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How to recenter the nonhuman? More and more filmmakers are asking this same question in response to the multi-faceted ecologic crises currently unfolding and in line with developments in contemporary philosophy and theory. It has also been one of the central questions in my own recent filmmaking (including ASBESTOS, co-directed with Graeme Arnfield, Berlinale Forum Expanded 2017) and research. 

It has now almost become a truism to bemoan that the history (of mainstream) fiction and non-fiction cinema has thus far centered upon human protagonists, stories and concerns. Films have been made about humans via visual codes that have become habitually legible to human film viewers and by the use of technologies developed with the explicit aim of emulating human sight. So how might the nonhuman be recentered cinematically? Filmmakers could approach this via the content of their films: eschew human protagonists and focus directly on nonhuman subject matter. They could explore it via form: experiment with the use of camera, framing, movement, editing, sound and duration in ways that challenge and destabilize human subjectivity. Or they could design a way of working with specific types of image-making technology that allow for the autonomy of the apparatus, itself a nonhuman agent, to make its presence felt. 

Adopting the nonhuman perspective of an artificial intelligence

Indeed, if a filmmaker’s aim is to adopt a nonhuman perspective and highlight nonhuman agencies, they may likely choose to do all of the above: design a technology-based process directly in response to a nonhuman subject matter and let the form arise in the process. Viera Čákanyová’s FREM (Berlinale Forum 2020) is a striking example of such an approach. The director refers to it as a non-anthropocentric film, literally without a human at its center. The film’s protagonist is conceived to be an artificial intelligence, whose subjectivity is expressed not narratively but formally and technologically. Čákanyová seeks to adopt the AI’s nonhuman perspective by highlighting the subjectivity and autonomy of the nonhuman apparatus. Shot with drones in the desolate and striking landscape of Antarctica, the film achieves perspectival positions and movements untethered from any human position of observation. The lack of visible human influence on the landscape alludes to a deep past or a deep future, yet the viewer’s likely knowledge of the ecological changes about to befall Antarctica due to melting ice sheets means that the film can also be viewed as the record of a world on the brink. Over the course of the film’s duration, the nonhuman vision presented on screen comes to mesh with our human subjectivity and thus perhaps allows us a glimpse into an alternative, non-anthropocentric world, giving us new tools for contemplating our place in this world. 

Any account of contemporary work of this nature would be remiss not to place it in relation to Michael Snow’s LA RÉGION CENTRALE (1971). This now-canonical film was shot in the rocky landscape of Northern Quebec by a specially-designed machine that could tilt, pan and rotate the camera 360 degrees along every axis, independently of a human operator. The result, as Irmgard Emmelhainz contends, is that “LA RÉGION releases the subject from its human coordinates”, enacting a “displacement of the human agent from the subjective center of operations.”  The gaze of the camera is definitively not human. As Snow himself suggests in his writing, the camera “more and more sees as a planet does,” transporting the subjectivity of the gaze from the viewer to the ground of the landscape itself.   Snow writes that he “wanted to make a film in which what the camera-eye did in the space would be completely appropriate to what it saw, but at the same time equal to it.”  It is fairly straightforward to understand the first part of this sentence—completely appropriate to what it saw—as developing a formal strategy directly in response to the subject matter. Creating a camera movement equal to the environment it is documenting is a much more intriguing proposition. Snow’s approach to this is to develop the always already present affinity between the nonhuman apparatus and the nonhuman subject to its fullest extent. 

On their own terms, both FREM and LA RÉGION CENTRALE are undeniably spectacular achievements. I have always found it really productive, for example, to share them with students when engaging with these topics. At the same time, there are some philosophical and political questions around their central conceits that remain open for me. Is it legitimately possible to generate an experience of nonhuman subjectivity by artistic means? Is that even the most urgent objective? What is the value of appealing to the idea of untouched nature? Perhaps it is more pressing to problematize the very construction of the concept of ‘nature’, something that at this time, on this planet, exists only as that—a concept. The material reality we in fact occupy is better described by what Donna Haraway calls natureculture, a linguistic construction that embodies the fact that existing concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ are not fit for purpose in describing a world in which natureculture forms an inviolable whole. Cinematically recentering the nonhuman need not only mean speculatively excluding the human (an impossible task in the material world or in relation to a film’s spectatorship). It can also resemble a rigorous examination of the nuances and textures of the innumerable and inextricable intersections between human and nonhuman processes, agencies and materialities. 

Studying the intersection of the human and nonhuman

In the films discussed above, the primary human artefact present is the nonhuman gaze of the recording apparatus. In Raul Domingues’ TERRA QUE MARCA (Striking Land, Berlinale Forum 2022), the human gaze of the handheld camera caresses a digger raking up dirt, as the film takes the intersection of the human and nonhuman, the geological and technological, as its very object of study. The film consists of observational images of land in the process of being marked by human intervention, whether fields being plowed, material being dug up, roads being constructed or footsteps simply being left in the mud. A shot of dust being shoveled onto a wheelbarrow cuts to a shot of a bend in a motorway framed as a geological formation. Which one is the land, the film seems to ask, the displaced material or the reconstituted landscape? Over time, the cultivated land turns into plants, while the dug-up land is turned into a brick wall.  

There is nothing unfamiliar about the cinematography in TERRA QUE MARCA. Mostly fluctuating between handheld and tripod shots, it is not trying to create a film form specific to its subject matter. The artistry in this film lies in what the filmmaker chooses to focus the camera on, and how these things are placed into relation with each other in editing. People do appear in the film, but only with the same force and frequency as machines, plants and piles of dust. Humans are shown to be one of many biological and technological agents implicated in the circulation of material in a given ecology. The film demonstrates that, as Stacy Alaimo posits, “‘the environment’ is not located somewhere out there, but is always the very substance of ourselves,” and that “humans are the very stuff of the material, emergent world.”  The visual focus of the film is on land that has been altered by human intervention through industrial, agricultural and infrastructural processes, processes that visibly mark the land. Yet the film’s Portuguese title, which translates literally to “Land That Marks”, implies that the land is, in fact, the agent that marks. The land is marked but it leaves its mark in return. The film depicts an ecology that is defined by human intervention at every scale, and yet has its own agency that supersedes human intention. The land here is both subject and object. The land and the humans that labor on it act and are acted upon in reciprocal fashion. 

A de-centering of the nonhuman is a fiction only possible through mediation. In the material world, every aspect of human life relies on and emerges from the material conditions of the nonhuman world. A cinematic recentering of the nonhuman is thus an issue of engaging with the world such as it exists, rather than artificially upholding a fiction that denies “the intimacy, porosity, and permeability of humans and human organizations within the web of life,” in the words of Jason W. Moore.  Developing modes of representation and communication that can account for the role of the nonhuman in the fabric of our existence is an urgent question not only in relation to explicitly environmental issues, such as climate change and ecosystem collapse, but nearly every major social and political challenge on scales both local and global, from food and housing to pandemics and energy supply. As Sean Cubitt evocatively writes, “the iron in our blood, the salt in our tears, tie us as deeply to our tools and planet as to one another, and we will never reach one another until we reach, and reach through, the nonhuman.”  The challenge for filmmakers is how to extend a medium modelled on human perception to produce experiences that account for our profound integration in the world. 

Sasha Litvintseva is an artist, filmmaker, writer and researcher whose work is situated on the uncertain thresholds of the perceptible and the communicable, organism and environment and knowledge regimes and power. Her work has been exhibited and screened worldwide, including at the Berlinale, Rotterdam, Courtisane and Cinema du réel film festivals as well as at the Baltic Triennial and the Transmediale, among many others.


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