The video essay as an emerging ecocinema practice
by Kevin B. Lee
Throughout my 17 year involvement with video essays, I have reveled in their capacity to use cinematic language to produce critical thought. While video essays have historically been applied to cinephilic formal analyses of movies, over the years their focus has expanded to investigate a broader range of themes that reflect film’s relevance to society: gender and sexuality, racism and colonialism, economic inequality and technological dystopia. But it was only in 2022 that I first encountered a video essay explicitly addressing one of the defining crises of our time: climate change.
“Climate Fictions, Dystopias and Human Futures,” co-authored by scholars Julia Leyda and Kathleen Loock, takes the phenomenal success of the environmentally-themed satire Don’t Look Up (2021) to trace the evolution of climate fiction filmmaking. With its commentary weaving through a diverse set of films including Soylent Green (1973), Interstellar (2014) and Sharknado (2013), the video essay struck me as a ten-minute ecological application of what Thom Andersen achieved with urban studies in his celebrated essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself. In both cases, a disparate range of films are assembled, radically reframed and re-evaluated through the kind of fresh critical lens that the best video essays provide.
Perhaps the freshness I experienced with Leyda and Loock’s video had something to do with a peculiar scarcity of video essays concerned with ecological themes. For such an urgent topic, climate crisis inspires far fewer video essays on YouTube, MUBI or other sites that feature video essays by film critics, than sexual, racial, economic or technological issues. The majority of video essays I have seen on the topic come from academia. In this regard, academics could be said to be performing the role of critics, by drawing attention to what is being underseen and understudied in cinema. At the same time, their contribution should not be oversold. [in]Transition, the first and most established journal for academic video essays, has published 223 video essays over its 10-year existence – of which I could identify only seven as having ecological topics. (Lest this be understood as a shaming remark, I have even less to show for myself: despite having made nearly 400 video essays since 2006, I do not think a single one is primarily concerned with ecological themes.)
Regardless, these seven video essays could thus constitute a first wave of eco-cinematic criticism that could inspire further works by critics, YouTubers, filmmakers and video artists. While they were produced within the context of academic discourse, many of them operate beyond academic registers, whether through remarkable instances of experimentation or an urgent, activist slant. They establish key parameters and practices for how environmentalism has been explored so far, while prompting speculation upon what more could be done.
As with “Climate Fictions, Dystopias and Human Futures,” some of the video essays published in [in]Transition draw attention to a particular ecocinematic trope by cataloguing its instances. “Kataskopos: The Extraterrestrial View of the Earth in Film” (2015) by Anthony Patrickson collects sublime views of Earth from films such as Gravity (2013), Contact (1997) and Night on Earth (1991). This compilation supports an argument for how planetary vision has been utilised in cinema to express epistemic, sociological and metaphysical perspectives on humankind’s relationship to the planet. A more concentrated case study is Steven Broomer’s “Rain: A Phenomenal Catalogue” (2023) which devotes itself fully to Joris Ivens’ seminal 1929 poetic documentary Rain, which, according to Broomer, exudes Ivens’ “totalizing impulse” to explore all the applications for rain in cinema. As Béla Balázs and Gilles Deleuze have observed, the film uses rain less as a direct representation of nature and more for the achievement of cinematic effect. These two video essays thus present anthropocentric filmmaking approaches in which the natural environment is conveyed first and foremost as image, for the service of expressing human ideas.
In contrast, Anne Rutherford’s “Ripple Rustle Simmer and Shake: the Cinematic Nature of Grass” (2022) emphasises an ineffable agency of the natural world that persists despite being subjugated to the moving image. Gathering several outstanding instances of how grass has appeared in films, Rutherford argues poetically for the power of grass to transmit its “vitality affects” through the screen. “Grass gives us fibrous eyes,” an intertitle asserts, suggesting an ecocinematic vision in which humans not only see nature, but see with nature.
This situating of humanity among rather than upon nature is elaborated further in Matthew Holtmeier’s “Vital Coasts Mortal Oceans: The Pearl Button as Media Environmental Philosophy” (2023). Immersing itself in The Pearl Button (2015), Patricio Guzman’s documentary on the ecology of the Tierra del Fuego, the video essay proposes Guzman’s film as a model of Media Environmental Philosophy, a term he adapts from Ricardo Rozzi’s concept of Field Environmental Philosophy. In Holtmeier’s telling, in Media Environmental Philosophy, “cinema provides aesthetic visions of inhabitation” and “unites human and non-human histories, providing the ethical argument for environmental conservation.”
Contested and depopulated territories
A crucial factor in the media environmental philosophy found in The Pearl Button is the role of Indigenous peoples as key thinkers and practitioners of eco-conscious existence. This positioning is taken up by Matthew Campora’s “Reclaiming Uncanny Spaces: Australian Landscapes from the New Wave to the New Indigenous Cinema” (2020), though not without a bout of contention with the white settler legacy of Australian cinema. The video essay begins by presenting the landmark 1970s Australian New Wave films of Peter Weir through the Freudian reading of scholar Douglas Keesey, who regards the films as “haunted by the uncanny in the homeland they are in the process of defining.” Campora then presents works by three Aboriginal filmmakers whom he claims are “re-writing the role of the landscape” as “a place of homecoming and redemption.”
