The Fragile Relations of Ecology

By Janet Harbord

ecology-sarah-turner.jpgEcology, 2007

A new British feature film by Sarah Turner reinvents narrative as an avant-garde form

A scorched hill top. A tower and a few other buildings scattered about. A rope hanging from a tree whipped into motion. A girl perpetually forcing herself under water into the murky filaments floating in a pool. A woman showering behind a netted curtain improvised against the outside of a building. These are some of the images of a film that turns our attention towards the complex fragile relations between people. Appearing to reference a debate on the ethics of the environment, Ecology innovatively turns the idea towards the ethics of emotional relations and the far less mapped terrain of psychic recycling, the debris passed on and re-circulated among people.

Ecology: oikos from the Greek meaning ‘house’, and logos, the word. The etymology of the word directs us towards home, and this is a fitting orientation for a film in which the three characters are at once in foreign territory, but have taken their familiar (and familial) infrastructure with them. Ecology is a feature film in three parts, three characters and three stories to be screened in any order: the stories of a mother, a daughter and a son, on holiday in Majorca. This is not the Majorca of package holidays, but a writer’s retreat, a location solar-powered and environmentally responsible. Transplanted from white working-class suburbia to the sun-scorched Majorcan hills, here they are matter out of place, forced to experience quotidian domestic rituals as bodily realities of pissing, shitting and washing. There is no suburban glossing of waste; what goes round comes around. Ecology, as a concept and as a film, assures us that we are no longer in an age of repression but of circulation. What we find unbearable we pass on or place inside of others.

ecology-sarah-turner-2.jpgEcology, 2007

This liminal relation between the interior and exterior is reworked in the layers of the film. Each story entraps us within the psyche of a character, reinventing a modernist literary sensibility within a cinematic language. The stream of language is always already begun, but equally tailing off or abruptly falling away. Sentences are incomplete, utterances rather than expressions, riding the memory of events from that time and the surfacing of effects in this time. Delivered as three internal monologues narrated as voice-over, we are caught in the rhythms of an urgent repetition of events past, with scraps of imagined dialogue directed at but never spoken to an other.

In this intensely confined space of language, the image offers no respite. Monologues run out of synch from events; we see things often after they have been narrated, or images float into view to contradict the words we are hearing. In the minimal moments of conventional dialogue, the image is likely to break down into a sequence of stills, a stuttering relay of static moments. In scenes of encounter, it is as though the apparatus of the film falters, distancing us further from the moment of interaction.

In a narrative that explores the impossibility of being in the present, this is re-enacted on the audience: we are here and we are not here. Whilst a barbeque flames and illuminates the girl’s face, we are hearing the story of a barbeque in England, recalled up until the point of another difficult moment. ‘Think of, think of something else’, is a line we hear more than once in an attempt to push away memory. Fixated at the point before or after trauma, the moment outside of a club before the son has acted violently for example, we teeter on the edge of experience but are never allowed to run through it. Time can be rewound, replayed through a different filter but never to the point of full knowledge. And the most potent filter of each story is another family member. The son cannot reconcile his own violence towards his girlfriend because he recycles it through his sister, provoking her anger and irritation by pissing in her sink and bombing her in the pool. The present is a flight from the past that inevitably becomes elided with it.

ecology-sarah-turner-3.jpgEcology, 2007

But in this experience of self-fragmentation from the inside, as it were, we are exposed to the paradox of psychic life: the apparent solidity of others. From the daughter’s point of view, her brother appears ‘man of the match’, an image contested only by her own memory of a boy who at the final moment would take the fall rather than let her crash. Yet once his story is underway, we are aware of his existence on an equally precarious threshold of disintegration, and his simultaneous perception of his sister and mother as whole. And this is the formal elegance of the film, the reconfiguration of narrative and character as fundamentally relational. Ecology shows us the error of fantasising a completeness of self or of other. The self only feels complete when pushing away from the other, as each of the characters do, and we are uncomfortably privy to this. In the words of psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, “The ‘other thing’ is quite simply the unconscious… Far from being my kernel, it is the other implanted in me, the metabolised product of the other in me: forever an ‘internal foreign body”.

The idea that the ‘foreign’ body of the other is in us, but also metabolised (part of us) is at the core of the film. We carry others but they also constitute our selves, despite attempts at expulsion. The daughter is seen repeatedly in the pool, attempting to stay in the submerged underwater of her fantasy self as an active, capable young woman. Yet the negating effects of her brother’s semi-sexual taunts and her mother’s corrosive comments are indigestible. Her sequence opens and closes with her running and vomiting. The brother’s story circles around the idea of balance, using the landscape to climb, scrabble and leap.

His psychic engagement is not predominantly with his mother or sister, but with a past girlfriend, and a return to the scene of their ending, implied as a moment of alcohol-related violence. His metabolisation of his mother and sister is aided by alcohol, despite the fact that he ‘shouldn’t be drinking’. The mother’s story is set some months earlier when she visits the location with work friends during the son’s remand in a detention centre. The son’s detention is for an act that the film pivots around, an event frequently inferred but never stated. ‘On holiday’ from the effects of this event, the mother laboriously prepares a meal, but she breaks a glass and possibly bleeds into the food. Her offering, in her imagination, is hazardously indigestible.

ecology-sarah-turner-4.jpgEcology, 2007

All of these layers are brought to bear on the technologies of filmmaking itself. Exploiting a hugely innovative range of gauges, one is reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s claim several decades back, that the subject of one medium is another. Shot on multiple formats, the mobile phone footage, with its surface like swarming creatures, appears to metabolise the swimming grain of Super 8, just as Super 8 might once have metabolised the texture of impressionist painting. Nestled inside of one another, each medium provides a version, a replay that acknowledges or bears some resemblance to its other but also figures it differently: to recall Laplanche, it remains a ‘foreign body’. The analogy with psychic life is unmistakable; the identity of one thing is constituted through its incorporation of another thing.

The possibility of viewing the three stories in any order confirms the circularity that is at work here that denies causality to events or a hierarchy to the media. The stories, like the psyche, like media, incorporate others but also refer us on in an endless chain of suggestion. There is no conceivable resolution, rather we are part of an endless recurrence, a mode of transmission rather than comprehension. Yet the stories do tempt us with ideas of transformation. The mother’s story delivers an unrelenting rant against the ethos of the location. If the solar system ‘can’t power a hair dryer, in Majorca… then how could it power a dishwasher, a dryer, the rest of your basics?’

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Yet in the final moments, as she wakes dehydrated and wanders into the landscape, it is as though she is experiencing the place without a filter of resistance: ‘There is a full moon, every single star sitting so close on her head it’s like a very low ceiling but there’s no claustrophobia, it’s not musty, it’s, she doesn’t know what it is, she’d thought freshly cut grass but it’s nothing like it, only the feeling is’. Experience connects across time, but here it doesn’t short-circuit. As she stumbles to locate the smell, it is not the memory of grass but the physical sensation of an earlier moment evoked again. This time, the past does not over-ride the moment, nor is it pushed away, but almost effortlessly it is allowed to co-exist in the present.

The viewing experience of Ecology is determined, to an extent, by the order in which we see the stories. Yet its power resides in the ability to pull us into each character’s internal world, to invite our complicity with each point of view. And then in moving on, to show us the error of our ways.

Ecology premieres at the Cambridge Film Festival in July 2007.

Janet Harbord’s latest book is The Evolution of Film (Polity. 2007).