Book Reviews & Interviews

Environmental Humanities: Voices from the Anthropocene

Environmental Humanities

POSTED BY MARK TERRY – FEBRUARY 27, 2019

Environmental Humanities: Voices from the Anthropocene, edited by Serpill Oppermann and Serenella Iovino. London: Rowman and Littlefield International Ltd., 2017.

The Environmental Humanities as a field of study is relatively new. While many agree that it emerged formally as multi-disciplinary area of research in the past decade, examples of Environmental Humanities literature can be traced as far back as the late 19th century with Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in 1854 and George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature ten years later. But perhaps the most influential writer in what we now call the Environmental Humanities is Rachel Carson and her book Silent Spring. This environmental fable decried the use of pesticides, specifically DDT, so convincingly that it influenced the President of the United States to investigate and eventually impose a national ban of the chemical.

More recently, academic associations and institutes emerged to address the growing concerns of environmental issues worldwide and demanded an interdisciplinary approach to the study of environmental sciences to interpret the scientific data with a goal of influencing progressive environmental policy for the benefit of mankind, animalkind and the ecological relationship all life has with the planet. It is therefore appropriate that this book of essays – Environmental Humanities: Voices from the Anthropocene – edited by Serpill Oppermann and Serenella Iovino take an interdisciplinary approach to their content selections.

The fablesque contribution by sociology scholar Bronislaw Szerszynski, The Martian Book of the Dead, is a metaphysical meditation on Buddhism’s new branch, Mangalayana, dealing with crossing over from this life on Earth to the next life on Mars incorporating our ecological relationship to matter, time, and space – the three areas of focus in nearly all disciplines of Environmental Humanities study.

Another entry in the Ecostories and Conversations section of this book – Juan Carlos Galeano’s On Rivers – reads like an autobiography of his childhood or as an oral history of an aboriginal account of nature and both interpretations are reminiscent of Carson’s approach in Silent Spring. These poetic stories stand out in traditional academic interrogations into scientific problems, but contribute a unique perspective in addressing future and historical accounts of environmental impact – something that only a humanities’ approach can offer.

Closely related to this esoteric chapter is the section titled Nature’s Cultures and Creatures, in which contributions examine man’s environmental relationships with religion, animals, and the planet. In Wendy Wheeler’s essay, How the Earth Speaks Now: The Book of Nature and Biosemiotics as Theoretical Resource for the Environmental Humanities in the Twenty-First Century, she gives voice to the earth from both macroscopic and microscopic levels. Arguing that the earth does, in fact, speak, Wheeler explains that our relationship with the planet was good when we used to listen, but when we stopped in our god-like arrogance since the Industrial Revolution, our relationship became strained devolving to a point that seems destined to divorce. She presents an interesting case for listening to the semiotic language of nature that is “iconic and indexical, but…also symbolic and abstractive” (296). She introduces the study of DNA and RNA, seeing them not as building blocks for creating life, but as a “library” of information the cellular composition of creatures uses to define features of that life. By looking at this micro-optic picture and “listening” to its semiotic messages, we develop a more refined and informed panoptic picture of our relationship with global ecologies.

With an academic background in Environmental Humanities going back all the way to 1999, Australian scholar Kate Rigby offers a valuable perspective on environmental issues through a religious lens in her essay Religion and Ecology: Towards a Communion of Creatures. In it, she argues how irresponsible it would be to overlook the influence of religion on global ecology, especially when 85 per cent of the world’s citizens practise some form of religion. Speaking of the “profound connectedness” (275) most religions have with the cosmos, she cautions that religion and science do not exist to inform each other, but one (science) can often shape the beliefs of the other. By successfully influencing religious doctrine, there is a more profound – even spiritual – impetus to act to protect God’s creation. While focussing perhaps a little too much on Christianity, Rigby does indicate a trend for the two to actively work together citing the founding of the multi-faith Forum on Religion and Ecology by Harvard University in 1995. The success of this academic association has led to similar ones including the Canadian Forum on Religion and Ecology, the European Forum for the Study of Religion and Environment, the Australia-Pacific Forum on Religion and Ecology, and the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture in the US. As Rigby asserts, there is clearly, a productive desire in academia to foster dialogue between religion and science when it addresses environmental issues.

The more traditional disciplines of study found in the Humanities – culture, history, literature, anthropology, gender – are covered in the first three sections of this book with particular emphasis being given to the currently popular fields of ecocriticism and the Anthropocene.

