Icy Water, Acid, and Free Forests: The New Ecocinema from East-Central Europe

Icy Water, Acid, and Free Forests: The New Ecocinema from East-Central Europe

Interview with Rugile Barzdžiukaitė, Ian Soroka, and Emilija Škarnulytė

Author
Lukas Brasiskis and Masha Shpolberg
Keywords
Ecocinema; experimental cinema; documentary; video art; Lithuania; Slovenia; animal studies; the environment; environmental media; contemporary art.
Abstract
Lukas Brasiskis and Masha Shpolberg interview three emerging filmmakers/video artists about the climate crisis, the power of the moving image, and the rich but still unmined environmental history of East-Central Europe.

In the icy waters of the Arctic, a mermaid explores the remnants of a Cold War submarine base. Further south, a colony of cormorants draws visitors from all over the world to a Lithuanian forest. And closer to the Mediterranean, voices whisper stories of partisan resistance to the Nazis among the age-old oaks of the Slovenian mountains. These are but three brief images from a quietly, but surely, cresting wave of environmentally-focused films from East-Central Europe: a space, as its doubly-qualified name implies, defined by multiple degrees of liminality.

Initially the border zone between three empires (Russian, Prussian, and Austrian), it fell under the Soviet sphere of influence after World War II, only to rejoin Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Forty-four years of forced communist rule left a literal mark on both the natural landscape and the built environment of these countries (which include the Baltics, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, as well as the countries of the former Yugoslavia). The period from 1945 until 1989 saw rapid industrialisation, failed attempts to collectivise agriculture, and the attendant shift from a largely rural to a largely urban population. What makes these countries different from the majority of the former Soviet Republics, however, is their successful integration into the European Union in the early 2000s. The relative economic (if not always political) stability this has brought, as well as the increased possibilities for cultural exchange and education at universities in foreign countries, have resulted in a new generation: young artists who see themselves as both global citizens and heirs to a unique historic legacy.

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The invasive birds, Acid Forest (Frame capture).

Rugile Barzdžiukaitė, Emilija Škarnulytė, and Ian Soroka are three of the leading voices thinking through the current ecological crisis with this history in mind. Not all of them are from the region: Soroka is an American with Slovenian roots, who first came to the country to conduct research at the Slovenian National Film Archive before going on to produce his film, Lep pozdrav iz svobodnih gozdov / Greetings from Free Forests (Slovenia/USA/Croatia, 2018), there. And not all of them make films uniquely set in the region: Škarnulytė’s projects have taken her as far afield as Japan, New Mexico, and Switzerland. What they share is a generational orientation (all are in their early- or mid-30s) and a common sensibility: a willingness to renounce traditional narrative, and the documentary/fiction divide for that matter, and imagine an alternative cinema, one that feels like an extension of “slow” or “observational” cinema but that dares to be weirder and more experimental.

Looking beyond the region, one can see their works as part of a more global movement that film theorists have dubbed “ecocinema.”1 Paula Willoquet-Maricondi in her book Framing the World: Explorations in Ecocriticism and Film (2010) draws the distinction between “environmentalist films” and “ecocinema”. While both are governed by “consciousness-raising and activist intentions,” as well as a “responsibility to heighten awareness about contemporary issues and practices affecting planetary health,” they are quite distinct (Willoquet-Maricondi 2010: 45). The former refers to films that ostensibly focus on environmental issues but in reality privilege human stories. (In some cases, the environmental issues even become a kind of “background” against which the human story plays out). The latter are much more attentive to form. In eschewing traditional narrative, continuity editing, and the other structural features of mainstream cinema, they seek to enact a shift away from an anthropocentric focus and anthropocentric representational conventions. In Willoquet-Maricondi’s words, “environmentalist films tend to offer a pro-environment, pro-conservation, and pro-sustainability perspective which affirms, rather than challenges, the culture’s fundamental anthropocentric ethos.” Ecocinema, by contrast, denotes a broader range of films, many of which decentralise human subjectivity, shifting “from a narrow anthropocentric worldview to an earth-centered, or ecocentric view…” (ibid.: 45-47)

In Škarnulytė’s Sirenomelia (Lithuania, 2017), as well as in her other investigatory pieces, the filmmaker dons a tail herself to portray a mermaid – a fictionalised, quasi-human creature exploring the remains of the human world. Barzdžiukaitė’s Rūgštus miškas / Acid Forest (Lithuania, 2018) invites us to observe tourists from the point of view of another species: the birds they themselves have come to see. Finally, Soroka’s Greetings asks where memory resides: in human brains or in the landscape itself, imagining a greater degree of consciousness than rational, Western thought has traditionally been willing to attribute to nature.

