Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Being Caribou: Where Life Begins?

Being Caribou (2005) concentrates primarily on the arctic as home for the caribou rather than the indigenous Gwich’in the herds support. But its frame at least begins to align the survival of the caribou with that of the Gwich’in people. As Salma Monani suggests, “Because Being Caribou is a film that combines encounters with wild animals and wilderness adventure with an explicit political agenda, and because this political agenda also pays homage to the Native Americans embroiled in the battle of the Refuge debate, the film provides insight into the potentials and problems of contemporary wilderness discourse within the adventure–nature film categorization” (102) For filmmaker Leanne Allison, the icy landscape is like a rhythm, alive and vacant without the caribou. Her filming of her and husband Karsten’s journey with the porcupine caribous is meant to not only document their migration but also to provide arguments against drilling in the Arctic National Refuge. Oil drilling will hurt the herd, they explain.

Although most of the documentary focuses on this husband and wife team’s struggles to become caribou, the opening and closing connect the herds’ wellbeing to the Gwich’in people they sustain. Randall, a Gwich’in elder from Old Crow along the Porcupine River speaks for the caribou and for Gwich’in culture dependent on their survival. For Randall, there is a spirit in all living things. The Gwich’in and the caribou share elements of this spirit. The caribou look after the people, so the people care for the caribou, he explains. Randall also opens Leanne and Karsten’s journey by interpreting Leanne’s dream of a flowing river. He can read when the migration has started because his world is so integrally connected with that of the caribou.

During the central part of this film, we see Leanne and Karstan’s efforts to follow the caribou. They ski through rough snow and climb steep ridge while carrying 60-80 pound backpacks. But, as Leanne explains, they are “trying to be caribou, not being caribou.” Along the trail they note multiple challenges to the caribous’ survival: bears wolves, foxes, and even insects. But humans serve as the most dangerous adversaries for the herds. Anthropocene climate change has already diminished the herds. Oil drilling in the refuge will destroy them. The caribou are protected in Canada, but in the Alaskan refuge where they birth and nurse their calves, their habitat is still unprotected. This documentary is meant to sway Congress to vote to protect the Arctic Refuge.

Yet because their journey ends where it began, with Randall, the Gwich’in representative, the power of circular journeys and an indigenous worldview proves stronger than a white Canadian nature film. He shows them they are part of a bigger circle that’s continuing for the caribou. They all hope it will always continue. Unsurprisingly, Congress does not respond well to the film. The response is disappointing and ignites their biggest fear that the calving grounds will be drilled and the caribou herds will decline. It is only when the Gwich’in voice again enter the film that hope for the caribou returns, for their survival means the survival of the Gwich’in and their home.

After watching a Gwich’in protest outside the capital building, Karstan realizes success won’t come from the top down. They must work from the bottom up by giving voice to the indigenous people who live with and for the caribou. As Randall explains at the end of the film, “We need to talk about life. That’s what the elders taught us. To respect life and accept all its forms: plant life, animal life, fish life, bird life, whatever. The Gwich’in people respect everything.” Although the film provides beautiful scenes of caribou and their journey, it is the words of Randall that prove the most convincing argument against drilling. It will destroy the Gwich’in homeland. Although Monani asserts that Heuer and misrepresent native peoples and “do[] little to subvert consumerist longings to desire for adventure in wild places and maintains classist hierarchies” (112), it at least broaches the Gwich’in worldview and, perhaps, the caribous’ only chance for survival.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Devil Wears Prada and Environmental Justice

Near the center of The Devil Wears Prada (2006) Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) reacts to Andy Sachs’ (Anne Hathaway) sniggers over her assistants struggle to decide between two similar belts for an outfit asking her blithely, “Something funny?”  And when Andy remarks on how similar the belts look, declaring, “You know, I'm still learning about all this stuff,” Miranda illustrates how enormous an effect the clothing industry has on our daily lives:
This... stuff'? Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select... I don't know... that lumpy blue sweater, for instance because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise. It's not lapis. It's actually cerulean. And you're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent... wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.

Miranda’s brief history of the cerulean sweater and its origin begins to reveal the massive size of the clothing industry, here in relation to fashion. Andy’s sweater demonstrates well that fashion fabric color choices in 2002 trickle down first to other designers, and then to department stores, and finally to the discount store. 

