Becoming Animal is an unusual, thought-provoking film essay which upends many tropes of wildlife photography to create a rich landscape of ideas and images. The work of philosopher David Abram gets a good read-through as filmmakers Peter Mettler and Emma Davie explore the notion of a ‘more-than-human’ world.
Photographing nature is, by definition, a tricky prospect. Although trees and mountains are generally pretty solid colleagues, animals tend to move around a lot and make life difficult for those armed with cameras who want to capture their likeness into clean, editable frames. Nature documentarians are thusly rightly revered for their patience and perseverance, but is it possible that we’re missing the broader picture? David Abram, ecological philosopher and guiding light of Becoming Animal is certainly keen to get his audience asking that very question.
The film is an unusual patchwork of different approaches. Occasionally, we’re treated to lingering shots of gorgeous landscapes which might well form a majestic desktop wallpaper, but Mettler and Davie more frequently use kaleidoscopic sequences of landscapes coming out of focus and distorting altogether. The viewer is confronted with intense close-ups of insects and animals, leaves frozen in water or trees flashing past from the window of a car (and in one memorable sequence, we are treated to what appears to be a bear’s-eye-view courtesy of a GoPro).
Immersion in the sensuous world of living habitats is very much the leading principle, fitting in with Abram’s personal interest in the sensual experience of nature. The philosopher appears on-screen from time to time, but is more frequently heard in voice-over across mesmerising footage of Grand Teton National Park where the film was made. Abram’s thesis is simple (kind of). When we gaze at nature, it gazes back at us, and in this way it is representative of our entire species-wide relationship with the countless lifeforms around us.
Our languages and alphabets are just one form of technology which has distanced us from a direct experience of the natural world and led us to believe that we human beings are somehow beyond the ecosystems on which we rely for our existence. Becoming Animal is as far from a crowd-pleaser as it gets, and even its trippier moments of photography aren’t quite sustained enough to mark the film down as a pure visual spectacle. However, its message and approach are so wonderfully combined, so vital and sensitive, that the overall effect is quite magnificent.