Faculty DocTalk: Three Takes on the Anthropocene at Santa Barbara Film Festival

by Noah Amir Arjomand, International Studies, Hamilton Lugar School

Santa Barbara International Film Festival offers an odd mix of Hollywood glitz and indie cinema. This past March, stylistically bold and ethically progressive works played in the shadow of red-carpet events for Penelope Cruz, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kristen Stewart, and (pre-slap) Will Smith. I was at the festival as a director for my documentary Eat Your Catfish (coming to IU Cinema April 26), which gave me a pass to binge-watch other selected films when I wasn’t trying to blend in with the Very Important People at festival happy hours.

Among the screenings I caught, the environmental documentaries of the “Great Outdoors” category stood out, displaying stunning variety and innovation. So I’d like to reflect on three films which all deal with the Anthropocene at the micro-level, but in wildly different ways.

Newtok tells the story of the eponymous Alaskan indigenous village disintegrating into the Bering Sea. Global warming has melted the permafrost on which Newtok rests. The once-ice-hard ground is now mud that waves and storms sweep away at a terrifying pace. The villagers recognized the problem years ago, when the coast was still over a mile away, and voted to relocate. But help from the state and federal government–which had forcibly displaced them to Newtok in the first place–is arriving too little too late. The documentary follows a family in a classical visual narrative as they watch the waters lap away their backyard, hunt and fish and play amid modern poverty and natural riches, wait on government bureaucracy, and finally get resettled in a replacement town.

I say classical because virtually every frame has the composition, lighting, and intentionality of a painting. The film looks almost like scripted narrative fiction with blocked action and careful focus pulls; every shot is technically impeccable. Filmmakers Andrew Burton and Michael Kirby Smith, who came to the project from backgrounds in photojournalism, managed this feat through a combination of skill and persistence, with over 300 days of shooting over four years. In a Q&A after the screening, they explained that they had filmed many families going through similar processes, with many hundreds of hours of stories left painfully on the cutting room floor as they ultimately focused on one extended family.

The story of the village has received much press coverage and was already the subject of Irish director Tom Burke’s 2018 documentary Losing Alaska. Part of what makes Newtok stand out from those projects and as an ethical model is its decidedly untraditional editorial review process. Both Burton and Smith are white, male non-Alaskans. In keeping with the latest best diversity, equity, and inclusion practices, they worked closely with indigenous anthropologist Marie Meade and an editorial and advisory board of village members, scholars, and local journalists. Newtok is not quite Burton and Smith’s film but one that they crafted together with the community.

Whereas Newtok centered the human stakes of climate change, From the Wild Sea kept the camera pointed straight at animals battered uncomprehendingly by the forces of ecological upheaval. The documentary takes a patiently observational, tripod-mounted approach to showing the Sisyphean efforts of wildlife rescue volunteers in the UK and Netherlands. Those humans remain largely cropped out of the frame except for hands that reach forward to restrain, clean, and treat the central cast of injured seals and oil-coated swans.

The soundscape is barren but immersive; we hear wind, waves, motors, and foghorns, but no music. Nor are we given the comfort of a voice-of-God narrator or genial host explaining the miracles of nature or what we can do to help fix ecological problems. Some of the wildlife rescue volunteers do speak, explaining the predicament of the British Isles’ coastline. We learn that storms are getting worse and worse, animals are getting dashed against the rocks, smothered and choked by pollutants. But we usually do not see these scientists and activists’ faces. Instead, their voices background roads along rugged coastline through a rainy windshield, jars of body parts and chunks of plastic and fishing equipment taken from the seal-rescue patients who didn’t make it, the gigantic body of a whale crushing its own organs under its out-of-water weight.

Director Robin Petré and cinematographer Maria Grazia Goya treat the animals as their protagonists while giving them the respect of avoiding anthropomorphization. As we watch the seals and swans struggle and contend in bafflement with their predicament, we come to view the world almost through their eyes as utterly bizarre and incongruous with the environment for which they are adapted. Humanity’s destructive impact becomes palpable in the gashes a propeller left in the body of a dolphin, in the exhausted resignation of an oil-blackened swan.

The Bastard King was the strangest film of the bunch. In an epic register, actor David Oyelowo voices the titular character and storyteller, the product of an illicit romance between the “king” and “queen” of rival lion prides. We follow the bastard protagonist through his danger-fraught, blood-spattered childhood in exile with his valiant mother into adulthood, when he unites the two kingdoms to confront a common enemy: encroaching humans. The story, which opens with an epigraph along the lines of What is a tale but a truth wrapped in a lie?, is a heavily fictionalized and explicitly anthropomorphic allegory co-written by Antoine Le Bos and comic book writer Andy Briggs.

The film’s artificiality (as well as the underlying environmentalist message) is accentuated by radical manipulation of color: the green channel is entirely removed from the image, leaving the savannah a washed-out wasteland of dying yellow. The lions’ eyes are changed to blue, golden, or heterochromatic to indicate their pride allegiance. In a further break from the realist style of most nature docs, The Bastard King features a score of heavy electronic beats that enhance the heart-pounding action of hunts and murders but also add unintentional comedy at times. One mating scene is accompanied by a track that seems lifted straight from the KitKatClub.

Paradoxically, the film’s extreme divergence from genre norms in some ways allowed the lions to be lions without bowdlerization. Director Owen Prümm abandons the child-friendly template and its pretense of naturalism belied by animals heavily edited into compatibility with the audience’s culture and appetite for cuteness. The lions of The Bastard King are not of our culture and not cute. It was the most violent nature film I have ever seen, which proved unsurprisingly controversial with the audience. We see a mother lion battering her cub to prevent it from sharing her food, a pride male tearing apart offspring of a rival, a gang brutally killing a lioness they caught away from her pride. The sex scenes are devoid of tenderness. I have never seen so many people walk out of a movie theater with disapproving clucks.

There is an underlying truth to the story, as Prümm explained in a Q&A with the audience members who held out to the film’s gory end. In the region of Tanzania where he spent years filming wildlife, a river that previously separated two prides of lions really did dry up due to human activity, bringing those prides into violent conflict. Prümm, who produced traditional nature documentaries for the likes of National Geographic and the BBC from those same shoots, felt that an allegorical fiction narrated by a lion rather than a naturalist could capture this truth more evocatively than a safely didactic work of realism.

I grew up on documentaries that captured the natural world as if untouched by humans and focused on explaining how ecosystems harmoniously worked rather than showing how we were throwing them into chaos. I still have a soft spot for Morgan Freeman’s narrations and David Attenborough’s gentle fascination with the miracles of nature. But extreme times call for extreme rethinking of how to make nature documentaries, for experiments that jolt audiences and also demand we consider perspectives marginal in much documentary work of the previous century. I felt especially grateful for the opportunity to watch these films in the festival, since television channels andr streaming platforms are unlikely to pick up works like From the Wild Sea or especially The Bastard King that shatter genre conventions.