EcoAesthetics and Environmentalism: How to understand what it means that the Wood Buffalo National Park is in Danger

According to a CBC report “A United Nations agency has issued a warning about the environmental health of Canada’s largest national park.” Further, “UNESCO says northern Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park is threatened by energy development, hydro dams and poor management. It warns that unless management of the area improves, the park will be added to the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.”

The Wood Buffalo National Park is a part of the Boreal forest, one of the largest intact forests in the world, one of the largest reserves of fresh water in the world, and home to 600 indigenous communities. So this UN report should not only suggest concern for the park but for every Canadian  a moment to pose larger questions about the wellbeing of our ecology about ongoing post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission impacts upon Indigenous peoples. What’s happening in the Boreal forest? While we don’t hear much on the news about industrial developments the Boreal Songbird initiative have put together a useful resource that covers the four main forms of industrial impacts: logging, mining, oil and gas, and hydro. They have illustrated that

The footprint of natural resource extraction industries the boreal forest already encompasses an area of at least 730,000 km2 (180 million acres), largely from forestry, hydropower, mining industries, and oil and gas extraction.

More than 30% of the Canadian Boreal Forest has been reserved for some form of current or future industrial development overall. New resource roads are pushing further and further north into the heart of the boreal each year, demonstrating the need to conserve large portions of the forest to create a balance in the boreal forest.

But these numbers are hard to understand and that’s why I feel ethnographic film is so valuable. In my film Pimachihowan I have attempted to create a filmic experience for viewers to feel what is at stake by these forms of industrial impacts. While I don’t deal with industrial impacts directly, I attempt to create a space where Boreal Cree elders Conroy Sewepagaham and Leonard Tall Cree can reflect on the feeling of industrial/colonial encroachment.



Hunzo: an ethnofiction

In my exploration of ethnofiction I came across this great film that seems to have been made as a thesis. There is very little other information provided.  Having made a film years ago about the building of a Rebab, I really appreciated the central place of music in the film and the obvious importance of the instrument. When the grandfather and child are rescued the instrument is the only possession that came along with them.

The power of the ethnofiction is the normalization of culture. Unlike the documentary that begins with an intent to teach you something you don’t know, the ethnofiction invites you into a story. The consequences are quite great: a very signifiant difference between subjective storytelling (ethnofiction) and the objectification of disaster (documentary). The universe of the story with all its interests, curiosities, similarities and amazements are left to the viewer to feel. For me, it feels closer, less alien, less objectifying. I could understand the sadness of the child, the heartbreak of the grandfather and the sadness of the community members trying to make these new comers feel at home.

Making a film about disaster is terribly difficult, especially so if you want to humanize the impacts. From what I can tell this film is about the overflowing of Attabad Lake in Northern Pakistan. Here’s some info from wiki:

Attabad Lake, Hunza Valley, also known as Attabad Lake[4], is a lake in Ganish (Central Hunza Valley of northern Pakistan) created in January 2010 by a landslide dam.

Since the lake was formed the only means of crossing was by loading vehicles onto wooden boats. This changed when a road tunnel was built and it opened for traffic in September 2015.

The lake was formed due to a massive landslide at Attabad village in Gilgit-Baltistan, 9 miles (14 km) upstream (east) of Karimabad that occurred on 4 January 2010.[5] The landslide killed twenty people and blocked the flow of the Hunza River for five months. The lake flooding has displaced 6,000 people from upstream villages, stranded (from land transportation routes) a further 25,000,[6] and inundated over 12 miles (19 km) of the Karakoram Highway.[2] The lake reached 13 miles (21 km) long and over 100 metres (330 ft) in depth by the first week of June 2010 when it began flowing over the landslide dam, completely submerging lower Shishkat and partly flooding Gulmit.[2] The subdivision of Gojal has the greatest number of flooded buildings, over 170 houses, and 120 shops. The residents also had shortages of food and other items due to the blockage of the Karakoram Highway.[7][8] By 4 June water outflow from the lake had increased to 3,700 cu ft/s (100 m3/s).[9]

Water levels continued to rise in 18 June 2010 caused by a difference in the outflow and inflow of the new lake. As bad weather continued, the supply of food, medicine and other goods was stopped as all forms of transportation including helicopter service to Hunza could not resume.

Aftermath of landslide

Victims of the landslide and expansion of the lake staged a sit-in protesting the lack of government action and compensation payments to them.[11]

As a result of the damming of Hunza River, five villages north of the barrier were flooded. One village, Ayeenabad, was completely submerged. Major portions of another village, Shishkat, was also submerged. Around 40% of the village of Gulmit, which also serves as the headquarters of Gojal Valley, was also submerged. Significant portions of land in Hussain and Ghulkin villages of Gojal also got submerged as a result of the surging lake.

The entire population of Hunza and Gojal valley, up to 25000 individuals, were affected[12] as a result of the lake, due to difficulties of road access and reaching business markets and loss of land, houses, and agricultural products.