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The artist in a mermaid costume exploring the military remains, Sirenomelia (Frame capture).

The films have met with great success thus far in both the cinema world and that of contemporary art. Barzdžiukaitė’s Acid Forest won a Swatch Art Peace Hotel Award for best debut film at the Locarno Film Festival in 2018. Škarnulytė’s moving image works were recognised by the Pinchuk Art Center, which awarded her one of the most prestigious, as well as financially substantial, prizes for young artists in Europe: the Future Generation Art Prize, which comes with $100,000 in 2019. Soroka’s unique documentary has, in turn, been screened at film festivals around the world and won the Grand Prix at the 2019 edition of DocLisboa.

It is important to note that all three work across a range of modes and even art forms. Barzdžiukaitė has a background in theater and cinematography. Škarnulytė was trained as a sculptor and contemporary artist, and has shown her work in both cinema and gallery spaces. Finally, Soroka came to documentary by way of experimental cinema, his first works displaying an intimate, diaristic, and poetic quality.

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Greetings from Free Forests (Frame capture).

Despite these initially disparate trajectories, they approach ecological topics using a strikingly similar set of stylistic strategies. The works mentioned here may be best described as forays into the more-than-human world. All were shot in very specific locations where the human impact on the natural environment could be keenly felt, and strive to re-articulate the relationship between the local and the global. All rely on long takes and call for patient observation. All three are firmly committed to decentralising the human, and paying greater attention to the natural and the elemental. There is an important characteristic, however, that sets them apart from much of the work done in ecocinema in recent years: all three introduce creative, performative, or subtly staged elements into their films that push against the boundaries of what could traditionally be defined as documentary. Their general attitude is consequently a striking admixture of gravitas and playfulness.

In speaking with us, all three artists seemed as invested in the process of making their works as in the final product, often describing themselves as archaeologists or prospectors for whom the medium becomes a tool for peeling back the sedimented layers of history and meaning. We asked them to describe this process in more detail, and to share their thoughts on how cinema can affect our relationship to the environment.

What drew you to ecological topics at this point in your career?

Ian Soroka:

I came to these sorts of themes indirectly via landscape cinema. It is an approach that views landscape as a text that is constantly being erased and rewritten over with a heavy human hand. My interest in environmental themes has to do with the extent to which the current crisis overlaps with, and is contained within, landscape.

Emilija Škarnulytė:

My films investigate the shifting boundaries between ecological and cosmic forces: all kinds of nonhuman and post-human scales in the depths of space and time. Often the actual location, border, or geological stratum suggests the script and takes the main role. Places become monuments and temples. Hunting for a lost deep time, observing the scars left by humans in the earth’s strata, is somewhat of an obsession of mine.

Rugile Barzdžiukaitė:

In Acid Forest, the controversial context of the cormorant colony intrigued me as a space for anthropological and philosophical research. Cormorants are the ones who don’t appear to fit the established order. They are deadly harmful to one species, but very valuable to another. However, humans feel a duty not only to comment on, but also to control the environment. People visiting this colony fly in from the most diverse parts of the globe, whereas the cormorants’ migration is increasingly constrained, as they bring changes to the environment.

What central questions are you trying to ask through your body of work?

Emilija Škarnulytė:

My films pose indirect questions. They could be seen as archaeological expeditions into the future, often into inaccessible places: closed empty nuclear reactors, submarine bases, non-functional power plants, mining sites. There would be no humans there in the future, only artefacts and remains. I see the space, the landscape, the scenery more as a body with scars left by man, trying to put myself into the perspective of the future. The geological structure remains, so one can observe one stratum of the Earth after another, starting with aerial shots, approaching the ground, going underground, and, finally, moving to a microscopic level. It is like a vivisection of the modern world, the insides of a body disfigured by human violence, desire, and greed.

