Ecovisions: Seeing Animals in Recent Ethnographic Film

By Anat Pick

our-daily-bread-nikolaus-geyrhalter-3.jpgOur Daily Bread, 2005

"In some remote corner of the universe, effused into innumerable solar-systems, there was once a star upon which clever animals invented cognition. It was the haughtiest, most mendacious moment in the history of this world, but yet only a moment. After Nature had taken breath awhile the star congealed and the clever animals had to die. – Someone might write a fable after this style, and yet he would not have illustrated sufficiently, how wretched, shadow-like, transitory, purposeless and fanciful the human intellect appears in Nature". – Friedrich Nietzsche

The 2006 Experimenta on tour delivered some of the rich pickings of 2005’s London Film Festival’s avant-garde weekend to cinemas across the UK. The selection was diverse but the theme of ecology in its widest sense stood out: the environment as a cinematic subject in its own right in James Benning’s 13 Lakes (2004) and Ten Skies (2004), and Michael Robinson’s You Don’t Bring Me Flowers (2005); or the convoluted relations of love and hate between humans and animals in Vladimir Tyulkin’s Lord of the Flies (1990) and About Love (2005), and Guy Ben-Ner’s Wild Boy (2004). Whether or not this signals a clear new focus in experimental filmmaking, such films impose on us a reconsideration of our own anthropocentric visual habits – the cinematic tendency to render visible all objects, to tell all stories, on a strictly human scale.

The implicit task of avant-garde may have always been, in Susan Sontag’s words, a radical “rescaling of the human.” At its farthest imaginative point, avant-garde articulates cinema’s potential for shaping another optical reality, one not centred strictly on human form, perception, and identity. Besides the Experimenta programme (and such themed screenings as last year’s L’Homme et La Bête season, organised by the Paris-based Documentaire sur grand écran), numerous recent experimental films place the nonhuman at their centre. Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread (2006) screened in this year’s London Film Festival is an observational documentary that borrows from both the slaughterhouse surrealism of Georges Franju’s Le Sang des Bêtes (1949), and Frederick Wiseman’s institutional portraits Primate, Meat, and Zoo. Tate Modern’s first UK exhibition of Pierre Huyghe’s work addressed ecological tragedy with grandeur and warmth. But it is perhaps Ken Jacob’s stunning magic lantern projection Krypton is Doomed (2005), setting the original Superman radio broadcast of 1940 against a bombardment of flashing, twisted shapes that most originally exemplifies the flight of avant-garde from the dominance of the human figure. It makes perfect sense for this questioning of the centrality of the human in art to take place as an allegory about pending environmental collapse, told through the eyes of superhuman aliens.

Reassessing the human form, its contours and proportions, is particularly valuable in the field of ethnography, and so it is not surprising that some of the most innovative attempts to introduce a nonhuman cinematic perspective have occurred within the realm of what Catherine Russell termed “experimental ethnography.”

Ethnographic film traditionally embodied the strained looking relations between “Self” and “Other”: between a Western observer and a non-Western observed. But whereas ethnography, from its very inception, never fully adhered to the clean-cut divisions between “us” and “them,” both the familiar Self, and its foreign Other have remained conceptually and concretely human. A closer look at many ethnographic films reveals a similar preoccupation with animals and with the identity of species as an integral part of ethnography’s excursions into the “Other’s territory.” Attempts to observe, preserve, and understand human history and culture are increasingly acknowledged as inseparable from a meditation on the nature of species, the contested boundaries between the human and the animal and interspecies encounters. Everywhere, invisible lines are repeatedly drawn in the sand to separate the human from the animal. All cultures, – and ours more than any other – anxiously patrol these invisible borders on which hangs our very way of life, borders which, however fateful, are also infinitely fragile. Animals are, then, as central to ethnographic film as they are to cinema more generally.