While the video essays mentioned thus far demonstrate extraordinary sensitivity to the delicate balance between humans and the natural environment, a different dynamic is evident in their use of audiovisual materials in the service of their arguments. For the most part their use of film footage is largely as illustrative material to support on-screen text or voiceover narration. In contrast, there are video essays that employ experimental videographic techniques where the assembly of images can articulate meanings without relying on voiceover or text. In “Landscape in Paradigms: Ford’s Monument Valley” (2016), Booth Wilson maps footage of Monument Valley from John Ford’s westerns against a contemporary backdrop sourced from Google Earth, revealing multiple gazes of power imposed upon the landscape. On the one hand, it is a visual record of how the Hollywood film industry asserted itself upon the landscape for decades. But the same visual analysis attests to the complexity of Ford’s decades-long engagement with the area as a site of conflict and contestation. One should also point out that Google Earth is itself part of a gargantuan enterprise in which the entire planet has been converted into visual data, an image extraction operation that renders Old Hollywood quaint in comparison.
All of these video essays feature human engagements with the environment to varying extents, but the final example goes furthest to remove people from the picture. In “The Birds After Hitchcock” (2019), Miguel Mesquita Duarte freezes individual frames from The Birds (1963) and effaces them of all human figures, while the original soundtrack, including its fearsome avian sounds, persists. The video was conceived as an exploration of film settings as visual frames that produce a cinematic power beyond movement. However, within an eco-cinematic context, the video provokes the question of how much cinematic power lies beyond the human subject; re-oriented on the non-human, cinema can recognise the environment itself as the protagonist, or an ensemble of subjects: birds and backgrounds.
Both of the peer reviews for “The Birds After Hitchcock” praised the stilling effect of the freeze frames derived from the source material, with one celebrating the effect as a break from the prevailing practices of videographic film scholarship. As seen in many of the examples discussed so far, videographic scholars employ the moving image to animate their arguments and analyses, making them more accessible to a general public that is increasingly habituated to consuming information in audiovisual form. In this regard, the stilling effect could also be seen not only as a disruption of the normal flow of cinematic images, but also as a disruption of the normative practices of media production and consumption. In this regard, the ecological significance of video essays extend beyond ecology as their subject matter, to media as an ecology in itself, one whose modes of production and consumption bear upon such practices at large.
From media on ecology to media as ecology
How the video essay can be a media ecological practice in and of itself can be considered further through two works: “Song for Earth and Folk” (2013) by Cauleen Smith (with music by The Eternals) and “Second Sighted” (2014) by Deborah Stratman and Olivia Block. These shorts were published in NECSUS, a cinema studies journal that has curated a section of video essays since 2014 – but unlike most of what is published in [in]Transition or NECSUS, they were not created primarily as academic scholarship. As introduced by Domietta Torlasco, the guest editor of the NECSUS section that included these two videos, these works “emerge at the borders of essayistic practice, between art and film worlds and academia.” In exploring these borders, they provoke questions about the underlying ethos for all video essay practices.
Both works were commissioned by Chicago Film Archives, which provided the artists with an eclectic range of archival materials – educational, industrial, ethnographic and scientific films – from which to produce an original work. “Through these films,” Smith reflects upon her initial encounter with them, “what became clear about human activity is that it is wasteful, exploitative and toxic in almost every context.” Organising a selection of this footage around the structure of blues music, Smith re-animates the archive into an anti-anthropocentric breakup song scored by The Eternals, narrated by an aggrieved but resilient Earth, and the exploitive, hubristic Folk who inhabit her. The montage is playfully irreverent in its polemic, while also videographically subversive, given that much of the source material is from mid-20th century US promotional films bearing colonial and capitalist undertones: the racist displacement of urban renewal, the objectifying gaze upon Africa, the conquering tone of the technology industry.
The technologically-mediated gaze draws further scrutiny in “Second Sighted.” Stratman’s foray into the archives yields a procession of visions of the earth and beyond that, through the emerging logic of her montage, reflects critically back on the aims and resources that yielded these images. Scored with an evocative menace by experimental sound artist Olivia Block, images of sea and sky by underwater and overhead cameras, conspicuous zooms and pans, satellite grids and charting technologies, all refract upon the impulses behind their making: to perceive, to know, to control. The sequence concludes with images of an unstable seabed and submerged homes: has human catastrophe happened despite efforts to control the natural environment, or because of them?
Both of these works cast critical attention on what forms of knowledge audiovisual production has produced over the past century, and what bearing such audiovisual knowledge has on planetary survival. This attention can be applied to the form of the video essay itself, not only in its choice of subjects but in its modes of practice. Torlasco praises these artists for adopting an “impersonal” viewpoint that deprivileges the primacy of human subjectivity:
“They recognise that the world, including the world of archival images and sounds, has its own agency, even its own life… They let the subject (maker or viewer) vanish as such and re-emerge as a configuration of sounds and images, without a proper name or a proper body. ‘I’ is there/here as an arrangement of matter, entangled with the world and the apparatus that is being employed to observe it.”
How crucial is such an ethos to the future of ecological video essays, the future of cinema, the future of knowledge and knowing? In what ways will the video essay be re-oriented from an anthropocentric epistemology? To what extent should it be depopulated of humans, so that other forms of life can be given greater agency of expression? How can its own practices embody and fulfill the ecological futures it seeks to make visible? One might say that all essays, including video essays, do not answer questions but rather discover them.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker and media researcher who has produced nearly 400 video essays. His award-winning Transformers: The Premake introduced the desktop documentary format. He is the Locarno Film Festival Professor for the Future of Cinema and the Audiovisual Arts at Università della Svizzera italiana (USI).