Ian Soroka:

I am interested in landscape as a social space; a space of constant erasure and re-inscription, a site of events large and small, of inhabitation, extraction and erosion… I feel like a prospector, as a literal digging takes place in my work. I am interested in putting into practice what Kracauer discussed in his later writings on history, where he tries to reconcile the contradictions between the micro- and macro-historical, between memory and history, between the fragment and the totality. Conveniently, he uses cinema language to describe this process, between the close-up and the long shot. Both produce their own kind of knowledge yet lack a completeness in themselves. In the same sense I play with scale, visually and sonically. For example, by combining the immensity of a forest landscape, with people milling about in the distance, along with the intimacy of a close human voice. Or thematically, by focusing on ‘small’ voices and placing them within larger historical flows. Or by intercutting past and present, the above ground with the below. It can be interpreted as a means of de-centering the human by suggesting that the landscape is itself a protagonist and by not focusing on discrete human characters within a narrative. In Greetings for example, I treat the forest as an archive onto itself where the ground is literally eroding from below.

Rugile Barzdžiukaitė:

The status of cormorants in Acid Forest can stand for ‘the other’ in general –be it an immigrant, a representative of another faith or culture, a member of any marginalised group… My other questions are centered around the filmmaking tools. How can the camera be used to represent the power dynamic between species? What could provide us with some distance, to defamiliarise our own species so that we could take a fresh look at human nature? In conventional nature documentaries, the cameraperson uses an extreme zoom lens to shoot animals from far away. The subject does not know that it is being filmed, allowing the audience to enjoy its natural behavior. In Acid Forest,we installed cameras in the trees to observe humans from the birds’ perspective – that’s how the usual interspecies hierarchy of the cinematographic gaze is re-organised.

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Greetings from Free Forests (Frame capture).

In your opinion, what is the role of the art and moving images in the environmental crisis that we are experiencing right now?

Rugile Barzdžiukaitė:

Art dealing with the environmental crisis often becomes declarative and moralistic. I hope filmmakers will continue to consider a variety of approaches.

Ian Soroka:

I think my gesture is rather humble: to sculpt some experience in the form of cinema, to try to reach someone on a deeper level than that of the logical-positivist mind, to build solidarity, to lament: all of these things are important and within the purview of cinema.

Emilija Škarnulytė:

I think it is a very common question nowadays… I believe that art and films can have an impact. Basically, I believe that films can raise our awareness of environmental issues. In my own films, I use an observational strategy to convey a message. And it is not always a positive one. For instance, we are sure that Pleasure Prospects (with Tanya Busse, Canada/Norway, 2019), the film on the geological impact of mining, is preconditioned to fail, but we have still immersed ourselves into this portrayal of failure. We have mimicked corporate actions to learn what mining is and why it is so difficult to stop it.

How do you see your goals as a filmmaker? Is it more important to you to move viewers to action (for example by participating in protests and local movements) or to use film to broaden their perception in a way that will make them more eco-conscious?

Rugile Barzdžiukaitė:

Open activism is not my zone. Moreover, as a viewer, I don’t trust it when someone stands above me, claiming to know the right answer. I prefer shifting perspectives – the world we are living in is too polyphonic to have one right answer.

Emilija Škarnulytė:

More of the latter. My strategy is to create new speculative mythologies. My works do not over-explain, but ask: what could be or what could happen… I want to leave a lot of time to the viewer to wander and receive a sensory experience. The experiential part is very important to me. Not only in terms of the audience, but also in terms of myself – I do perform, I do use my body in some works, so I experience too.

Ian Soroka:

Funding organisations often want to see some measurable return on their investment in a film. In my opinion, however, it is really hard to quantify impact in an honest way. The art I value most provides a space to meditate, to convene, to lament, to mourn, to produce alternative visions of the future, to seek out distant reference points, and to gain energy for the fight. Cinema can’t remove carbon dioxide or pollution from the atmosphere, but it can certainly build solidarity and highlight victories.

What are some of the challenges you have encountered in your work?

Rugile Barzdžiukaitė:

When we were editing the first cut of Acid Forest with collaborator and sound director Dovydas Korba, he had an amazing library of the field recordings from this film’s location and was hoping to use only the ‘true sounds’. Conceptually it felt very right. However, sometimes you miss the sound because it is impossible to record it, but you get a great image. Let’s say we had a shot with a bird, shaking its wings in the rain – if we see such a shot in the film, but don’t hear the detailed sound of that motion, we lose trust in the image. That’s the paradox – in order to maintain trust, you have to lie. But it only works with sound caused by motion, not the voice. You can never mimic the voice of the cormorant, it’s too unique.