Indeed, filmic fascination with the animal body, and particularly with its violation and elimination, coincided with the emergence of the cinematic medium itself. From its earliest days, cinema strove to “capture” and “process” the animal body as the purest manifestation of the moving image (Thomas Edison’s 1903 Electrocution of an Elephant, in which Topsy the elephant, a well-known Coney Island attraction, was executed after killing three humans, is an early example). Cinema’s long preoccupation with animals has reached a certain pitch in recent years. A strange obsession with animals is now apparent in all areas of contemporary art, film and video, from avant-garde to popular wildlife documentaries, art-house and large-scale commercial productions.

What is aesthetically, symbolically – and also ethically – at stake in filming animals as part of the observation of human cultures? Ethnography’s location at the crossroads between culture and species makes it a particularly fruitful area for considering the cinematic animal. One of the most impressive attempts in recent ethnographic film to communicate a nonhuman perspective is Peter Brosens and Dorjkhandyn Turmunkh’s State of Dogs (1998), the second in Brosens’ Mongolia Trilogy (City of the Steppes [1994], Poets of Mongolia [1999]). Other films include Thomas BalmèsMaharajah Burger (2000), and the wonderful studies of post-Soviet life by Sergei Dvortsevoy, Bread Day (1998), Highway (1999), and In the Dark (2004). Tyulkin’s Lord of the Flies and About Love , mentioned in an earlier issue of Vertigo , are of the most unique films of recent years. All of these classify as Russell’s experimental ethnography, but in terms of their ambitious rethinking of the conditions of vision, they ought perhaps to be thought of as “visionary ethnography.”

our-daily-bread-nikolaus-geyrhalter.jpgOur Daily Bread, 2005

The importance of this emergent trend in experimental ethnography is twofold. First, these films insist that ethnographic curiosity passes through the animal. Second, they shift the visual centre of gravity away from the human, reflecting a broader environmental range in which the human assumes its place within a larger order of life. There is here a daring challenge to the established norms of ethnographic observation and perspective.

As a product of late 19th century colonialism, ethnography is often charged with rehearsing the familiar western dialectic of power which at once dehumanizes the “native,” and yet reins him into the fold of an increasingly globalised, universal humanity. Despite being ostensibly about other people/s, then, ethnography is crucially if clandestinely preoccupied with the boundaries of species  –  with when and how the indigenous “other” becomes “human,” and, correspondingly, with the on-looking western self’s affirmation of its own humanity. Beyond this dynamic dualism of de- and re-humanization, ethnography’s fixation on the limits of humanity also suggests that what a culture means (to both insiders and outsiders) can first and foremost be addressed through how it treats animals.

By featuring an animal as the privileged nonhuman observer in Brosens’ State of Dogs , or by posing the question of the animal as the crucial wager in the cultural comparison between East and West in Balmès Maharajah Burger , these filmmakers do not merely stretch the definition of ethnography beyond the question of human cultures, they self-reflexively examine the underlying humanism that governs so many seminal ethnographies (the films of Jean Rouch, or Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, shot between 1947-54 [1985]). State of Dogs instates a different mode of looking which stresses the interconnectedness between the human and its nonhuman environment, replacing the old mantras of scientific observation (and truth), with an expanded notion of vision and the visionary.

Thomas BalmèsMaharajah Burger illustrates this point exactly by contrasting the treatment of cows in India with their fate in the capitalist West. The film takes its name from McDonalds’ first branch in New Delhi, which featured on its menu, to the open outrage of local Hindus, the “maharajah burger.” The film focuses initially on the events surrounding the outbreak of mad cow disease in the UK, events which saw a kind of euphoric eruption of violence whose visual iconography was disturbingly reminiscent of the Holocaust. In one scene, a group of Hindus is watching British news footage of the mass extermination of cows. We see them as they sit, crossed legged and incredulous, taking in the images of systematic slaughter. In an effective reversal and looping of the ethnographic gaze, we are watching them, watching us. Their horror and rage at witnessing cows treated as industrial waste becomes our object of contemplation, urging us to reconsider the fixity of our perception of these animals and their place in our culture.