Miranda’s speech also makes the point that the fashion industry benefits everyone, providing clothes for multiple socio-economic classes and stimulating the U.S. economy with billions of dollars in profits and “countless jobs” is illustrated well by multiple clothing and fashion industry films. Miranda’s claim is explicitly reinforced, for example, by Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear (1994), a film that attempts to reveal some of the problems with the fashion industry by focusing on various characters’ reactions while preparing for a Paris fashion show. Ready to Wear provides an uncomplimentary portrayal of the fashion industry, a “hate letter” according to Richard Corliss, but a “comedy crossed with a home movie,” according to Roger Ebert. What stands out, however, amid the personal injustices and competitions, is a nod toward the environment missing from most films. At the ready-to-wear show, one reporter asks a designer, “How do you feel that fifty percent of the world’s pollution comes from textile mills,” shocking the designer and prompting the viewer to wonder if she’s right. Do the fashion and clothing industries contribute this significantly to everyday environmental disasters such as air and water pollution?

Although Miranda’s soliloquy, and the films that illustrate its points, address only parts of the fashion, clothing, and textile industries, it also begins to illustrate the industry’s effects on a people and their economy.  Like other films addressing fashion and clothing manufacturing industries, The Devil Wears Prada not only reveals the complexity of the design and manufacturing process, but also begins to expose and illuminate the environmental justice issues associated with this industry that helps us meet one of our basic human needs. Similar to other clothing industry films, The Devil Wears Prada, highlights and typically critiques the exploitation of labor and valorizes their efforts to organize, either formally or informally. The film provides a demonstration and multiple individual illustrations of the clothing cycle through personal narratives. It shows the contrast and conflict between urban and rural values and validates figures who become heroic in spite of their humble backgrounds, foregrounding their successful attempts to overcome adversity.

What is hidden in The Devil Wears Prada and other films addressing the fashion and clothing industry, however, is an explicit discussion of how environmental justice underpins the films’ narratives and rhetoric. Although sometimes obscured by the human rights issues examined by the films, both documentaries and fictional films with clothing at the center address environmental issues across races, classes, and genders, beginning to broach the question, how do gender, class, and race intersect with the environment in the clothing industry? Do problems with cotton production enter these films, or do the water and toxicity issues associated with cotton remain hidden? Do the films address our throwaway society and its effects on local industry in developing countries? Do they highlight problems with sweatshops, air pollution, fabrics made with oil? Although most clothing films focus primarily on heroic individuals and class and race conflict, films such as Cotton Road (2013) and Thread: A Documentary (2013) seek to show how some clothing films go further and effectively reveal how social justice issues interconnect with environmental justice concerns.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Universalizing the Biotic Community in The End of the Line (2010)

With a blatantly environmental message, The End of the Line (2010) contrasts a seemingly pristine ocean with its disastrous future. Close-ups of sea life and sky show the passage of time. Coral, neon-colored fish, and crabs are accompanied by violin music. They are revealing a “Marine Protected Area” in the Bahamas, the narrator (Ted Danson) tells us, “protected from the most efficient predator.” The music becomes ominous now, as a shark swims by, but the crescendo rises when the hand of a fisherman brings up a line and nets of fish, trawling that the narrator explains is “like plowing a field seven times per year.” We are the predators, the image tells us, and the title, The End of the Line rolls on the screen. The End of the Line immerses itself in wise use environmental arguments similar to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic. The End of the Line asserts and supports a straightforward argument against over fishing in our oceans around the world, highlighting the need for a biotic community undisrupted by human intervention caused by industrializing the fishing industry.

The End of the Line argues more generally for an ethical approach to the ocean environment that embraces sustainability. The film exclaims, “Imagine a world without fish,” and declares that, based on the current rate of fishing, the world will see the end of most seafood by 2048. By juxtaposing images of protected pristine seas with spectacles of predation, The End of the Line successfully argues for organismic approaches to ecology that see the survival of human nature indelibly intertwined with that of the nonhuman nature of the seas. The film thus effectively illustrates the consequences of industrialized fishing and consumerism. Despite its flaws, the film demonstrates the catastrophic consequences of over-using marine resources by contrasting views of oceans with and without the human impact of “fair use” fishing strategies that exploit the sea’s resources without regard for the future of sea life. The film documents evidence that validates this key argument. Our exploitation is killing the sea, making what was a renewable resource into a death pool.

