Visible Evidence 2021

The Nonhuman: Old and New Methods in Documentary Studies

Patrik Sjöberg
Belinda Smaill
Silke Panse
Respondent: James Leo Cahill
Fri, Dec 17
90 Min
Mousonturm (Studio 1), Online
Back to Program
The Nonhuman

Time, Loss, and the Imperial Woodpecker: On Watching Documentary Footage of Extinct Species

This paper discusses the way footage of extinct species allows for a reconsideration of the way documentary can conceptualize time, loss, and memory, particularly as these are experienced in a rapidly changing climate crisis. These images are seemingly wedged between, on the one hand, representations of historically distant extinctions, or losses, such as that of the dinosaurs, and, on the other, the intimacy and proximity of footage of deceased loved ones. Footage of now extinct species evokes both a sense of loss, horror, and mourning and an almost inconceivable abstraction of event and time. This discussion addresses the way documentary discourse can help us understand the complexity of these images and sounds. It relies on the work of a wide range of thinkers and artists, from: Jacques Derrida, Barbara Adam, Paul Virilio, Ann-Louise Sandahl, Belinda Smaill, Akira Lippit, and Brian Eno. The material discussed includes footage from a traditional Natural History context as well as works by artists and experimental filmmakers trying to address the extinction of species. A concluding discussion focus amateur footage from 1956 of what can be an Imperial Woodpecker, now extinct. The footage is the only known documentary representation known of the species and is highly contested. The Imperial Woodpecker could be an example of a species that has gone extinct well after the advent of the camera but of which we might not have camera produced documentation. This discussion suggests that this might be important.

Patrik Sjöberg

Patrik Sjöberg is Assistant Professor and teaches at Stockholm University of the Arts. He is the author of essays on documentary film, experimental film and sound in Swedish and English, including the book, The World in Pieces – A Study on Compilation Film (2001); and contributions to anthologies, most recently (English): “Face Blind: Documentary Media and Subversion of Surveillance”, A Companion to Contemporary Documentary Film, Ed. Alexandra Juhasz, Alisa Lebow (2015); “The Fundamental Lie: Lip Sync, Dubbing, Ventriloquism, and the Othering of Voice in Documentary Media”, Vocal Projections: Voices in Documentary (2018). He is currently working on a project on global open-air cinema cultures.

What is at Stake in Environmental History + Film History?: Royal Dutch Shell, Documentary Film and the More-than-Human Environment

Producing meaningful histories of the past and unfolding present is crucial for understanding the human dimensions of environmental crisis. Film, and documentary especially, is bound to the powerful cultural histories that can assist us in denaturalising the taken for granted assumptions about how we live and impact on the more-than-human world. I argue that it has played a pivotal role in the transforming relationships between people and the environment. This paper grapples with how we might work with this archive, considering the methodological challenges of moving beyond film as simply an illustration for environmental history or environment as one thematic among many in film history. While there is important work being undertaken at the intersections of film/media, histories and environment, there are still too few ecocritical readings of film historical concerns. In the interests of adding to this scholarship, this paper grapples with the particular methodological problem of synthesising environmental history and (documentary) film history. It considers these questions in relation to a specific case study – the work of the Shell Film Unit in Australia in the 1950s. As a decisive site for understanding sponsored documentary in the 20th century, the film production initiatives of oil companies can convey much about the relationship between the environment (and the history of Australian bio-regions), film and petroleum culture. This study is part of a broader investigation, funded by the Australian Research Council, into documentary and the Australian environment.

Belinda Smaill

Belinda Smaill is an Associate Professor in Film and Screen Studies at Monash University in Melbourne. She is the author of The Documentary: Politics, Emotion, Culture (2010), Regarding Life: Animals and the Documentary Moving Image (2016) and co-author of Transnational Australian Cinema: Ethics in the Asian Diasporas (2013). She is the Leader of the Environment and Media Research Program at Monash and is currently the lead CI on an ARC Discovery Project titled “Remaking the Australian Environment Through Documentary Film and Television.” Her essay, “Petromodernity, the Environment and Historical Film Culture,” is forthcoming in Screen (2021).

Is the Sparrow an Actant in Being Shot? The “Political Nature Film” The Day of the Sparrow with an Excursion into Political Ecology and Spinoza

This paper sets a documentary about a sparrow who had been shot in a contract killing by a television company — as it interfered with an event to be recorded — in dialogue with Bruno Latour’s notion of political ecology and Baruch Spinoza’s affectual Ethics. In a complex choreography in which flying animals and humans with and in flying weapons collide and exclude one another, the documentary connects the death of the sparrow in apparent peace in the Netherlands with the death of a German soldier in war in Afghanistan. This paper contrasts the documentary, which the filmmaker has referred to as a “political nature film,” with political ecology. It responds specifically to Latour’s example of the ‘hybrid actors’—the ‘gun-citizen’ and the ‘citizen-gun’ (1999: 179)—and objects that there only gun-citizens, but no one who is shot; only perpetrators, but no victims. In this emphasis on action of political ecology, those acted upon are blocked out. That a body can also affect another body by diminishing its power of acting, as Spinoza writes in his Ethics (1677), is averted in Latour’s example. In the emphasis on action of political ecology, those acted upon are blocked out. In response to Latour’s action composites that obscure their effects, I suggest an ecological ethics which acknowledges that bodies can be affected to the point of extinction; beyond a flat ontology in which a species cannot become extinct because it does not matter. The paper develops Spinoza’s notion of the body with respect to the body of a film as constituted through affects and affections, and considers what bodies are part of the body of a film.

Silke Panse

Silke Panse is Reader in Film, Art and Philosophy at the University for the Creative Arts. She was the co-investigator of the Screening Nature Network (2013-14) and has published on documentary in James Benning’s Environments (2018),  A Companion to Contemporary Documentary Film (2015), Marx at the Movies (2014), Screening Nature: Cinema beyond the Human (2013), Rethinking Documentary (2008), Third Text (2006) and Docalogue (2020). She has co-edited A Critique of Judgment in Film and Television (2014) and edited the forthcoming Ethical Materialities in Art and Moving Images (2022). Her current research explores relations between the ethical and the material.

Respondent: James Leo Cahill

James Leo Cahill’s research focuses on French cinema and cultural history, nonfiction and experimental media, critical theory, and historiography. He has a special interest in scientific cinema and animals and moving image media. His first book, Zoological Surrealism: The Nonhuman Cinema of Jean Painlevé (University of Minnesota Press) examines the tangled histories of cinema, Surrealism, and scientific research in the early work of French filmmaker Jean Painlevé and develops an account of cinema’s Copernican vocation, or its capacities as an instrument of scientific discovery and anti-anthropocentric displacement.