In an altogether different manner to Maharajah Burger, State of Dogs too exemplifies the creative extension of the domain of ethnography. While properly ethnographic, State of Dogs directly obscures the familiar position of ethnographic observation. The film insists on the fundamental role of animals within ethnographic cinema while at the same time featuring animals as the limit point of ethnography itself, critiquing ethnography from without.

From its very first shots State of Dogs opens up to a nonhuman space, a space  and a perspective   – which elude the scientific, objective, and documentary credentials of ethnographic humanism. This space is literally skewed and wounded, like the stray dogs shot and killed by a lone hunter at the beginning of the film. A mythic documentary or documentary myth, State of Dogs occasions painful explorations of the violence needed to sustain a purely human domain, and the “hygienic impulse” underlying human civilisation.

State of Dogs is the story of Baasar, a stray dog killed in Mongolia’s city of Ulan Bator. Baasar is shot dead early on in the film by a dog hunter employed by the city to “clean up” its 120,000 strays. Mongolians believe that when a dog dies he is reincarnated as a human being, and that it is an evil act to kill a dog. The film is a poetic mosaic of “scenes from a life” in Mongolia. The images are held together by a 3rd person narration of Baasar’s reflections as his soul rises from his body and prepares for its next human incarnation. Looking at the world he has left behind, Baasar remembers his happy life as a sheepdog before he was abandoned.

A second important event introduced at the beginning of the film is a total eclipse. Mongolian legend has it that the dragon Rah threatened to destroy all earthly life by swallowing the sun and the moon, and that the world was saved by humans pleading with the evil dragon. Three dimensions, or perspectives, are at work here: that of the city’s inhabitants; Baasar’s animal perspective; and the natural and cosmological order. Only one of these is human, and State of Dogs links all three – human/ animal/natural – not simply in order to observe Mongolian mythology and life but as vehicles for surpassing a human-centred vision.

our-daily-bread-nikolaus-geyrhalter-2.jpgOur Daily Bread, 2005

The intermingling of perspectives is evident from the film’s first shot – not visually but through sound. A human figure stands with its back to us. The first sounds are those of dogs and birds. Only then does the human narrator turn around and speak in human language. He recites a poem about seven reasons to die and to live. As his voice builds to a dramatic pitch, the barking too gets louder, as if in sync with human awareness of the cycles of life and death. Vladimir Tyulkin’s About Love – an extraordinary film about Nina Perebeyeva, a woman who cares for seventy abandoned dogs in her one bedroom apartment – takes this attentiveness to the inhuman voice to its ultimate conclusion: there is no spoken (human) language in the film at all, and the action takes place against the deafening sonic backdrop of dogs’ barks and howls. This drowning out of the human in the animal in Brosens and Tyulkin has the effect of an appeal by the animal to the human, an appeal that speaks without relying on human words, concepts, and ideas: pure expression. At this point too the cinematic and poetic turn ethical.

The rhythms of death and regeneration dominate State of Dogs. Baasar’s soul follows a young pregnant woman. When, at the end of the film, we see her give birth, Baasar’s dog-spirit prepares to inhabit the newborn’s body. But the very last scene returns bleakly to the garbage dump where Baasar’s carcass had been left to rot, and we revisit an earlier sequence in slow motion, the final struggle of a dying dog against his human assassin.

From the outset, State of Dogs couches the stark realism of human history within the mysticism and poeticism of Baasar’s travelling soul. The dog’s perspective reaches us via the 3rd person voiceover. This is not the 1st person talking animal – that contrived device of so many commercial exploits (e.g. Babe ). Such a narratological ploy all too crudely imposes a human perspective on the nonhuman and has little interest in what the philosopher Stanley Cavell called the “independent existence of other minds.” Baasar occupies a space neither fully assimilated into human history, nor wholly at odds with it. One can think here of J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace as a literary equivalent in which swarms of unruly, homeless dogs rupture the false unity of historical realism. Finally, under the encroaching darkness of a total eclipse, State of Dogs works at the level of cosmic or natural history – the laws of material necessity, of procreation and decay, which govern all living creatures.

