entwined bodies writhing to a poetic voiceover inspired by the painting with the same name made in 1819 by the French painter Théodore Géricault. It shouldn't deflate the poem or the performance to suggest that the key to understanding the film is to see in the dance, as in the iconic painting, the analogy that we are all clinging to a raft destined to be submerged by the oncoming storm as we reach for sightings of salvation that are no more than delusions projected onto, as much as reflected off, the unbounded and uncontrollable sea. Beside conveying that there will soon come a time when indifference to the disappearance of wildlife habitats and human support systems alike will become impossible, the film in summation holds out inspiration suggesting that the human propensity for adapting to crises, if not always alleviating them, is still a strong second act in the works. One that may yet triumph on the side of survival and replenishment. The overwhelming preoccupation of the artists with individual members of society, or with the larger societies they represent, doesn't mean the filmmakers are letting the corporations, military complexes and governments generating climate change at exasperating rates off the hook. Although none of the national and global perpetrators are named -- pointing fingers, after all, would be against U.N. diplomatic protocol, especially as most share blame more than not -- all such nations are generally made fun of or are implicated by shadowy effigies and metaphors alluding to the attitudes, beliefs, actions and inactions of ordinary people we can identify with. We, the people of the world, after all, are the feed for such institutional expansion and crowding out of the habitat.
In presenting the eleven films, totaling 1 hour and 30 minutes, as a sampling of the more sensitive and alert of the global hive mind, the film's curator, von Fürstenberg, brings to light our common, yet nomadically disparate, cultural perspectives as threatened nations, communities and individuals. As we read the range of the inhabitant's reactions to the mounting local crises—their defensive indifference, mounting alarm, compensating denial, knowledgable resignation, spiritual submission to demise—we empathically connect with each population's realization that the nature we've taken for granted is rebelling against us. As our own audience (who but us could such films be about?) not only are we familiarizing ourselves with the crises specific to our many cultures and habitats, we are intuiting a sense of familiarity with societies most of us, even in this age of the internet and its barrage of global news, thought to be remote, distinctly different, even unfathomable and incompatible with us. The artists as a whole have enabled us to visualize what we've heard, even imagined: That all peoples, so different from each other, have something to teach one another on the strategic imperatives for survival, be it pragmatic, technological and/or ideological. This may sound like a cliche for the media elite, but for billions of people around the world facing imminent hostilities, it may come as a revelation to see ourselves (and our enemies!) comparatively imagined in a range of humors that unify at least those of us seeking explanations and solutions.
Such accentuation of cultural difference is more often relegated to the margins of academic examination and debate than recommended as a feature of crisis management for a global network panicking to preserve each sovereign territory in the face of catastrophic losses—including vital sites of historical civilization. In INTERDEPENDENCE, however, the cultural and natural diversity and impermanence quickly asserts itself with each scene as inalienably defined in every plant, animal and human. Some scenes evidence the ancient belief that every earthly organism and habitat mirror the infinite cosmos that our every glimpse of the sky conveys. As such they encourage us as viewers to embrace unilateral responses to preserving habitats regardless of our cultural and territorial orientation. For not only is the unity of cultural difference in attitude and action a predominant theme of the film, it is the film's unifying conscience. A conscience that nags us to remember that the chemicals, plastics and drugs we discard travel long routes, often to a culture that is an ocean and continent away. Often one that is impoverished and lacking the facilities and skills to reconstitute such waste. And we need not share a belief in karma (as some in the film evidence) to feel the sting of responsibility for the demise of others.
NYC, November 2019
G. Roger Denson is an American cultural and art critic, theoretician, novelist and curator based in New York.