After careful research into the history of ecocriticism, Scott Slovic, founding president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) in 1992 and considered one of the world’s leading scholars in ecocriticism, has placed the origin of the field of study in 1996 when Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm published their book The Ecocinema Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Slovic’s contribution to the section to Re-Mapping the Humanities, the first section of Environmental Humanities is titled Seasick Among the Waves of Ecocriticism and in it, he targets the changing terminology of the field. He points to the word “stages” – an academic term usually associated with studies in psychology – used by Glotfelty to describe the history of feminist criticism and how over the years the word “stages” was replaced by “waves” effectively politicizing feminist historiography and taking it out of traditional academic discourse. He cautions that while metaphors like “waves” assist the Environmental Humanities socio-politically, it can also exclude academics. To make his point, he cites Sarah Bebhinn’s 2006 essay Generations in Conflict – Grappling with the Feminist Wave Metaphor: “I think it’s much more useful,” she writes, “to use the wave metaphor to describe a period of time rather than a group of people…Can’t we all just work together?” He concludes by admitting that metaphors in ecocriticism will continue and cautions that we do not lose sight of that which we are critically analyzing.

The last section of the anthology I will review is perhaps the most profound as it focusses its essays on perhaps the largest and most post popular field of study for Environmental Humanities today – the Anthropocene. Riffing off the book’s subtitle, this chapter is called Voicing the Anthropocene and offers a diversity of voices from such scholars as J. Baird Callicott, Jodi Adamson, Filippo Bertoni, and Lowell Duckert, but Jan Zalasiewicz offers the most ambitious take on the topic with her entry The Extraordinary Strata of the Anthropocene.

In attempting to pinpoint the origin of man’s influence on the ecology of the planet, Zalasiewicz correctly looks to geology to help identify a source since the term Anthropocene itself has its origins in geological grammar. By looking at geological history, she argues, the fine detail of such things as the relationship between rocks and fossils helps illuminate a bigger picture of the influence or impact of creatures on the planet. It is interesting to note that the very origins of man’s impact on the environment that she seeks can be found in the same field she uses to identify its origins – geology is a study of man in which he engages and disrupts the planet’s environment in his pursuit of understanding it.

As an anthology of current study in the Environmental Humanities, the diversity of disciplines and authorship represent many valuable perspectives on the Anthropocene. It can be argued that this scholarly diversity of mankind may very well serve to inform those who can introduce progressive environmental change on a global basis. It is therefore fitting to have humanity save itself through studying the Anthropocene after causing it in the first place.

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New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses

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POSTED BY MARK TERRY – FEBRUARY 9, 2018

New Documentary Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses, edited by K. Nash, C. Hight, C. Summerhayes. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2014.

The opening quote from Katerina Cizek, a director with the National Film Board of Canada, provided in the Introduction of New Digital Ecologies: Emerging Platforms, Practices and Discourses, makes the claim that “[R]eally great documentary is about remaining open to what’s actually happening around you…” (1).

The explicit meaning of this is obvious, but the implicit meaning is the focus of this anthology of essays exploring how the technology and affordances in the digital domain are creating new opportunities in theory and praxis for the documentary. Both filmmaker and film-viewer – more accurately and frequently identified as “user” – need to be open to new advances in the genre in order to enhance their respective experiences.

The book features many of the leading scholars in the field of the digital documentary. And since there is such a variety of discourse, the book smartly divides the discussions into three sections: Expanding Documentary, investigating new ways of producing, engaging audiences and politicizing documentary content; Production Practices, showcasing how effective documentary approaches such as participatory and collaborative filmmaking are now growing in practice and impact through the global reach afforded by the digital domain; and Inter/Action: Rethinking Documentary Engagement, a section that explores how the audience is joining the filmmaker as a producer and distributor and no longer just as a mere viewer and what ethical challenges arise from this collaboration.

One of the more fascinating documentary ecologies emerging and examined in this book is the multilinear documentary. Matt Soar, one of the developers of the Korsakow system, a popular database documentary production software, contributes an in-depth chapter titled Making (with) the Korsakow System. Referring to his creation as “second-wave software” (156), Soar explains that Korsakow – and other multilinear documentary film projects – have three different kinds of editing: the first is the regular kind of editing we see in traditional filmmaking; the second, Soar refers to as “algorithmic editing” in which individual film units (“smallest narrative units” or SNUs) are assembled in a unique symbiotic manner that allows the viewer to choose which fragment to view at any given time; the third involves the viewer in this editing process as they are provided with the responsibility of selecting which SNU to view.

