Ellen Lande
Film director and critic.

A magnificent documentary about the natural origins of what we consider to be man-made and the connection between man and nature.

This film has its world premiere at CPH:DOX 2018 in Copenhagen Mars 15–25.


The opening scene of Becoming Animal is a tapestry in motion. A elk sinks to its shoulders in a landscape of splendid autumn colors. The animal slowly turns its head to reveal its majestic antlers. Shortly afterwards, the elk rises to full stature, showing its impressive figure. As if the sight of one alone might not be wonderful enough, it wanders over to another equally impressive elk. These full-size, satisfyingly harmonious creatures evoke a magically sense of serenity. Another similarly atmospheric scene follows shortly – a memory of warm summer nights in forests full of life and sounds that awaken the senses as much as they subdue the conscious mind.

Perception

We are in the Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming. The sound of the huge animals’ mating rituals gradually develop from high pitched overtones sliding through the night, descending into deep grunts. The grainy recordings and dense shadows create a greater sense of presence. The trio behind the film – filmmakers Peter Mettler and Emma Davie, as well as the philosopher and writer David Abram – are  out together recording under the full moon. The grunting sounds lend themselves to a peculiar atmosphere. Small talk evolves into a philosophical conversation led by David: they argue that the enormous spectrum of mating songs may have been the roots of man-made music.

David presents his thoughts whilst caressing a beautiful birch trunk. He reflects upon the tactile surface, the chilliness and the smoothness he experiences. The meeting is mutual; the tree senses the chemical imprint from his hand on its bark. The trees move with light and play an active part in the meeting, and, in this way the trees also seem to perceive the humans. One of the directors, Emma, explains that the film not only takes us on a journey of perception, it also has a clear premise: the documentary sets out to merge David’s philosophy and Peter’s visionary cinematography.

Iconic scenes

Peter Mettler is known for his intuitive, essayistic documentaries. Emma Davie is mainly known for the gripping movie I am Breathing, about a young dying man. Both filmmakers have the unique ability to elevate ideas, objects or concepts others may consider mundane into entities sacred and meaningful far beyond their physical presence. Together they create iconic scenes. The camera angle and composition, movement and meaning symbiotically create something so memorable that later scenes convey callbacks that are easy to link to earlier moments.

«The grunting sound of the mating rituals creates a particular atmosphere. Small talk develops into a philosophical conversation.»

Take the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho – the very reminder of it causes you to imagine the knife slowly entering the shot, slicing the shower curtain, the dark stripe of blood flowing down the drain, and a terrified, screaming face. In Becoming Animal, we’re rather being served balm for the soul, but via similar methods. And while cinematographically beautiful, this documentary offers insights and observations into the philosophy of modern man and how far away from nature we have placed ourselves.

Contemporary critic

The timely question of the human obsession with documenting ourselves is a hot topic. Is the arguably excessive recording of contemporary life going to help us understand how that very overuse started to occur sometime in the future? They criticize the fact that the experience of that, which has not been photographed or filmed, is unlived and hence has failed.

Becoming Animal by Peter Mettler and Emma Davie

And so the film at times seems to be playing with its own criticism. The film crew is often glimpsed as part of the film – a metacommentary or a contradiction?

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