Courtesy of Carsey-Wolf Center

The Carsey-Wolf Center hosted “The Cinema of Multispecies Encounters” on Jan. 26, an event held at the Pollock Theater that screened three films: “Blua” (2015), “Laborat” (2014) and “The Masked Monkeys” (2015). Avant-garde in nature, these three works were shocking to say the least. 

The event was moderated by UC Santa Barbara’s Peter Bloom, chair of the Department of Film and Media Studies. The event also included Dr. Kim Knowles, a senior lecturer of the Department of Theater, Film & Television Studies at Aberystwyth University, and Dr. Carrie Noland, a professor of French and comparative literature at UC Irvine. Knowles and Noland provided insightful knowledge and a deeper understanding of what the audience had experienced in the films by relating it to their work. 

“I thought it was really interesting … I think you go into something that is [expected to be] environmental, and you think it is going to be like National Geographic, ” third-year Rachel Burnett said. 

All National Geographic expectations were quickly smashed by each film. Although each film undoubtedly had its own style, the way that each film displayed human-animal relationships and interactions demonstrated why they were all screened together. The films all exhibited a unique perspective, regardless of whether they emulated the educational animal documentary format we are all used to. 

“Blua,” unlike the other films, focused on multiple animals in many different situations. It shifted quickly between scenes with deer, grizzly bears and other species, and let audiences understand the animals in a way they may not typically see them. 

“Laborat” was a research lab video, first the lab tech tested a drug on a mouse and concluded with an autopsy of the mouse. Throughout the film, there was the usage of abstract filters, loud sound designs and dizzying visuals that allow it to be considered abstract. 

In “The Masked Monkeys” both masters, as they’re called, and monkeys are in the position of the leading roles in the film. Set in Java, the film follows local men who work as masters of monkeys who serve as entertainment in local villages themselves.  

Knowles and Noland talked about how the cinematic representation of animals can become more compelling through a motif, as motifs inspire a deeper connection to the animals seen on the screen. Skin, reflected movement and paws or hands were some of the motifs discussed; these symbols can change the way the genre of multispecies encounters in cinema can be approached. 

In the discussion of “Blua,” Noland, who is a renowned scholar on gesture and dance, recognized two poignant moments where the reflected movement between the human and the animal was documented. The first words that are uttered in “Blua” are, “Can you make him stand up?” 

“It is a really strange moment in the film because you don’t know if standing up is understood by the tiger [in the] same way standing up is understood by the people observing him,” Noland said in reference to the tiger standing against the thick glass separating him and the school children taunting him.  

Even though the school children may not have realized the tiger did not understand what “standing up” actually meant, audience members may have been able to see the disconnect more easily. However, the way the imitation is ultimately completed by the tiger’s personification makes it easier for the audience to build a relationship with the tiger. 

The concentration on the action of breath in these films, particularly in “Laborat,” lets the audience connect with an animal that is usually seen as a pest. Breathing is a primary factor in life across many living things, and when it stops, that usually means the end of life — something all living beings experience. When speaking on the sound of the films, Burnett claimed that the Pollock “created a very physical experience … it was supposed to make you uncomfortable.” 

According to Knowles, the discomfort the film introduces is largely due to the focus on mice’s skin as the film attempts to document the lab testing of drugs on mice. It contains close-up shots and crisp, clean audio of a tech cutting human-like skin. 

“We all have that … something that draws us all together in the art of the Earth, and I think that the filmmakers [want to] draw attention to that,” Knowles said. 

Knowles then pointed out that the skin and features of these animals, as they are represented in these films, beg the question: What is so different about humans and the animals that inhabit the Earth with us?

“Hands are quite a common object in experimental cinema,” Knowles remarked in response to Noland’s observation that in “The Masked Monkey” the first words uttered in the film are “it all starts with the hand.” 

The opening shot of the film is that of a human hand, followed by a shot of a monkey’s hand reaching out of its cage. Knowles said that in “The Masked Monkey,” the hand becomes its character, a controller, a teacher and a giver. The directors Anja Dornieden and Juan David Gonzales Monroy were likely intentional in this juxtaposition to create a connection between their hands and the hands that have control over this monkey. 

Knowles underscored how the motifs in these films portray deeper human and animal interaction and discussed how one might think of its representation in cinema and how it might look in the future. 

Particularly, when speaking about a scene in “Blua” where the camera is directed towards the owner’s hands and her dog’s paws, Knowles said, 

“Both the dog and the human occup[y] sort of equal parts, equal proportions of the frame,” Knowles said in reference to a scene in “Blua” where the camera is directed towards the owner’s hands and her dog’s paws. “That is surely not all we need to revolutionize, kind of, cinematic representations of animals … [but] I think there is something quite interesting going on there about how we might represent animals on the screen.”