Panoramic View of Attabad lake

Attabad Lake has been visited by both current and former Prime Ministers Yousuf Raza Gillani and Nawaz Sharif, and by the Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, Sharif announced Rs 100 million of aid for the victims from the Punjab government and Rs 0.5 million for the relatives of those who died in the landslide.[13]

Attabad Lake in May 2010

Attabad Lake in August 2011

Areas downstream from the lake remained on alert[14] despite some officials believing that a major flood scenario was less likely as the river began flowing over the landslide dam during the first week of June 2010.[15][16] Many people have been evacuated to 195 relief camps.[3] Two hospitals downstream, the Kashrote Eye Vision Hospital and the Aga Khan Health Service,[17] evacuated both their staff and equipment.[13] Some officials had incorrectly predicted that as soon as the lake began flowing over the landslide dam, a 60 feet (18 m) wave would hit the areas immediately downstream.[18]

As of 14 June 2010, the water level continued to rise. DawnNews reported that “242 houses, 135 shops, four hotels, two schools, four factories, and several hundred acres of agricultural land” had been flooded, and that villagers were receiving food and school fee subsidies. They reported that 25 kilometres (16 mi) of the Karakoram Highway and six bridges were destroyed.[19]

Frontier Works Organization blasted the spillway of the lake first on 27 March 2012 and then on 15 May 2012, lowering the lake’s water level by at least 33 feet (10 m).[20]


5 Guidelines for Ethnofiction and why this might be a bad idea.

According to Johannes Sjoberg there are 5 guidelines for ethnofiction:


As Sjoberg quite rightly notes, ethnofiction founder Jean Rouch did not articulate any precise method for ethnofiction. Instead, Rouch discussed the production of ethnofiction in terms of Jazz, of improvisation. So instead of making guidlines as rules it may be more productive to explore the epistemology that Rouch is forwarding. Sure it is certainly easier to set up a series of rules that one can follow in the production of ethnofiction, but is it simply replacing observational documentary with film? Is there really a difference between observational documentary and the conventional cinematic gaze? It is telling that Rouch took inspiration from Surrealism, not Hollywood, not conventional theatre, but a specifically artistic-philosophical project.

It is not simply a matter of avoiding  a method, a checklist of parts, but an intentional attempt to avoid falling into the trap of objective method, because the articulation of method runs the risk of moving in the wrong epistemological  direction;  falling back into the observational documentary mode, into positivist anthropology.

The move Rouch makes is away from this model of anthropology and hence his regular recalling of Vertov and the kino-eye. I don’t think Sjoberg would disagree with this at all, but I’m also not certain that he has taken as seriously as one might, Rouch’s epistemological position. It’s not lack of method for the sake of it, but precisely an engagement in film as expanded participatory anthropology.

My orientation therefore is to attempt to explore ethnofiction through another well known renegade anthropologist Gregory Bateson. I see very important resonance between Cine-trance and Bateson’s Sacred that I will continue to explore in my work.

My exploration of this approach is influenced by suggestive observations like Anna Grimshaw’s (2001) in The Ethnographer’s Eye where she provocatively suggests:

Rouch’s practice unsettles the very division upon which such an epistemology (Cartesian subjective-objective) is founded. He disrupts the boundaries between the self and the world, mind and body, the mind’s eye and the surveying eye. I want to suggest that his anthropological cinema may be considered to be ‘the irruption of the night light o fRomanticism as the libertarian Other of le siecle des lumieres, the Century of Lights, the Enlightenment’. It is at once part of the enlightenment and yet its antithesis, the shadow around the light. (91)

Ethnofiction theory and practice


“The film project Transfiction was initated by Johannes Sjöberg as part of a practice-based PhD in Drama of at the University of Manchester. The project has developed beyond the PhD practice into the two films Drama Queens and Rome, Open Salon, that will be released as part of the screen practice as research initiatives at the Centre for Screen Studies.”

A discussion of ethnofiction, Jean Rouch and the film Transfiction by Johannes Sjoberg:

“In 1955, filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch made Les Maîtres Fous, considered the first film of the ethnofiction genre. Ethnofiction, a branch of Docufiction, blurs the line between documentary and fiction, using actors and scripts (or, in some cases, improvisation) to portray and represent ethnographic issues. Although it is sometimes a difficult genre to define, according to Wikipedia (often a useful source in defining such contemporary terms), it can refer to “any fictional creation with an ethnographical background.”

Feminist Politics from the Personal to the Psychological (Soloway and hooks)

Last week I posted a discussion on the Female Gaze, a concept that perhaps articulates the particular kind of ethnographic film aesthetic that I am interested in and that has been developing for some time – sometimes in the critical writing of Trinh T. Minh-Ha and E. Ann Kaplan as a critique of the ‘Imperial Gaze’. As Soloway and hooks discus when reflecting on the official title of their public discussion ‘The Personal is Political’, this famous feminist phrase was always meant to be a shortcut to the real issues which need to be more slowly spelled out – its not the personal so much as it is the psychological.

Published on Sep 7, 2016 – from The New School 

The early feminist movement was dedicated to the proposition that the personal is political—an insight that has come to be increasingly mocked and ridiculed. In their careers, renowned scholar, poet, and author bell hooks and Emmy-winning television writer and creator of Transparent Jill Soloway have countered this trend, making strong use of the autobiographical to generate critical discourse and awareness of injustice. In this conversation, hooks and Soloway discuss their excavations of the personal and its politics, and how this search strengthens liberation efforts rather than diminish them.

John L. Tishman Auditorium, University Center
63 Fifth Avenue, Room U100, New York, NY 10003
Tuesday, September 6, 2016 at 6:00 pm to 9:00 pm

The Female Gaze

A brilliant reworking of Laura Mulvey’s 1975 work on the Male Gaze. Here Jill Soloway articulates what the female gaze could be and it’s not simply switching sex positions – not simply women taking the male gaze to objectify. What Soloway suggests is a remarkable reworking of film aesthetics that pushes the camera operator into ‘feeling-seeing’ the director and actors to show what it feels like to be seen and everyone into a “justice demanding way of art making”. This is an important discussion for artists especially for those working for social justice.