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Extra Curricular

by Holly Willis

Environmental Storytelling

In August 2021, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a new report on the global state of the environment, highlighting the shrinkage of glaciers, warming of oceans, massive forest loss, extreme heat, devastating drought and more. While the report is crushing, it is also fuel for action. Indeed, the BBC’s climate editor, Justin Rowlatt, suggested that 2021 could be the year for finally making climate change a top priority, citing the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in early November as just one landmark event that could help consolidate action.

For filmmakers teaching in universities, the growing sense of urgency many of us feel about the state of the planet and the damage we’ve inflicted prompts action as well. The environmental humanities, for example, have existed in nascent form for several decades, especially in the work of indigenous and feminist scholars, but they have gained significant momentum over the past 10 years. More specific to film and media studies, there is a growing interest in eco-cinema and the publication of books such as Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature by Adrian J. Ivakhiv, and the collection of essays Ecocinema Theory and Practice, edited by Stephen Rust, Salma Monani and Sean Cubitt. 

New classes also offer students ways to think about the environment. Artist-theorist Elaine Gan is teaching a graduate seminar titled “Decolonizing Ecocinema: Aesthetics and Politics of Disaster” in NYU’s Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement program this fall, while last spring filmmaker/media artist Josephine Anstey taught “Green Media,” an undergrad course at the University at Buffalo that studies not only examples of media about the environment but also “the ecological impact of our obsession with the latest media devices.” These courses and books do not simply showcase nature films. They focus on how films and filmmaking are embedded within the world in complex ways, while also exploring how cinematic stories and experiences can raise awareness, prompt new perspectives and suggest different paradigms for understanding the relationships between the human and nonhuman.

At the University of California, Los Angeles, film and the environmental humanities intersect in the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS). Housed within UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, LENS was established in October 2016 with the goal of using the tools of moving image storytelling to enhance our understanding of the contemporary environment.

“LENS came out of the desire to institutionalize the presence of environmental humanities at UCLA,” explains Ursula Heise, who currently serves as the interim director of the lab, as well as chair of the English department at UCLA. Heise is known for her work theorizing temporality in Chronoschisms: Time, Narrative, and Postmodernism, and has more recently turned her attention to the environment; she published Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global in 2008, for example, and her book Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species was published in 2016. Heise is quick to point out that her role as LENS director simply means that she fields questions from outside the lab. The group is very collaborative and purposefully structured quite loosely, with a group of faculty that includes Jon Christensen, Jessica Cattelino, Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Danny Snelson helping guide the lab’s array of projects.

LENS emerged after a year-long seminar with faculty and doctoral students from many different departments who gathered to talk about environmental issues from a cultural perspective. When the seminar was complete, there was a desire to continue. The group assessed what held them together, and to their surprise, the term “narrative” came to the foreground. 

Heise says that the mission of LENS is using the tools of the humanities and social sciences, especially in storytelling and image making, to understand the environment. The group is also dedicated to doing this work across disparate cultural boundaries, with an acute awareness that the environment is experienced and understood in radically different ways across neighborhoods, ethnic communities, age and more. “Even at the relatively micro scale of a city like Los Angeles, there are really important cultural differences,” explains Heise, “and one kind of storytelling will not work for all of these communities.” 

A third concern for LENS is to broaden the array of stories told, as well as the forms in which they’re shared: “We would like to encourage the telling of new environmental stories from perspectives that have been marginalized or not heard, but also the telling of new and old stories in diverse media, like graphic novels, social media, blogs, video….”

As an example, Heise describes a project called LA 2050, which is a collaborative project with the Matadero Center for Contemporary Art in Madrid; teams in both cities are creating three short films about their respective urban environments. The LA team has chosen machinima as their form, using Grand Theft Auto V and its detailed setting of Los Santos, which is based on Los Angeles, as a location. “I noticed, getting out of my car and doing pedestrian expeditions in the story world, that they have actually created a quite realistic world of native plants,” explains Heise. “So, there are a lot of assets there that we can use to make a realistic looking landscape.” 

For another project, a group of students is helping create a collection of videos, graphics and visual presentations to be used by the LA County Department of Parks and Recreation to communicate why they should not be defunded when budget cuts are determined. 

In addition to working with the city, LENS has also partnered with chief creative officer Juan Devis at KCET, which creates award-winning public media programming, on the environmental news show Earth Focus. These projects involve a variety of UCLA faculty members across multiple disciplines and include the feature-length doc The New West and the Politics of the Environment, a portrait of Nevada senator Harry Reid, who used clever tactics to protect the state’s wilderness; and a short video, Taylor Yard: A Change of Heart in Los Angeles, about a 42-acre contaminated railroad yard near the LA River. What is quite significant for other academic projects is the fact that LENS has found a venue for screening its work, reaching audiences well beyond the university.

For Heise, trained as a humanities scholar, working with filmmakers has been revelatory. For example, in 2018, she wrote, produced and narrated a short documentary titled Urban Ark Los Angeles, focusing on the red-crowned parrots of Pasadena, which were endangered in Mexico and have migrated to California to find a new home. “It was really an adventure because it was the first time for me that I tried to convey some of the things I had researched visually.” She continues, “Kristy Guevara-Flanagan [a documentary filmmaker and associate professor in UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television] is always saying that we have great ideas, but what about the visuals? You don’t have to think about this in an academic essay.”

LENS, with its mandate to facilitate the creation of environment-focused media by students and faculty across multiple disciplines, offers a useful model for responding to ecological crisis. It also opens up scholars to new ways of thinking. “The back-and-forth between science and culture has, through LENS, really begun to play for me as much in the visual and audio realms as in the textual realm,” explains Heise. “It’s been incredibly exciting, and it’s really blown my mind open.”

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