Another contributor to this book and on this topic is Kursakow filmmaker and teacher, Adrian Miles. He provides an interesting perspective on the SNUs, treating all film units as equal in digital documentary content – even those that are traditionally left “on the cutting room floor” (or the digital equivalent term, the “trim bin”). These elements are considered fragments of the database and as such, Miles argues that an editor “no longer decides on a specific, and a single connection between one shot and the next” (71). The viewer now assumes the task of assemblage and does so with all available SNUs, including those in the “trim bin”, now defined as a database.

The implicit narrative of this book is that these new and emerging theories, technologies and ecologies would not be possible without the digital domain. There are unique affordances online that have provided enhanced advancements in production, engagement and dissemination of the documentary film.

Kate Nash explores this phenomenon in her essay, Clicking on the World: Documentary Representation and Interactivity. She argues that documentary viewers in the digital domain are no longer mere “spectators” (50). The range of practices expected of the digital documentary film viewer are now described as “forms of interaction” (50) – a definition which makes no sense in the traditional cinema experience of passive film screening.

The theory and praxis in this new world of documentary production has shortened the distance between filmmaker and audience. In some cases, production and engagement are simultaneous and may even provide the opportunity for maker and user to communicate directly with each other in streaming chat rooms or comments pages. This kind of interactivity is defined by Nash as a “multidimensional phenomenon in which the action of users, documentary makers, subjects and technical systems together constitute a dynamic ecosystem” (51). Indeed, a documentary story in this environment experiences unprecedented levels of mutual engagement, but does this result in enhanced audience influence for activist and social issue projects?

Alexandra Juhasz, in her essay, Ceding the Activist Documentary, believes the possibility exists: “A growing body of digital media studies … attests to the empowering potentials for the Internet-based documentary” (39). She posits that the “greatest challenge for the activist digital documentary will prove to be how to generate political practices from [the documentary filmmaker’s] artfully placed and digitally linked evidence” (44). In my own research, I have placed the multilinear documentary within the digital space of a Geographic Information System map specifically for the political practices of the United Nations. Its goal is to bridge the gap between science and policy by presenting climate data through visualizations (cartographic and filmic) to enhance the written word of the texts currently used by policymakers. Delegates attending the COP22 climate summit in Marrakech, Morocco responded with great enthusiasm for the experimental project and, as a result, the Youth Climate Report was adopted in November, 2016 as an official partner program of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change under its Article 6 mandate for education and outreach.

The book also examines this new documentary ecology in Sandra Gaudenzi’s essay, Strategies of Participation: The Who, What and When of Collaborative Documentaries. Referring to the online documentary audience as prosumers, she argues that the new documentary film viewer is not merely content to watch a documentary, but to assist in the making of it. This raises certain ethical questions surrounding intellectual property ownership and the journalistic integrity of content.

When it comes to such collaborations as seen in “mosaic” projects such as the Youth Climate Report, Gaudenzi argues that while they are successful at visualizing “the multiple through a single uniform interface, they end up standardizing it…” (138). This may well apply to projects like One Day on Earth which she uses as an example, showcasing random fragments of a day in the life of people around the world, however, projects with consistent themes – like climate research – provide a database of factual information specifically required by a policymaking body.

It is therefore evidently possible to affect social change on a political level using the accessible digital tools now available to the documentary filmmaker within the “New Documentary Ecologies” examined in this book. Together with this, new and emerging digital environments for documentary production promise to enrich the genre’s implicit goal of impacting on progressive social change.

 

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Screening Truth to Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism

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POSTED BY MARK TERRY – SEPTEMBER 7, 2015

Screening Truth to Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism, edited by Ezra Winton and Svetla Turnin. Montreal: Cinema Politica, 2014.

         Screening Truth to Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism is a collection of essays and interviews related to the films and filmmakers of Cinema Politica (CP), and as such provides an excellent source of Canadian documentary work that pursues effecting positive social change.

This non-profit doc-screening organization, which started in Montreal’s Concordia University, has established an international reputation for itself as a dedicated showcase of political and activist themed documentary films, most of which have been made by Canadian filmmakers. Its reputation in the documentary film world is quite highly respected and its achievements in bringing together films and filmmakers and the community (with often sold-out attendance) in a relatively short period of just over ten years is quite remarkable.

In their introduction, co-founders Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton point out that their book is a collection of reflections on “activist documentaries and documentary activism,” an important distinction as not all activist documentaries employ documentary activism and not all documentary activism incorporates activist documentaries.