Emilija Škarnulytė:

I try to collaborate with scientists – to speculate together with them about the eco-critical myths of the future. My experiences so far, though, have been really diverse. Some scientists and scientific institutions obviously expected me to produce explanatory films. Experimental quantum physicists, who put their faith in pure experiment-based science, were skeptical about my ideas: for instance, they believe that particle accelerators will function forever and my post-apocalyptic scenarios about these “monuments” becoming a ruin sounded strange to them. More theoretical quantum physicists were eager to speculate about questions like singularity, the probability of failure, and even to ask: does matter exist? So it depends. Honestly, I always feel pressure to make my films more explanatory. This pressure does not come only from the side of science, but also from the film industry that wants my films to be more accessible to the spectator. That became especially clear after I started to work on larger productions. I often think about questions such as: how do you get closer to the audience if you want to tell a story from the perspective of an atom?

Rugile, what drew you to focus on the human rather than the animal in the Acid Forest? And how did you decide to keep this distanced perspective in representing “nature-tourists”?

Rugile Barzdžiukaitė:

It was the humans’ multilingual dialogues, rather than the birds’, that could be objectively deciphered, so they became the storytellers. The distant birds’ perspective seemed to work as the most natural one, though, when observing people on the viewing platform. The birds are not changing positions in order to see a middle shot or a close-up of the tourists. By the way, there is a point of view in the movie that belongs to the tourists themselves – when looking from the platform to the forest and seeing the cormorants from far away. Both species are keeping a safe distance from each other.

Ian, what does it mean to explore eco-critical issues in the context of Eastern Europe?

Ian Soroka:

Our crisis is fundamentally trans-national, dispersed, and therefore challenging to deal with on the national or even regional level. To somehow distinguish the region, I can only attempt to speak to the former Yugoslav republics, and specifically to Slovenia. The up and coming generation who grew up in the dislocation and disorientation of the 90’s, I think, has a deeper sensibility having experienced an alternative; that even though the current situation feels (and indeed is) intractable, there is an awareness that another world is possible. I feel this for example much less in the United States, where visions seem more apocalyptic, nihilist, even Malthusian. It feels like a moment when my generation, those born in the last decade of Yugoslavia, are holding up its image, an image inherited from earlier generations, both pro and con, holding it up to their neoliberal reality, and they are seeing the contradictions today for what they are. To me this is a prerequisite for any positive social change. It leads to concrete demands over an inward-facing defeatism. It’s forward-facing, counterpoised against both nationalism and Yugonostalgia.

Emilija, you have shot your films in locations as diverse as deserted sites in New Mexico, the CERN lab in Switzerland or the Super-Kamiokande Neutrino observatory in Japan. Rugile, you spent a lot of time shooting in a very specific natural ecosystem. What criteria do you use to choose the locations for your explorations?

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The observation deck as a contact zone and as an unbridgeable division between humans and birds, Acid Forest (Frame capture).

Emilija Škarnulytė:

Questions come first. Then, I find characters and locations that could provide the answers to those questions. And then I go there. I always visit locations and do research there. My principle is that the films come to practice through dialogues. Dialogues with people and dialogues with spaces.


Rugile Barzdžiukaitė:

The location has to have an element of surprise, some unexpected trigger. My path to filmmaking started with my training as a cinematographer and my most direct encounter with the environment is still through vision. Intrigue may come from something less physical than a place of course – it may be an interesting historical context or some surreal situation, but then you start looking for a specific place that can show the story.

What is your relationship with nature when you are not making films?

Rugile Barzdžiukaitė:

Nature is what I need to stay in balance. I cannot live in the big city for a long time. A symbiosis with a particular natural place has always been enriching, especially while I was growing up.

Ian Soroka:

It is hard to say when one is not making films, as ideas are always churning and triangulating. I’m from the mountains so it is a place where I feel very comfortable, and a place where I can easily re-energise in their silence. I’m also very proud of my tomato plants, even though I know they won’t be changing the world.

