Peter Mettler is known for his intuitive and experimental film making. The new film Becoming Animal has also an ecological and philosophical depth, as it involves the Canadian philosopher David Abram.
«This film was actually not my idea. It was actually Scottish film director Emma Davie who proposed it. She found philosopher David Abram and then picked me to direct it together with her.»
Davie and Mettler have a longer companionship in filmmaking:
«A lot of my collaborators, producers and good friends are women. Emma was also an actor in my film Tectonic Plates (1992) – where she played a psychiatrist. She came from theatre and then went on to documentary. She was very impressed by David’s books. We actually met him in a workshop seminar, where she proposed to make this film.»
Abram is known for his ecological books The Spell of the Sensuous (1997), and later Becoming Animal (2011), which has the same title as Mettler‘s and Davie‘s new film: «David is a beautiful writer that goes on for pages and pages.»
Abram taught in Europe; at the University of Oslo in 2014 as part of the Arne Næss Programme on Global Justice and the Environment. He is also known for defining the academic field «ecopsychology»:
«We wanted to embody the ideas David was addressing, and add some of our ideas about what it means to record images of nature,» Mettler says.
Ecology and nature
What then, are the ecological insights in the film really about – animals or trees? Mettler explains what Abram means by the somehow strange expression – that the natures also «sees us»: «Reciprocity is the word David uses, the feeling that you look at the forest and it looks back at you, as you are the part of the same thing. It is about being present in the environment – whether it is a forest or a concrete parking lot.»
It seems like Mettler, Davie and Abram subscribe to the critical opposition against consumerism, climate change and cynical technological exploitation: «My film Petropolis (2009) has a question right at the beginning – ‘What is this word we called nature?’»
In Petropolis he was working with Greenpeace on filming the oil sands (or tar sands) project in Canada, run by the Norwegian Statoil company from 2007. He calls it his perhaps most political project:
«Probably the most overtly political because I do find my other films political in a different way also. Petropolis is showing an experience to the viewers that make them really feel the horror of this place but without doing a propaganda film. The forest environment was just gone and replaced with toxic pools of liquid, a barren landscape. When you look at it from the air, it was like an incredible oil painting. Disturbing. It is really only about profit.»
Nine years later – in a scene in the Becoming Animal – Mettler shoots a really long scene of untouched trees, with orange-coloured leaves that looks like they are dancing in the wind:
«As David tells us, all things we consider are actually expressive or animated. Looking there at how the wind blows and how the trees’ branches are moving – it actually starts to look like some kind of abstract paintings. Although different in intensity, changing between wild movements and just quietness. Such an experience can represent art, drama and musicality.»
«With enough time to look, you can start to think like that, instead of taking something for granted. Or else you will just see a tree,» he continues.
«So what is most important: to make a film that everybody can see, or to be here yourself in this present moment?»
The film includes the landscapes typical of Mettler’s earlier films: «It is landscapes, environment, a forest, rocks, rivers – all the ingredients that make up life. I see it as an on-going ecosystem that we all are in. This also includes highways and cars, and all the crap we make.»
In Abram’s book Becoming Animal. An Earthly Cosmology, he writes about what he calls «a more than human world». What does Mettler understand by this concept to mean?
«I didn’t know until I heard this from David. But I was fortunate in being able to go into the Canadian wilderness on camping trips, on canoe trips – and being really alone out there in a tent. You know, with all the food there and knowing there are bears around […] that can make a profound imprint on you.»
The concept «animism» is also mentioned in Mettler and Davie’s film:
«Like David has been saying: everything is expressive. Think about how sounds from the rivers have initiated words into our language. But as language comes from the Earth itself, it has also separated us over time from the things we look at. Our perception, our relationship to the organic world – and later technology – might actually have separated us from that wider world.»
Always a camera
Becoming Animal opens with a grand and beautiful elk: «That’s the interesting point, everything seems empty, you are in the wildness somewhere. But halfway through the film you will see the same elk in a wider shoot – with a lot of other people filming this same elk, just like we were doing.»
Abram was also mentioning in Becoming Animal that what is not recorded is not really longer alive for people: «It was funny that David talked about this frenzy recording that everybody does. Does a moment have to be photographed – or else it will not exist at all in our memory?»
This must be a problem for film directors as well, we ask:
«I also constantly struggle with this. There is a moment in Picture of Light (1994) where I resist a temptation to grab my camera, and simply watch instead. So what is most important: to make a film that everybody can see, or to be here yourself in this present moment?»
What about the relation of cinematography to beauty? Mettler is also doing camera work:
«Cameras determine how we see the world, but they are also an interaction that engages, questions and discover things. A camera helps me to look, to see differently, and to make new associations when editing film,» Mettler says.
«I am moved by beauty and moved by wonder – but it is not the reason why I make films. I have a twisted relationship with cameras, with recording video. I kind of love them as much as I hate them because they obviously are around us all the time,» he continues.
But what does he really mean by this worn-out word «beauty»?
«I think beauty is attached to some emotions that I personally experience behind the camera, not necessarily ecstatically pretty, but a feeling that is translated through recording. Like a face that has certain expression of sadness, or a slightly move through the forest. A kind of presence, a kind of beauty.»
The film was shot in and around Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, USA – with its dizzying diversity of wildlife and billion-year-old geology, but also trails of curious humans in big cars. After watching the film you can see that the film’s synopsis is right about it being «a geyser of provocative ideas… that connects us to our ever-shifting surroundings.»
«Think about how sounds from the rivers have initiated words into our language.»
But how much time does it take to make this into a documentary?
«We never counted, but it was a lot of shots with David, and hours and hours of talking. Well, he has written two full books on this theme, so how do we build a film with some few pieces from these? We went back to the park three times all together. And after filming we edited for eight months.»
At Mettler’s website he describes what he does as «reaching a gap between experimental, narrative, personal, essay and documentary.» Essays for film, we ask him?
Mettler also talks about human perception and technology’s ability to liberate, in his film Gambling, Gods and LSD (2002) – also portraying experiences from the US, Switzerland and Southern India:
«I have a strong desire to go beyond the intellect and experiment with musical space.»
But also the film The End of Time (2012) had a philosophical twist – where he was filming people, like a physicist and an Indian Buddhist:
«The whole film is a curiosity for being in this world. It is about how people work – to understand things about myself and reality. Asking yourself: Why do we make images in the first place? Or what are we really striving for?»
Mettler’s mother – in the final days of her life – says in The End of Time that we have to really use the time that we are given. And this year, Mettler is 60 years old. So where does he go from here?
«More than making documentaries I am now developing series, which allow people to go through an exploration of themes for a longer period of time.»
Now 45 years after Mettler started filming, we end this interview by asking if the associative or essayistic style is closer to nature itself: «Yes that’s it! The logic of real experiences is not a narrative, but we build narratives in our memories.»
Becoming Animal is screened in the Masters program section at IDFA.