They go on to say that “just as a social movement could inspire the making of a documentary, a documentary in turn could activate a social movement.” This is a profound statement that highlights the fundamental power of the documentary. The non-fiction essence of the genre combined with the journalistic disciplines of reporting the truth give credibility and often unique access to a story in need of illumination.

Often these stories foreground social issues that require attention, stolen from the glare of dominant and distracting media hegemonies, in order to improve each situation. The documentary frequently has the superior ability of realizing these changes more than the mere written or spoken word.

Montreal filmmaker Marielle Nitoslawaska sums it up best: “Documentary filmmaking can express our human existence in a better, more complete way than any other art form, any other genre of cinema.”

Another interesting aspect of CP’s mandate are the “four Ps” that are essential to their success: Producers, Publics, Programming and Presence. While Producers and Programming seem to be obvious elements crucial to the existence of any film society, the line blurs a bit between Publics and Presence.

What the editors (and CP founders) are suggesting is that while having the public in attendance at screenings is critical, the presence of certain disenfranchised individuals and community groups at screenings of films focused on such diverse groups, is equally important. As a result, they actively reach out to these groups as part of their mandate.

The book includes an essay by Liz Miller and Thomas Waugh – The Process of Place: Grassroots Documentary Screenings – that raises some interesting questions. In quoting Susan Sontag from her 2003 book on photography Regarding the Pain of Others, the question of the effectiveness of viewing the suffering of fellow humans is posed: “Do (photographs) actually propel to action or are they a perverse form of voyeurism?”

In their attempt to steer the film-watching experience to the former, CP organizers place a high importance on having key figures in attendance. While always attempting to have the filmmaker present either in person or via Skype, organizers will also reach out to local activists currently pursuing the issue presented in the film. This “helps audiences transition from the drama that has unfolded on the screen to a network of individuals who are working on the issue.”

I find this approach very productive and helpful to an audience motivated to act but not knowing how to initiate action. In my own experiences hosting screenings of my films there is nothing more frustrating to an audience than to see an important issue convincingly reported on the screen, being motivated to do something about it, but then walking away feeling one does not know where to begin. Local activists in attendance provide a bridge, and therefore a solution to this problem.

In Shannon Walsh’s essay, Speak for Yourself: The Cultural Politics of Participatory Video, she addresses one of the aims of a sub-genre of the documentary film as it originated with the NFB’s Challenge for Change series: “(Participatory Video) places the onus on the individual or local community to make social change.”

She addresses an “implicit naivety” in the expectation that those depicted as victims have the knowledge, ability and confidence to run with their co-produced film to the powers-that-be in order to create the desired social change. If the Participatory Video filmmaker is not of the activist variety, surely the already-overworked subjects cannot be expected to use the medium in an effective lobbying effort to improve their situation. It would appear, Walsh suggests, that a third party is required to act as intermediary between the film’s subjects and those who interpret their stories.

         Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters director Steve James offers a journalistic perspective on the responsibility of the documentary filmmaker and why it is so crucial to use the documentary as an instrument for social change in his essay We Aren’t Sorry for This Interruption. In it he states that the documentary film has two essential purposes: “to reveal the world and/or to change the world.”

He explains that documentary’s dual role of film presentation and public outreach means that it pursues both a creative and journalistic truth while used to affect positive social change. “…the ultimate effectiveness of the latter is due in large part to the integrity of the former.”

I experienced this first-hand with my own film when Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, Achim Steiner, told me that had my films presented what seemed like an agenda on either side of the issue of climate change, they would not have been invited to participate in the policy-making process. The sought-for objectivity of journalistic reportage made the film a reliable source, thereby demonstrating the veracity of James’s assertion.

         Screening Truth to Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism is not only a fascinating read for anyone curious about documentary’s role in socio-political activism, but its diverse perspectives from documentary professionals and scholars offer some unique insights on Canada’s leading role in effectively using the genre to speak, or screen, truth to power.

Published by Art Threat, a guide to political art and cultural policy, March 7, 2015.

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INTERVIEW: Erik Solheim, Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme

QUESTION:  Please explain how data visualizations of climate research such as those presented in the Youth Climate Report project assist delegates, negotiators and policymakers in their comprehension of scientific research. How valuable is this enhanced understanding in creating resolutions and policy at the COP conferences?

