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Romancing Nature: the desire to disappear

Do we consider nature comforting or an object for us to use, or are we part of it? Cinema Ecologica: Romancing Nature immerses itself in the romantic experience of nature, from the sublime and the deeply held desire to become one with nature, to new lifeforms in a spectacular VR production.

By Mariska Graveland02 November 2021

It was a tiny berry that ended his life, and his plans had been so big. Chris McCandless burned his credit card and trekked into the Alaskan wilderness to survive there, alone. He made an abandoned school bus his camp for a mere few months. Because the berries he picked nearby proved highly poisonous.

still from Into the Wild (Sean Penn, US 2007)
still from Into the Wild (Sean Penn, US 2007)

Was his romantic conception of the wilderness a misunderstanding incited by influential French philosopher Rousseau? He considered civilisation pernicious, he argued for a return to humanity’s natural state. Do you have to withstand the forces of nature on your own to do so? The indigenous peoples of the artic circle think the opposite. For centuries they have travelled together; no one isolates themselves. What was McCandless looking for there then? Perhaps it was the emptiness, a place of no structures and control. A world devoid of people. Sean Penn filmed this story in Into the Wild, the iconic film about our romantic experience of nature.

Apparently there is a desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves deep inside all of us. And if religion no longer suffices then ‘nature’ can perhaps fill that void. Nevertheless people often fail to connect with the living network. Too often we are still spectators in nature, outsiders or, worse still, exploiters, confined to our narrow view that primarily sees what we recognise.

Nevertheless, increasing numbers of people are realising that people are also animals. For years, biologists such as Lynn Margulis have been emphasising that symbiosis is the driving force behind nature and not just competition and struggle. Quantum physics also shows us that even at the lowest level, things only exist in relation to others. Everything influences everything else, setting off a chain reaction. Isolation would be peculiarly unnatural.

still from History of a Tree
still from History of a Tree

Trees also help one another using subterranean networks of fungi. On 16 November 2021, Eye will be screening History of a Tree, the première of the Flatform collective’s portrait of the oldest tree in Italy. Our special guest that evening, the ecophilosopher Emanuele Coccia, author of the groundbreaking study The Life of Plants.

Good virtual reality helps us feel more one with our environment, even if it is artificial. Symbiosis (13 - 27 November 2021) is a spectacular VR work by Dutch collective Polymorf which allows you to experience new lifeforms and how man, animal and technology merge.

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placeholder trailer Xtended: Symbiosis (VR)
Trailer for Symbiosis.

Can you ‘become one with nature’? In cinema this is usually affected by disappearing into it as in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man in which William Blake (Johnny Depp) dies in a boat on a river. Or in Picnic at Hanging Rock by Peter Weir in which a group of upbeat girls mysteriously disappear during a picnic in the Australian outback: as if swallowed up by the rocks.

The wrong way to become one with nature is epitomised by The Trouble with Nature. In it, conservative philosopher Edmund Burke hikes through the Alps – mainly a canvas for his ideas on the sublime – in much too nice shoes. Since the 18th century, the mountains, forests, icy steppes and the ocean have only been places you can experience the sublime: the awe-inspiring pleasure of being confronted by the untamed, untrammelled wilderness. For millennia humans had avoided these dangerous places to save their skins. You had to be mad to go looking. Explorer Ernest Shackleton did so though, by completely surrendering to the cold and hardship as depicted in South (13 November 2021), a 1919 documentary on Shackleton’s legendary expedition to Antarctica which will be screened with a new score, played live.

Nowadays travel is guilt ridden due to our gigantic ecological footprint. Theatre group De Warme Winkel investigated whether they could perform a climate-neutral play. They toured on bicycles with their sets, etc. in a trailer and stayed with audience members overnight. An exercise in soberness in other words. Whether this classical asceticism will offer a solution can be seen in their documentary Afscheidstournee [farewell tour] which premieres at Eye on 11 November 2021 accompanied by a live performance. Karel Doing also put his money where his mouth is and made the short film Phytography, for which he filmed plants and only used plant-based chemicals to develop the celluloid.

Still from Homo sapiens
Still from Homo sapiens

At home, you can watch films aligned with Romancing Nature’s theme on the Eye Film Player. 7 Peaks by Anna Abrahams is a short film about humanity’s deep-seated drive to climb to the top of any mountain at whose foot we stand. Does the view from the peak grant overview of our complex existences? Humans and their contemplations are completely absent from Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Homo sapiens, leaving behind a desolate industrial landscape.

Digna Sinke has always been interested in how landscapes are shaped by humans as exquisitely captured in Weemoed en wildernis [melancholy and wilderness]. Her documentaries about the island of Tiengemeten in the province of Zuid-Holland where farmers were forced out to make way for nature are full of tightly framed dikes and arrow-straight country lanes that have since become a nature reserve. Sinke’s films feel like attempts to retain that which will inevitably be lost. In her work people, animals, agricultural landscapes and nature run together, non-hierarchically. Now that humanity has to radically change its relationship with the planet, and we have to stop being so high and mighty, Sinke provides an inspiring look at what’s going on right under our noses: everything counts.

poster Cinema Ecologica in Eye Filmmuseum
illustration Joost Stokhof


Cinema Ecologica: Romancing Nature