Theater of Cruelty

More than a human being

Becoming Animal
Documentary of the Month: Peter Mettler's new feature film, Becoming Animal also has a philosophical depth, where it allows Canadian eco-philosopher Davis Abram to play an important role.


Modern Times Review met Canadian director Peter Mettler, who is known for his intuitive and experimental way of making films, for a conversation about his directing practice as a continuation of his previous films: “This film was not really my idea. It was actually the Scottish film director Emma Davie who suggested it. She found the philosopher [David Abram] and chose me to direct the film with her. "

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Peter Mettler

Davie and Mettler have collaborated on making films for a long time: “Many of my partners, producers and good friends are women. Emma was also an actor in my movie Tectonic Plates (1992), where she played a psychiatrist. She came from the theater and went on to documentary. She was very impressed with David's books. We actually met him at a workshop seminar, where she suggested making this movie. ”

Abram is known for his books on ecology, The Spell of the Sensuous (1997) and the later Becoming Animal (2011), which has the same title as Mettler and Davie's new film: "David is a Wonderful Author, Page after Page." He is also known for having defined the academic field of ecopsychology.
"We wanted to embody the ideas David brought up, and add some of our thoughts on what it means to take pictures of nature," Mettler says.

What then is the ecological insight really about – animals or trees? Mettler explains what Abram means by the slightly strange expression that nature also "sees us":
"Reciprocity is the word David uses, the feeling that you are looking at the forest and that it is looking back at you, as you are part of the same. It's about being present in the environment you're in – whether it's a forest or a concrete parking lot. "

Mettler, Davie and Abram seem to join the critical opposition to consumerism, climate change and cynical technological exploitation: "My movie Petropolis (2009) asks a question right at the beginning: 'What is this world we call nature?'

I Petropolis he collaborated with Greenpeace to film the oil sands project in Canada, run by the Norwegian oil company Statoil (now Equinor) from 2007. Mettler calls it his most political project: "Probably the most overtly political, since I think my other films are political in a different way. Petropolis gives viewers an experience that really makes them feel terrible about this place, but without it being a propaganda film. The forest had simply disappeared, replaced by a pool of toxic liquids – a golden landscape. From the air, it was like an incredible oil painting. Outrageous. It's really all about profits. ”

“We wanted to embody the ideas David Abram brought up, and add some of our thoughts
about what it means to take pictures of nature. ”

Nine years later, i Becoming Animal, Mettler has a rather long scene of pristine trees with orange leaves that look like dancing in the wind: “As David tells us, everything we watch is expressive or animated. When we look at how the wind blows and how the branches on the trees move, it actually starts to look like a kind of abstract painting, even though the intensity is different, alternating between wild movements and simply calm. Such an experience can represent art, drama and musicality. With enough time to see, you can start to think that way, instead of taking everything for granted. Otherwise you just want to see a tree, ”he continues.

The film includes the landscapes typical of Mettler's earlier films: “It is landscape, environment, a forest, cliffs, rivers – all the ingredients that make up life. I see it as a continuous ecosystem we're all in. It also includes highways and cars, and all the crap we make. "

In Abram's book Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology he writes about what he calls "a more than human world". What does this term mean for Mettler? "I did not know it until I heard it from David. But I was so lucky to be able to go into the Canadian wilderness on a tent trip, on a canoe trip – and be completely alone out there in a tent. You know, with all the food there, and knowing there are bears nearby (…), it can make a deep impression on you. ”

Also the term "animism" is mentioned in Mettler and Davie's film: "As David has said: Everything is expressive. Think about how the sounds of the rivers have initiated words in our language. But as language comes from the Earth itself, over time it has also separated us from the things we look at. In fact, our perception, our relationship with the organic world – and later with technology – may have set us apart from the larger world. ”

Always a camera

Becoming Animal opens with a large and magnificent moose: "That's the interesting point
- it looks empty, you're somewhere in the wilderness. But halfway through the movie you see the same moose in a larger section, with a lot of other people filming it, just like us. ”I Becoming Animal Abram also mentions that what is not photographed or preserved in any other way is not real or present to people. "It was funny that David talked about people's frenetic urge to record. Must a moment be photographed to exist in your memory at all? "

This must also be a problem for film directors: “I too am constantly fighting this. It's a moment in Picture of Light (1994) where I resist the temptation to grab the camera, and instead just look, simply. So what's the most important thing: making a movie everyone can see, or being present even at this very moment? ”

"More than a human world."

What about the relationship between cinematography and beauty? Mettler also manages the camera: “Cameras determine how we view the world, but they are also part of an interplay that engages, questions and detects things. A camera helps me to see, to see in a different way, and to get new associations when I edit film, ”he says. "I'm moved by beauty and moved by wonders – but that's not why I make movies. I have a complex relationship with cameras, to record video. In a way, I love them as much as I hate them, because they are obviously with us all the time. ”

Becoming Animal

But what does he really mean by this shabby word "beauty"? “I think beauty is associated with certain emotions that I personally experience behind the camera, not necessarily something ecstatically beautiful, but a feeling that is transmitted through shooting. Like a face that has certain expressions of sadness, or a gentle movement through the forest. A kind of presence, a kind of beauty. "

The film was shot in and around the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming in the USA, with the dizzying diversity of wildlife and rocks that are billions of years old, but also rows of curious people in big cars. After watching the film, you discover that the film's synopsis is right when it calls it "a geyser of provocative ideas (…) that connects us to our ever-changing environment."

How long does it take to make a documentary of this? "We never counted, but there were many recordings with David, and hours of conversation. After all, he has written two whole books on this subject, so how should we build a film with fewer ingredients? We went to the park three times in total. And after the footage, we edited for eight months. ”

Essays. On his website, Mettler describes what he does as "reaching an opening between the experimental, the narrative, the personal, the essayistic and the documentary". Film Essays? we ask him. “Yes, essays, because you explore the world and themes, ideas people give you. A movie can trigger thoughts, associations, and maybe ask a question here and there. ”

Mettler also talks about human perception and technology's ability to release, and mentions the slave experience in his film Gambling, Gods and LSD (2002)
- who also portrays experiences from the US, Switzerland and Southern India: "I have a strong desire to move beyond the intellect and experiment with the music room." But also the film The end of time (2012) had a philosophical twist – in which he filmed people, such as a physicist and an Indian Buddhist: “It's all about a curiosity about being in this world. It's about how people work – to understand something about myself and reality. To ask yourself: Why do we make pictures at all? Or what are we really striving for? ”

Mettler's mother says at the end of her life in The end of time that we must use the time we have been given. This year Mettler is celebrating 60 years. So where does he go from here? "More than making documentaries, I'm now developing series that allow people to participate in an exploration of themes over time."

It is now 45 years since Mettler began making films, and we end this interview by asking whether the associative or essayist style is closer to nature itself: “Yes, there you have it! The connection between real experiences is not a narrative, but we build narratives in our memories. ”

The movie of the month can seen for subscribers here.
See also our review of
Becoming Animal on
Becoming Animal appear in the Masters program section at IDFA,

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Truls Lie
Truls Liehttp: /
Editor-in-chief in MODERN TIMES. See previous articles by Lie i Le Monde diplomatique (2003–2013) and Morgenbladet (1993-2003) See also part video work by Lie here.

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