Sophie Christman Lavin and E. Ann Kaplan
Ecocinema involves the human gaze looking at cinema through the lens of the environment, in a manner analogous to the way feminists provided the cinematic lens of gender in the 1970s. However, as with feminism, enormous differences pertain in regard to how the ecocinema lens is mobilized.
In analyzing films from the late 1800s to the early 21st century, ecocinema studies has evolved to include critical lines of inquiry from perspectives of psychology, feminism, socioeconomics, science, and activism. Research frames used in these inquiries include: setting and landscape in films, ecological analyses of mainstream and independent fictional films, posthuman cinematic representations, transnational and regional, and more recently, trauma in speculative dystopian films. Ecocinema critics analyze films of various types, including Hollywood, independent, transnational, documentary, animated, art cinema, and especially climate fiction (“cli-fi”) films.
Ramachandra Guha’s transnational typology of environmental ideologies will provide a useful starting place for the mapping of different perspectives in ecocinema. Guha distinguished utopian wilderness environmentalism, pervasive in the United States, from the agrarian focus typical in India. Meanwhile, most developed nations utilize scientific industrial methods to exploit the environment. Oftentimes, these latter approaches are grounded in growth economies and are thus in conflict with the unrealistic ideals of so-called neo-primitivism (NP). Neo-primitivism involves returning to simple, sustainable lifestyles within or close to the natural world—lifestyles that do no environmental damage. NP is beloved by many, but the consensus is that it is idealistic to consider going back to this way of life. A film such as Avatar (produced and directed by James Cameron in 2009) addresses the complexity of diverse constructions of nature by providing examples of utopian wilderness ideology that compete with, and are opposed to, the destructive scientific industrialism that disregards and dominates nature without compunction. Other films, such as Amazon Sisters (Sweeny, 1992), Elemental (Koch, Roshan, & Vaughan-Lee, 2012), Into the Wild (Blocker, Hildebrand, Kelly, & Penn, 2007), or Grizzly Man (Beggs & Herzog, 2005), act as simultaneous celebrations and critiques of wilderness ideologies and deal with gender and racial identities, and thus they have been a central focus of ecocinema scholarship.
Although films from all genres have historically engaged environmental issues, it was rarely in a way that made a self-conscious or critical statement about the human impact on the natural world from the perspective of ecological concerns—this is the focus of ecocinema. See for example, Birt Acres’s Rough Sea at Dover (1895), the Lumiere Brothers’ Oil Wells of Baku (1896), Thomas Edison’s Sorting Refuse at Incinerating Plant, NYC (1903), and the British South Africa Company’s Rhodesia To-Day (1912). In the early 21st century, the genre that most often engages with the contemporary politics of climate change is the documentary. Documentaries, such as An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim, 2006), Manufactured Landscapes (Baichwal, 2006), Into Eternity (Eskilsson & Madsen, 2010), Chasing Ice (Ahrens & Orlowski, 2012), E-Waste Tragedy (Esteve, Popp, Úbeda, & Dannoritzer, 2014), This Changes Everything (Cuarón & Lewis, 2015), among others, critique human damage to the planet and thus position viewers as ethical witnesses. Such works hope to influence the outcome of our shared anthropocentric future.
The analyses of ecocinema are addressed using two distinct methods—the macro and the micro. The macro method studies how films represent the large-scale processes of earth-based climate systems, and its lens evaluates how films represent climate and environmental dilemmas facing humans as a species. The micro-lens provides enhanced analyses that explore how gender, race, and class figure into the cultural work climate fantasies perform. This lens indexes the ways in which various cultures are often disproportionately impacted by climate systems.1 Oftentimes the macro and micro levels are both incorporated in a single film and reveal the intersection between climate and culture, as seen in Taklub (Trap, Castillo & Mendoza, 2015), a film that portrays Super-typhoon Haiyan and its impact on residents in Tacloban, Philippines. As background to mapping the texts, evolving science discourses will be emphasized as evidence for global warming but with the understanding that this evidence relies on modeling. Although our main concern with this cultural work in ecocinema is how climate change impacts across gender, race, and class, the inequalities revealed also speak to the politics of climate change evident in cinematic treatments of the issue.