The Newfoundland, Canada cod shortage is first held up as evidence. In 1992, what had once been the most abundant cod fishing area in the world had been fished out, so that 40,000 people lost their jobs, and cod became an endangered species in Canada, so much so that its population has not regenerated despite a moratorium. Near extinction of the blue fin tuna serves as a second compelling case supporting the film’s horrific assertion. Although The End of the Line does focus on specific species of tuna, it explains that these examples merely particularize a more general trend: species after species of fish have collapsed in the world’s oceans because developed nations crave seafood. Reasons for these major declines are explored, all related to a move toward large-scale industrial fishing in the 1950s, but the film primarily demonstrates that, at the current rate of fishing, the number of fish available in the world’s oceans will hit zero by 2048. Marine life is fragile, a finite resource that will disappear if we do not change the way we harvest fish.

The film offers a variety of solutions to this catastrophic future of our seas, all of which are based in organismic approaches of ecology that embrace sustainable development and biotic community. Alaska’s conservation methods are held up as one example of a better way, with a strictly enforced 200-mile fishing limit. The film also suggests that consumers demand where their fish came from and how it was caught to support a sustainable fishing industry like that described by the Marine Stewardship Council. The End of the Line argues against fish farming, however, suggesting the opening of more marine preserves where commercial fishing is off limits.

With this generalized focus on the biotic community of Earth’s oceans, The End of the Line moves beyond individualized animal rights arguments and embraces a sophisticated theory of organismic ecology. Whether or not the film’s rhetoric will result in activist responses from viewers, however, is yet to be seen because the film is available primarily by accessing a website rather than through wide release. The film also suggests that arguments against over fishing based in organismic ecology may or may not change behaviors.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Cove (2009) and Animal Rights: A Rhetoric that Works

The Academy Award-winning documentary, The Cove (2009) captures viewers’ attention immediately with its opening shots in Taiji, Japan, where its unlikely hero, Ric O’Barry explains, “I do want to say that we tried to do the story legally,” but he then exclaims, “Shit,” as he sees city police nearby and introduces the tale of espionage at the center of the film: “Here it is,” Ric tells the viewer, “the town of Taiji, the little town with a really big secret,” pointing to a seemingly idyllic village beside the sea where dolphins are memorialized in the Taiji Whale Museum, and exalted by both locals and tourists in pleasure boats shaped like smiling dolphins. But, as O’Barry reveals, “Hundreds of thousands of dolphins have died there,” and it is his mission to fight for the dolphins’ rights and reveal the senseless slaughter to the world.

The Cove grapples with issues surrounding fishing for what New York Times seafood writer, Paul Greenberg, calls our “last wild food” in his Four Fish. Most importantly, The Cove affects the changes it proposes. The Cove not only unmasks the slaughter of dolphins that leaders in Taiji work hard to hide; it also provides a call to action that is both heard and followed, successfully slowing the carnage in the cove. In The Cove, O’Barry defines dolphins as both sentient and self-aware, offering these characteristics of persons as reasons for ensuring their safety and freedom.

The Cove demonstrates dolphins’ connections with humans first through Ric O’Barry’s recollections of interactions with the dolphins he captured and trained for the television series, Flipper (1964-1968). O’Barry explains, “When they are captured and put in a concrete tank surrounded by screaming people, the noise causes stress.” The sound of the filtration system was found to kill dolphins and had to be modified. O’Barry’s commentary demonstrates both their sentience—ability both to feel pleasure and pain—and their self-awareness—ability to recognize themselves on television, arguing effectively that dolphins should be preserved because destroying them means destroying persons of equal value to humans. The Cove also valorizes dolphin’s intelligence as a connection to humans through information provided by Dr. John Potter, who measures intelligence in dolphins. According to the film, then, dolphins have worth, so they deserve to live. They also deserve the freedom all persons of equal worth deserve.

The film establishes the worth of dolphins but also assumes, because they have historically been viewed as sentient creatures, that viewers will immediately call for action, once the slaughter at Taiji Cove is revealed. The film asserts both logical and emotional reasons why the dolphins should be saved. For example, the film provides practical reasons why humans should avoid dolphin meat, if they value their health, explaining that dolphin meat has toxic levels of mercury.