Emilija Škarnulytė:

I would say that nature exposes me to another timescale, it puts me closer to the non-human worlds. By staying in nature, I remind myself that all this is not about human beings. Why not think about a lobster’s perspective, or an amoeba’s perspective? If we were to create a new Voyager golden disc to tell future generations what is happening on Earth, why should it be a story told from the human perspective?

Masha Shpolberg
Wellesley College
masha.shpolberg@wellesley.edu

Lukas Brasiskis
New York University
lb2892@nyu.edu

Bios

Lukas Brasiskis is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University, where he inquires into how the material and the elemental may be reassessed through moving images. In the face of the growing environmental crisis, his academic works and curatorial projects challenge the privileged spatial histories of imperialism and colonialism assigned to the human and question the ways of envisioning the environment they have established. http://www.lukasbrasiskis.com

Masha Shpolberg is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Cinema and Media Studies at Wellesley College. Her research focuses on media representations of labor and the environment. A native of Odessa, Ukraine, she also writes about contemporary cinema from Central and Eastern Europe.

Lukas Brasiskis and Masha Shpolberg are currently co-editing a volume on Cinema and the Environment in Eastern Europe.

Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė works as an artist, filmmaker and theatre director. In her creative practices, Rugile explores the gap between objective and imagined realities, while challenging the anthropocentric way of thinking. Rugile has directed four short films and two contemporary operas. Rugile is one of the three artists who represented Lithuania at the 2019 Venice Biennale of Art with the performance-installation Sun & Sea (Marina), which won a Golden Lion for the best national pavilion. Her latest full-length documentary Acid Forest was awarded at the Locarno International Film Festival, among others, and is still traveling to film festivals around the world. Her website: https://neonrealism.lt

Ian Soroka works in non-fiction forms of film and video. He studied cinema and philosophy at the University of Colorado in Boulder, in Prague at FAMU, and completed an M.S. in Art, Culture and Technology at MIT. Ian has been a MacDowell Colony Fellow, a Princess Grace Foundation-USA Award recipient, and a Fulbright Fellow in Slovenia, where he was a guest researcher at the Slovenian National Film Archive and Cinematheque. His work has screened internationally in festival, gallery and museum contexts including: DocLisboa, Art of The Real, Dok.Fest München, Rencontres Internationales Paris/Berlin/Madrid and Kinoteka, Ljubljana. Ian is from western Colorado and is based in the San Francisco Bay area. His website: https://www.iansoroka.com

Emilija Škarnulytė is a visual artist and filmmaker. Poetic, yet informed by science, her films engage non-human temporalities, invisible architectures and systems of power, as well as the processes of geoengineering. Škarnulytė studied at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan and graduated from Tromsø Academy of Contemporary Art. Recent group exhibitions include “Hyperobjects” at Ballroom Marfa, Texas; “Moving Stones” at the Kadist Art Foundation in San Francisco and Paris; and the first Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art; as well as a new commission for Bold Tendencies in London and a solo show at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. She was recently invited to the Berlinale Talent Campus and was awarded with the Future Generation Art Prize. Her website: https://www.emilijaskarnulyte.com

Bibliography

Willoquet-Maricondi, Paula. 2010. Framing the World. Explorations in Ecocriticism and Film. The University of Virginia Press.

Macdonald, Scott. 2004. “Towards an Ecocinema”. ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 11 (1).

Filmography

Škarnulytė, Emilija. Sirenomelia, 2017. Short, experimental film, 12 minutes.

Barzdžiukaitė, Rugilė. Rūgštus miškas / Acid Forest, 2018. Feature documentary, 63 minutes.

Soroka, Ian. Lep pozdrav iz svobodnih gozdov / Greetings from Free Forests, 2019. Feature experimental documentary, 98 minutes.

New Mineral Collective (Tanya Busse and Emilija Škarnulytė). Pleasure Prospects. (Working title: Erotics of Counter-Prospecting), 2019. Single-channel video installation, commissioned by the Toronto Biennale of Art.

Suggested Citation

Brasiskis, Lukas, and Masha Shpolberg. 2020. “Icy Water, Acid, and Free Forests: The New Ecocinema from East Central Europe. Interview with Rugile Barzdžiukaitė, Ian Soroka, and Emilija Škarnulytė”. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 10. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2020.00010.227

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner's terms.



 

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