ANSWER: It comes down to a need to find the best methods for communicating science. The most important thing to remember is that the decision-makers are not scientists. Certainly, they have a grasp of the basic concepts, but politicians and civil servants are also generalists. Data visualisation in (the Youth Climate Report GIS Project) is one of the incredible tools available to get the science and the data across.

QUESTION: Previously, only written reports from the scientific community were available for conference delegates to read and understand. How do the videos of the Youth Climate Report enhance their understanding of this data?

ANSWER: Above all, it’s crucial that climate change is seen as a here and now issue – something that is already impacting the world around us as we speak. We need to tell those stories and help people make those connections. This issue is more than just about timeframes and numbers. Ultimately, it’s about people.

QUESTION: How important is the involvement of the community of global youth in this project and in the process of environmental policy creation at the COP conferences?

ANSWER: Every voice counts and every voice must be heard. Climate action is about leaving behind a safe planet for future generation. Every delegate needs to be reminded of that moral obligation at every possible opportunity!

QUESTION: The Global Video Youth Competition awards two young filmmakers with trips to the COP conferences and gives them an opportunity to work alongside members of the Communications department of the UNFCCC as interns. How valuable is this participation to global youth and to other stakeholders of the COP conferences?

ANSWER: The strength of the Paris Agreement is that it is open and aspirational, not closed and binding. It’s not enough to say that everyone should have a seat at the table – we have to make sure we get fresh talent and great young minds into the process. Openness is transparency, and that implies accountability.

Bonn, Germany, April 27, 2018.

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INTERVIEW: Dr. Helen Hughes, University of Surrey, author of Green Documentary

QUESTION: What is your assessment of the Youth Climate Report GIS Project?

ANSWER: I think I first came across the work of Mark Terry when I was researching a conference paper on online sustainability video for the International Association of Environmental Communication. At the time I had no idea that this was the work of Mark Terry but I was impressed by the extensive amount of video material linked to the United Nations website and my estimation of the organisation and its outreach was increased.

As part of my research, I was interested to see how online audiovisual communications about the environment and sustainability had developed in the age of Facebook and corporate sustainability departments. I felt it was worth thinking about how recent the introduction of online audiovisual content has been and about how rapid the development has been. To quote myself from my paper, ‘Online video became technically viable for mass upload from 2004 with the establishment of Facebook and then YouTube in 2005. NGOs were quick to establish YouTube channels. Greenpeace created their YouTube channel in October 2006, the World Wildlife Fund in July 2006. The Nature Conservancy joined YouTube in 2007. Videos relating to sustainability projects, which can also be understood as environmentally themed videos, have also been posted by inter-governmental organizations such as the UN (2006) and the World Bank (2006), and by the European Commission (2006).

I also pointed out that ‘International Corporations joined YouTube at the same time or earlier, so, for example, a site for Pepsi was set up in 2005 and for Coca-Cola in 2006. ExxonMobil joined YouTube in April 2006, Shell in September 2005 while BP’s YouTube channel is quite late dating from 2010.’

In this context, it can be seen how important and visionary the work of Mark Terry has been. He has recognised the importance of this platform for public communication and has used it to do something quite unexpected and significant. The situation that I was interested in was the identification of an online battle between the social face of institutions and corporations and the attacks on them from critics for their failure to care for the environment. Mark Terry, however, has demonstrated an entirely different and probably much more productive and positive approach.

ThroughThe Youth Climate Report GIS Project, a multilinear, database documentary film project he has created an opportunity for young people and scientists all over the world to express their activities with respect to caring for the environment. He has opened a window on the many ways in which people have been thinking about the issues. Sometimes the short videos appear naïve, sometimes the young scientists appear to be locked into their own worlds and hardly able to communicate, but always there is a sense that here is a glimpse into a vast and hidden process of activity at the very grassroots. Looking at the videos from across the world there is a wonderful diversity of approach both to video making and to the kinds of science relevant to the problem of the environment and climate change research.

My research focuses in the main on environmental documentaries made for cinema and television. This is what I wrote about in my book Green Documentary (2014). These have high production values and are as much about entertainment as getting messages across. I believe that the documentary, a very flexible and creative form, has been an important form of communication in the public sphere. Mark Terry has been extremely effective here too with his films The Antarctica Challenge: A Global Warning (2009) and The Polar Explorer (2011). Models of clear, accurate, visually arresting communication, he has shown through these films how important such vehicles can be for the policy-making process. For me, however, the UN online project is the most amazing visionary experiment.

Guildford, England, September 12, 2017.