The Cinema as Time Capsule

Filming at the Botanic Garden, Cambridge

It’s been a while since I posted here – I am coming towards the end of my PhD, and have been busy writing up my dissertation on natural history films and BBC broadcasts. But it’s good to be back again and I have plenty of things to share on here over the next couple of months. One of these is The Cinema as Time Capsule: using film to capture vanishing worlds, which was funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant to support creative projects during the COP 26 Climate Summit in Glasgow at the end of last year.

For this project, I worked with a group of teenagers to help them create their own short film representing that represents something about their relationship with current discourses surrounding climate change and the environment. The idea comes from an idea that has cropped up repeatedly in my research – how people in the past often viewed cinema as a medium that might somehow ‘capture’ animals, plants, places and people at risk of extinction. In preparing and delivering the project, I collaborated with Dr. Amy Cutler, a visual artist, geographer and researcher who has spent the past decade or so thinking and writing about human understandings of, and relationships with, the natural world. Last year, Amy made an amazing film called ‘The Video Book of Orchids‘, which she released just as I was starting to develop a side-passion for finding wild orchids!

Amy and I planned a series of screenings and discussions about the history of nature films and science communication, covering everything from narrative construction to the use of natural and artificial sounds. Amy put together some great examples drawn from a range of different sources, from the Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’s 1927 jungle film Chang to the famous scene of an iguana being chased by snakes from Planet Earth II. We also had some very interesting discussions about the relationship between nature films and climate change: have these films encouraged us to take action to stop global warming? Are the environmental costs of producing nature documentaries justified by the impact they they might have?

For this project, we also collaborated with Cambridge’s Botanic Garden, whose staff gave our participants a tour of the garden where they learned about the fascinating work that they do there, as well as giving us a space for the students to shoot their own film. On the final weekend of the project, our students were guided through the process of planning, shooting and editing their own film, using a combination of archive images and footage shot by them at the Botanic Garden.

The whole experience was tremendously rewarding – not just for the five girls who took part in the project and got to produce their very own film , but also for Amy and I, who learned a lot about how a younger generation’s experiences and ideas about the topics that we care about.

Now that the film has been edited, I’m delighted to say that we have organised a free screening to take place at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. As well as the film that the students made, we will be showing Dr. Emily Munro’s Living Proof (2021), a film about Scotland’s climate history told through archival images from the National Library of Scotland, which is a film I’m very excited to see for the first time. The screening will take place at 6pm, on Tuesday 22nd February 2022, and you can book your free tickets to attend via Eventbrite. All welcome!

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