The slaughter they capture on film becomes the climax of this powerful documentary, serving as the strongest animal rights argument in the film. Once they herd in the dolphins, fishermen begin the slaughter, stabbing dolphins repeatedly with harpoons. The water turns red with blood. Dolphin screams fill the soundtrack. The harpooning continues until all the dolphins are dead. The water is ruby red, but dolphins caught in nets are pierced again and again. They try to escape but are caught in this cove fortress. Carcasses are ripped on board the boats, but fishermen smoke nonchalantly, even diving into the bloody water in search of more bodies. The dolphins are dragged like harpooned whales. These images contrast with majestic shots of dolphins swimming freely in the sea.

The footage of the slaughter becomes O’Barry’s proof of dolphins’ sentience. Their suffering is clear on the video screen he shows a town spokesman and the members of the International Whaling Commission. And these shocking images get results. Small countries paid off by the Japanese leave the IWC, and dolphin meat is no longer allowed in school lunches, for example. By building an argument that first demonstrates dolphins’ equality because they, like humans, are both sentient and self-aware, The Cove draws on animal rights arguments. It also effectively takes that argument one-step further. Because dolphins are sentient and self-aware, their slaughter must end.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Darwin's Nightmare (2004) and a Mixed Rhetorical Result

Highlighting its environmental bent from its opening forward, Darwin’s Nightmare (2004) establishes its setting and introduces its perspective by contrasting the struggles of impoverished natives with their prosperous Eastern European economic colonizers. The opening song, “Tanzania,” for example, is contrasted with Eastern European music accompanying a plane’s shadow over Lake Victoria, “the source of the Nile” and “the birthplace of civilization,” according to the film. A pan of the town reveals poverty and neglect. Dogs sleep on the sand while fishermen work on their boats. In the streets, one boy runs on crutches, and another cries when a bully punches him. Girls sing to the sound of a synthesizer while a child sleeps on the sidewalk.  “They take the fish to the factory,” Marcus, a police officer, explains, and European pilots fly the prepared perch back to their homeland. With these opening shots, the film’s focus has been established—an interrogation of the dire economic and environmental consequences of introducing perch into the Lake Victoria eco-system.

Darwin’s Nightmare demonstrates how our greed for a particular type of fish—perch—has irrevocably disrupted the biosphere of Lake Victoria. Because of the changes in the fishing industry caused by the overabundance of perch and Westerners’ taste for this fish as food, human nature has also been irrevocably disrupted according to the film, demonstrating how interconnected human and nonhuman nature remain.  The perch have destroyed the biotic community of the lake, with one species overwhelming all others, but the perch have also negatively affected the human community. Their destructive behaviors may ultimately destroy the fishing industry, but their introduction into the lake has already changed the industry and the market that sustains it. With huge perch available for export, countries bordering on the lake, especially Tanzania, can no longer rely on the lake for sustenance. Fishermen no longer catch fish for themselves and their families. They catch perch for a factory where they are prepared for shipment to Europe where, according to the film, two million white people eat Victoria fish each day.

Tanzanians are starving, then, because their lake has become a Darwinian nightmare marketplace for Eastern European businessmen and their pilots, who fly cargo planes into Tanzania for their load of perch. They provide nothing for the people living near the lake, but they do contribute even further to their impoverished state, since they bring arms to warring African countries leaving more than a million dead. In return, pilots from Ukraine bring perch back to Europe, while hungry and orphaned Tanzanian children sleep on the streets. Women live in brothels and bars, starve, or die from fumes exuded by smoking perch corpses. The human biotic community has disintegrated here.

The film personalizes each of these struggles: It foregrounds prostitute Eliza’s attempts to figure out her life, her glowing smile, and her powerful voice singing her country’s anthem, “Tanzania.” It also focuses on Raphael, a night guard fearing for his life, since the previous guard had been murdered, Jonathan, a painter who documents the life on the streets he left behind, the group of boys fighting to survive on the street, and the cargo pilots themselves, some even regretting their part in the arms sales that contribute to so many deaths.

Darwin’s Nightmare shows us what happens when the biotic communities of and between nonhuman and human nature are disturbed. Here the film asserts that a single species—either the Nile perch or the European colonizer—can destroy its environment and even itself. Instead of arguing for animal liberation, the film upholds the need for interdependent community. The consequences of its destruction are monumental and ultimately end in both lake and land turning into barren sinkholes.  But the film stands only as a warning against disrupting other biospheres. It is too late for Lake Victoria and, perhaps, for Tanzania, the film suggests.  Darwin’s Nightmare also demonstrates that arguments against over fishing based in organismic ecology may or may not encourage change.