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Fish scales in your lap

Eye will immerse itself in the fear of being overwhelmed by water with ‘People with gills’, the first episode of the Cinema Ecologica programme. These films’ alternative worlds provide examples of how to deal with rising sea levels. About scales, amphibians and watery thinking.

By Mariska Graveland23 August 2021

campaign image Cinema Ecologica
illustration Joost Stokhof

The recent flooding in the Dutch province of Limburg, in Germany and Belgium once again demonstrated water’s destructive power. For many it was a wake-up call. Can we continue to coexist with water in the future? Films like Waterworld (Kevin Reynolds, 1995), The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017) and Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012) have already shown audiences what happens when humans and water (creatures) meet. What if humans no longer have privilege over the rest of nature?

The premise behind the Cinema Ecologica series is that cinema can help humanity gain an impression of the world as we would like to see it. In ‘episodes’ that revolve around various themes, Eye Filmmuseum can put climate change and loss of biodiversity on the cinematic agenda. The first instalment, entitled ‘People with gills’ is replete with mythical, dystopian visions.

The wonderful B-film Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold, 1954), released in 3D in the Netherlands under the fabulous title Visschubben op uw schoot [fish scales in your lap], depicts our fear of water and the invisible danger. Everything may seem calm on the surface, but below the surface circle hate and tension, waiting to drag you into the depths by your legs.

poster Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold, US 1954)

In the amazingly sinister French drama Évolution (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2015) the horror also isn’t on the outside, but lies deep within. The ocean’s awe-inspiring roar constitutes the daunting boundary of an isolated community full of identical looking children and mysterious mothers. The sea has seldom seemed so frightening as in this film. Évolution cleverly capitalises on our fear of being swallowed by the bottomless sea; by the mother.

Unlimited

Melding with nature needn’t necessarily be threatening to our overdeveloped human egos. Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez’s artist’s talk will be about the promise of a symbiotic human-animal ecology. The former’s work will also be on show at the exhibition The Unknown Mine Zone at Transnatural, an associated Cinema Ecologica event. Also on show there, the work Weaving Water by Bela Rofe, who weaves women’s hair together with algae thereby returning to life’s origins using symbiosis.

Philosopher René ten Bos can provide a guide for our thoughts during these uncertain times. In his astounding book Water (2014) he describes how our thinking can be influenced by the sea and rivers – their liquid, changeable, shapeless, unlimited nature. He entices us to think in a more watery way: multiplicitous thinking, the opposite of unambiguous thinking. This means daring to be carried along by the stream of events, wandering, not frightened to get lost. Ten Bos: ‘Water never [grips] anything definitively. Water, that is touching, yet not grasping. Or understanding’.

Magicking away

For the time being, and for most people, water is primarily something to be afraid of. The biggest impending disaster, climate change, has been an increasingly important subject for short films. Eye will screen films including: That Which Is to Come Is Just a Promise by the Flatform collective from Berlin/Milan. The latter filmed the inhabitants of Funafuti on the Tuvalu islands in the Pacific wading through water, then ‘magicked’ the water away using image processing. Knowing that this archipelago that consists of six islands will be entirely submerged over the coming 30 years makes the film a kind of magical thinking.

Still from That Which Is to Come Is Just a Promise
Still from That Which Is to Come Is Just a Promise

The Flemish theatre company De Nieuwe Tijd wanted to express its despair at the looming climate crisis. The troupe decided to write a requiem for the world as we now know it ‘so that we can feel our current losses even more acutely’. The requiem was performed in conjunction with local choirs on a melting glacier in Greenland. This resulted in the film Requiem for the World As We Know It (2020).

Desert 79°: 3 Journeys Beyond the Known World
(2010) by Anna Abrahams also wants to peer over the edge of the known world. Footage shot in various shades of white in the foreboding landscape of Spitsbergen alternate with the journals of three polar expeditions. One relates the story of the surprised Inuit who met John Ross in Arctic Canada. They thought they were the only people on the planet. For them there was nothing else than the landscape they knew, in which they could just about survive. What you see, is what you know. And vice versa: what you know, is what you see.

Amphibian

Many techno-optimists are confident we can defend ourselves from rising waters using new technologies, a sort of Deltaplan Plus [the ‘delta plan’ was a large-scale scheme to protect the Netherlands from the sea]. How that might further divide society in the distant future is the subject of the unique, rediscovered film Plan Delta (1989) by Bob Visser. It depicts a dark, fantastic, stylised future set on the Deltaplan work island Neeltje Jans. Around the year 2300, two groups of people isolated from other humans due to the disastrous flooding that took place in 1953 meet. The rich elite come into confrontation with the less fortunate inhabitants of Plan Delta. Postpunk band Tuxedomoon created the soundtrack.

Could humanity perhaps devolve into a fish or amphibian over time? A crazed idea of course, but two short films show us what that might look like: The Walking Fish (Thessa Meijer, 2018) and The Space Between Us (Marc S. Nollkaemper, 2015). The latter is a short science fiction film made as a graduation film at the Filmacademie. At an almost deserted research institute called Beacon, the last humans are forced to wear oxygen masks due to the intense air pollution. Humanity’s future lies in the hands of a captured sea creature called Adam. He can equip people with gills because “ultimately, the sea will not spare us”. Symbiosis is the only way out.

The moving short film The Walking Fish is about an amphibious fish that can walk on land. She has adopted the shape of a young woman and tries to adapt to life on dry land. She loves mud baths and beats everyone to become a swimming champion. However, daily life is a lot trickier. And the sea never ceases calling.

Still from The Walking Fish (Thessa Meijer, 2018)
Still from The Walking Fish (Thessa Meijer, 2018)

‘All things are water or come from it’, Thales van Milete wrote in ca. 600 BC. ‘Not humanity, but water is the reality of all things.’ This watery thinking is perfectly suited to De Ambassade van de Noordzee [embassy of the North Sea]. During Onder NAP [below Normaal Amsterdams Peil i.e. below the standardised national water level] the organisation delves deeper into the idea that the North Sea and the life in it is aligned with Bruno Latour’s The Parliament of Things. Things, plants, animals, microbes and humans in and around the North Sea should all get to vote. The non-human lifeforms are underrepresented, just like the future lives of humans and non-humans alike. The Ambassade van de Noordzee does justice to the sea. Will there be room for humans in the future? Perhaps if we touch water without wanting to hold it.

This article was originally published on De Filmkrant

poster Cinema Ecologica in Eye Filmmuseum
illustration Joost Stokhof

Programme

The first episode of Cinema Ecologica, 'People with gills', is dedicated to films that depict our fear of an inundated future, yet also conjure up alternative worlds. Films such as Waterworld (1995), The Shape of Water (2017), Plan Delta (1989) and Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) showcase water’s power with all the mythical, horrific and dystopian connotations you can imagine.

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Eye Film Player

Cinema Ecologica: People with gills takes place at Eye Filmmuseum from 25 August through 1 September. Can't wait? The Eye Film Player offers a selection of special feature films that match the themes of Cinema Ecologica.

See the selection