Becoming Earthly Film Season - 2021 

23rd Feb · Dawn Hawkins

What might an expanded ecological cinema look like?

Becoming Earthly Film Season - 2021

What might an expanded ecological cinema look like?

“…for all that people think that the world will be determined and continue and be safeguarded by material… it’s far more likely that material, or gross misuse of material will destroy our world completely. Whereas good use of that deep spirit, is what will allow the world to remain… or our world to remain." Stephen Watts, The Republics (2020)

Questions of film and ecology have been on my mind since I attended the Barn’s Becoming Earthly seminar series last summer. Through various events and discussions it became clear that The Republics (2020) - which I’d made with the poet Stephen Watts - had been very ecologically attuned, both in the subject but also in the process we used to make it. We had felt our way through landscape using a wide and deep sense of language brought to the surface by Stephen’s poetry, and his knowing that there are many ways to connect with what surrounds us naturally and politically. His understanding that breath and rhythm are the fountains of life and of living have helped me let go of various elements in my filmmaking, and allowed me to produce a freer film than I had previously made. And, it was these ways of exploring or travelling through ideas as well as physical landscapes that I revisited when I was invited to curate this film season.

It struck me that as well as quality environmental films that highlight the climate crisis, bringing abstract facts and statistics to life or enabling us to clearly see the impact of environmental injustice and its effects, there are other films that although sometimes not directly about ecology, embody an ecology in their essence; bringing us closer to our roots in the earth. Much like the rootedness I found in Stephen’s poetry these films can speak to the situation we have created in a sense that cultivates our emotional resources, encourages changes in representation, and sensitises us to the world and the shape of things to come. In this film season I’ve brought works I feel respond to these notions together in the hope that they can join an on-going contemporary conversation about an expanded ecological cinema. This, as well as containing films that promote ecological campaigns or demand climate justice, could also include films that breathe ecology; as they too need their oxygen.

In the season I’ve paired works together that might spark conversation and illuminate the open ended question of what an expanded ecological cinema could look like. There are films like Altiplano (2018) and Le Pays dévasté (2015), shown under the pairing ‘New perspectives new experiences’, that challenge us to see the world from within the filmmakers sublime visions. Malena Szlam’s masterpiece Altiplano is made in the volcanic deserts, salt flats and lakes of Northern Chile and Northwest Argentina, and mixes infrasound recording from inside the earth with visions of landscapes cast in an almost otherworldly light. Using a 16mm film process that Szlam describes as “writing with invisible ink”, it is in the rhythm and in-camera editing that a feeling of presence and intimacy comes to us, bringing us close to becoming earthly. In response, the unworldly space of Emmanuel Lefrant’s Le Pays dévasté speaks to our attempt to control nature, and dramatically shunts us into recognition of our impact.

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Le Pays dévasté (2015)

In ‘Our voice and our environment’ we question how the poetic can negotiate pain, beauty and experience. Purple Sea(2020) is suspended in a story of trauma and migration whilst problematising aesthetics, which it explores in language both visual and spoken. In The House is Black (1963) we are transported to a leper colony near Tabriz in north-western Iran where visual and verbal poetry delve into questions of collectively and care. Both films are unflinching in their picturing of suffering, and ultimately offer experiences of oneness and connection to these difficult realities.

Locality and place are brought to life in ‘Sound and vision in conversation’, where the relationship between what we see and what we hear, and the textility of our senses, are brought into dialogue. Upstream (2020) takes us up the river Dee from the air, accompanied by the writing of Robert Macfarlane and a soundtrack composed by Hauschka - which also musically follows the river as we are transported towards it’s source. It is paired with Study of a River (1997) by the filmmaker Peter Hutton, whose film allows us a silent space to think about landscape in scenes illuminated by the light of presence and stillness. Both films in their own ways show us our desire for landscape to speak back to us, and acknowledge the various ways we can try to engage with this yearning.

And in ‘Landscape, language and its material presence’, Ben River’s Ghost Strata (2019) explores our relationship to geology and time. The title is taken from a conversation that appears in the film with Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist who speaks about ghost strata as the imagining of lines where rock used to be before it was eroded or destroyed by humans. With radiant images and both contemporary and archive sound recording, it freely roams the world expanding this topic, and taking in philosophy and art too; managing to connect them all with the artists’ skill of looking and listening. By chance, my own film The Republics (2020) contains a similar location to one in River’s film, where debris is picked up from the shore of the Thames. I offer it in pairing as a way to explore the materiality of our world through moving image. In a special event with Ben Rivers and Myself chaired by Anne Douglas we will discuss this in greater detail.

There are many more exciting films in the programme I do not have the space to expand here, like the New Iorram(2021), the first film cinema documentary entirely in Scottish Gaelic charting the histories of fishing; the little known observational documentary Athene (1995) which is set in a train station in Athens and explores humanity through the air we all breathe; the classic Isle of Flowers (1989) which comically follows a tomatoe from harvest to bin and beyond; and the masterful The Chief (2010) bringing our attention to how man and machine interact in the mining process; as well as two exciting new sound works by sound artists Hayley Suviste and David Birchall that explore urban ecologies around the city of Manchester in surprisingly unique ways.

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Isle of Flowers (1989)

This showcase of work speaks to an expanded notion of film and ecology, and looks towards ways for film to become what the ecological artist David Haley calls “creative direct action for ecological regeneration”, working to bring to the fore the materiality of our day-to-day lives and advocating new perceptions in which we might linger for longer than the duration of the content. I hope you enjoy sharing this space with us!


Huw Wahl uses the form-giving, material qualities of moving image to unearth the importance of creative action and its transformative potential. Whether building a giant inflatable with volunteers, delving into the life of an anarchist philosopher, or developing an intimately materialist and political account of one person's poetry, it is the ability of film space to open experiences and ideas for communal change that drives him forward.

Huw Portrait

Huw Wahl

Learn more about the Becoming Earthly Film Season in this conversation with filmmaker Huw Wahl and Simone Stewart, Head of Programme at the Barn.

Huw Portrait

Hear more from filmmaker Huw Wahl speaking here with David Birchall and Hayley Suviste.

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The Becoming Earthly film season was inspired by a seminar series of the same name at the Barn, developed after we entered lockdown in March 2020. Its aim was to help artists find new ways to help address the climate emergency. Huw Wahl was one of the participants.

Watch here!

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