What do Brosens and Turmunkh have to say about the demands of ethnographic observation? At the outset, State of Dogs breaks down the conventional dichotomy between Observer and Observed. But the film goes further than that by simultaneously transcending the dichotomy between the human and the animal. Neither Observer nor Observed is exclusively human, which lays bare a whole range of questions, not just about the nature of cinematic observation but also about cinematic subjectivities: who counts as a person (or a character)? What does it mean to cinematically observe the nonhuman? How do we incorporate nonhuman lives into the language and grammar of film, and what, in so doing, do we owe them? These questions are broadly cinematic, and more narrowly ethnographic. And they all return to species as that crucial if forgotten cinematic register.

One important way in which State of Dogs works against common observational codes is by breaking with the positivist modern tradition of scientific verification. Like Tyulkin’s plunging into the Dante-esque world of Kirill Ignatyevich Schpak in Lord of the Flies (complete with the monstrous images of Hieronymus Bosch), State of Dogs replaces “observing” with “seeing.” Brosens’ film is located somewhere between two filmic moods of our particular zeitgeist. On the one hand, State of Dogs frustrates the present fondness for the “evidence-based.” Much can be said about the current fetishisation of Evidence (from the run-up to the Iraq war, to popular hits like CSI, in which an observable world – conceived in its entirety as a “crime scene” – becomes the dissectible object of scientific violence and the site for the corroboration of reactionary morals). The bloated observationalism of wildlife documentaries such as the BBC’s Planet Earth is one recent example of this frenzy-for-the-observed. As in Antonioni’s classic Blow-Up (1966), so in these films observation is so inflated and enhanced that it becomes fantastical. Behind the HD cinematographic “insights” of Planet Earth rests the dream of technology and scientific observation, while the series’ audio-visual pleasures steer it steadily towards melodrama. Against such positivism, State of Dogs’ counter-ethnography trades documentary observation for other ways of looking. I call State of Dogs visionary ethnography because “vision” sees beyond what is observable and invokes the unseen as well as the seen.

At the other end of the cinematic spectrum is art-house’s return to animals, most eagerly to scenes of actual animal slaughter (e.g. André Téchiné’s Les Temps qui Changent, Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay, Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video and Caché). This snuff aesthetics (ironically marked by the observational asceticism of cinema vérité) hopes to shake off the polite numbness of the contemporary bourgeoisie by investing the digitalized life of an urban and supposedly alienated humanity with the analogue, tactile reality of the animal. But these films, Haneke’s most obviously, remain closed in on themselves inside a strictly human frame, and thus fail to exude any genuine interest in or compassion for their human subjects. State of Dogs, Lord of the Flies, and About Love, all of which do not shy away from documenting animal deaths, nonetheless usher in a type of vision that sees human and nonhuman interact reflexively. They thus eschew the shock tactics of filmed animal death that serve to “re-animate” so many contemporary art-house productions.

Animal ethnographies tell us that the engagement with culture both abroad and closer to home involves an intimate reckoning not only with the human, but also with animals and with nature. Beyond the fashionable theoretical contestations of humanism lies the task of actively experiencing the redrawing of the conditions of vision that currently determine not simply how we see animals on screen, but whether we see them at all. These films (the best of which come to us from the fallen outposts of the Soviet empire, and from Asia) offer some of the most innovative reflections on humanity’s relationship to its nonhuman surroundings, not in the format of activist eco-cinema, but in the less direct, and more radical tradition of avant-garde film. A new and explicit focus on films experimenting with the themes of human/animal relations and the environment is, I believe, both timely and beneficial to the continued promotion of non-commercial cinema. This type of cinema’s poetic potential cannot be overestimated, for it fulfils avant-garde’s most far-reaching promise: to really question, as Nietzsche’s remarks try to do, the perspective and scale and on which we view the world, and the sort of ethics we then draw from this scale of vision.

Information on L’Homme et La Bête screenings at the Cinéma des Cinéastes is available at:

George Clark, “Seeking the Other” Vertigo vol.9.2 Autumn/Winter 2005, pp.12-13.

Anat Pick writes about animals and ethics. She lectures in Film at the University of East London.