Understanding Nature

Becoming Animal follows directors Emma Davie and Peter Mettler on a journey with the influential philosopher David Abram to the Grand Teton Park in North America. Together they explore not only how we sense the natural world, but it senses us, and the affect of the written word and technology on our sensory experience and understanding of nature.

In conversation with ASFF, Davie discussed the value of engaging with ideas, a desire to create connections between disparate ideas in the minds of her audience, and the precariousness of using technology to answer important questions.

ASFF: What were your intentions for the film in relation to the documentary form?
The nature of documentary as a form in of itself also has its own expectations, and we were very much playing with this in the film. David Attenborough BBC style documentaries are what people are so used to with nature films, or certain other more American kind of documentaries where animal behaviour is focused on, rather dramatic events where they eat each other, or they mate. We were interested in this other side of questioning how we perceive what we call nature, and what it is to try to film in animal time, more than in human time.

ASFF: An early scene at night sees you, Peter and David listening to the elk singing, which opens up the discussion that we humans are not unique creatures, nor are our forms of expression such as song.
It’s so true, and that was one of my favourite moments just because it completely altered my own perception when we were out there. We were just hearing this sound and we had no idea where they were. David probably did, but were really quite new to experiencing that, and it only happens for about two weeks of every year. The notion of us being out there and what our imaginations did with the sound, how it created the world was definitely a transformational moment, in that the world looked very different through that sound. Something incredible happens, and yes of course, it was incredibly humbling in terms of your own perception being challenged, but also just as you say that sense of actually we are not so unique after all. We are just these multi-sensory beings perceiving other multi-sensory beings, and creating some kind of reality through that. So that was interesting for us, and David’s knowledge about how our senses work was always what we were trying to chronicle. This was a moment that it actually unfolded in front of us, which was very beautiful.

ASFF: The stimulating nature of ideas means that they are not just an intellectual expansion of the mind, but a physical and sensory sensation. The experience of the film is almost a transformative one through the way in which it expands our perspective, especially as so many of us live in urban spaces, and have become disconnected from nature.
I love your description of that, the sense of almost the embodied idea, or the idea that actually it becomes a visceral experience. Those are the ideas I like [laughs], those ideas that inhabit you, or you inhabit. I don’t know which way round it goes, but there is the paradox because we are so excited about ideas, and we are so intrigued by what our minds can do. The film acknowledges that actually the journey of the mind leads to a certain abstraction if we are not careful. I think that’s what David is pointing out has happened to the written word, and then has had an iteration into technology. But obviously, there’s the age old paradox that the mind is where you find liberation, and where you find excitement and engagement, but it’s the thing that can in a way disconnect you by the very questions that it asks [laughs]. This is what I feel we didn’t want to solve, but just make resonant in the film because even to talk about disconnect is to be disconnected. Therein, we sometimes feel like we are in this hall of mirrors with these ways of thinking. At the same time I completely agree that it’s essential to engage with ideas in that very embodied and visceral way. They’re the ideas that can bring more transformation more generally, which is the rather naive idea we had in the film.

ASFF: Technology has the capacity to help us to connect with nature, yet there is of course the paradox. While technology can allow us forge connections, thinking specifically of social media, it tends to often lead us to look inward. Your use of the camera to explore nature is connecting more deeply with ourselves and nature; inward and outward.
Going back to and being aware of the paradox that we are using technology to try to connect with the natural world, that connection seems antithetical to technology and its demands, and also to where it has taken us as a human race. Nonetheless, that’s where we’re at, and in a way one of the problems that we perceived in our relationship with what’s around us is this sense of separation, the sense of the subject and the object, and it not being seen as part of the same entity if you like. Maybe what we were trying to do was to say: Well we’ve got to be careful that we don’t do the same with technology, because that then in a way creates some kind of demonising of the very situation we are in. So how can we instead use technology to as you say address these questions and to connect?

As David was talking, Peter would often take the camera and explore the grass and the rocks in front of him with that sense of the reciprocity that David talks about. What does the world look like if we imagine that what’s around us also communicates somehow? In a way it’s an imaginative step to take because he’s not necessarily saying that the rock does communicate, but what happens to our perception when we think it does? Something shifts and somehow the technology in the form of the camera was trying to see what shifts, and what the role of the camera is in filming and chronicling that? How different do things look then?

ASFF: Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, and should a film offer the audience a transformative experience? Living life, we have experiences from which we learn and we grow. If we are always changing, can we term film a transformative experience, or is it more a dramatic example of what we experience in our day to day lives?
I don’t want to sound religious about it in terms of this transformative thing, but I think it is a sense of the dawning awarenesses that happen in life on a daily basis. Hopefully it’s a focusing of that and it’s taking us into a space of darkness, and of trying to speak, and certainly in our film we are trying to speak to not just the conscious, but the unconscious. We are trying to speak to that inner world, to try to address the body as you’ve said with these ideas. What film can do that really excites me is in the same way that poetry can do it, but obviously with film it’s more of a shared experience, is to make these connections between disparate ideas, so that new synapses in the mind start to spar together and see connections between things that previously weren’t connected. What we wanted to do in this film was leave enough space for those connections to happen in the minds of an audience, so that different people come into this film and their responses are often quite different. People would say that different ideas were what were important to them, or where they were taken to.


Paul Risker

1. Still from Becoming Animal.