“At Last” (2022)

I’m delighted to finally be able to share with you the final film produced by our students as part of my and Dr. Amy Cutler‘s project, The Cinema As Time Capsule: using films to capture vanishing worlds.

This was funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), who issued a call for creative projects to coincide with the COP-26 Climate Summit which took place last year in Glasgow. For our project, we collaborated with Cambridge University Widening Participation and with Cambridge’s Botanic Garden.

Both Amy and I share a longstanding interest in nature films: their production, their narratives, their impacts on audiences. We have also both been fascinated by the concept of cinema as a time-capsule, recording and preserving the world around us for future generations. In my own research, for example, I have shown how the 1927 jungle film Chang was donated by Paramount Pictures to London’s Natural History Museum in the expectation that the animals depicted would go extinct.

The challenge for our project, then, was to equip a group of young people local to the Cambridge area with the tools to make their own film that reflected their feelings towards climate and the environment, as a visual time-capsule of their own. This would draw on my and Amy’s expertise, as well as that of cinema industry professionals. The project took place over several weeks, between October and November 2021.

We began with a film screening, where Amy and I showed the participants a series of clips which represented different approaches to the nature documentary across time, including the breath-taking chase of a baby marine iguana by snakes in Planet Earth II, Bear 61, a film narrated from the perspective of a real-life Canadian grizzly bear, and The Future Is Wild, a ‘speculative evolution’ series that imagines the animals of the far-away future using animation which was made in 2002.

In our next session, we started to think about what kind of film the students wanted to make, and a story slowly began to take shape. Using an adapted version of Everest Pipkin’s storytelling game The Ground Itself , together we began to imagine what the Cambridge Botanic Garden might look like hundreds, thousands, and millions of years into the future.

Then, our students were treated to a screenwriting workshop led by Darren Rapier, who shared with us his extensive experience working in the film industry, and in particular encouraged the students to think carefully about how they wanted to build things like tension and anticipation into their script. At the end of this session, our students went home to mull over their ideas ahead of the final weekend.

Over the course of the next Saturday and Sunday, our students took part in a filmmaking workshop delivered by Nathan and Josh from Ark Media, a film production company. They learned how to operate a camera, and put their skills to the test in the greenhouses, in the rockeries, and among the trees of the Botanic Garden in Cambridge.

At the Botanic Garden, they were given a tour by Dr. Chantal Helm, who led us through the garden’s different spaces. She told us about the local impacts of climate change of species held by the garden, as well as the research undertaken by botanic gardens the world over to understand the effects of global warming. Chantal also contributed a crucial piece to the puzzle that would become ‘At Last’, explaining that moths like the Garden Tiger were especially vulnerable to climactic changes, and suggesting that we might make space for a moth or two to star in the film!

On the final afternoon, Kaylee from Ark Media taught the students how to source archive and stock footage from various online resources, and she also introduced the students to the craft of editing. Splicing together a selection of found footage with the images filmed at the Botanic Garden, the film slowly began to take shape, all driven by a storyline developed collaboratively by two of the students, Grace and Rebecca.

In the midst of this, the COP-26 Climate Summit was taking place in Glasgow, and this major world event undoubtedly influenced the tone of the film that our five young participants chose to foreground in their film. At one point, we even went somewhat off-script, hiking out to a climate protest in central Cambridge and capturing some footage that would make it into the final cut.

The film, At Last, is a remarkable achievement for the five young women who researched, filmed, and produced it. Its fast pace captures the energy from the intense weekend during which it was made, and sprinkled throughout it are small references to the many discussions which we shared about archival footage, the power of stories and non-human points of view. Scratch the surface, and you’ll get a glimpse of the five curious young minds that forged it.

Last week, we were finally able to premiere the film at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge, alongside a screening of Dr. Emily Munro’s Living Proof (2022). Munro’s is a much longer film, using archival footage from the National Library of Scotland to explore Scotland’s climate past. But I couldn’t think of a better accompaniment for At Last, which shares with Munro’s film a curiosity for what moving image archives can reveal about the history of our climate, alongside a deep sense of concern for its future.

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