New directions in ecocinema studies: giving voice to the
Global South

review by Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann

Rust, Stephen, Salma Monani, and Sean Cubitt, eds., Ecocinema Theory and Practice 2. Routledge Press, 2022.

Ecocinema Theory and Practice 2 serves as a follow-up to the first volume of the anthology published in ten years before, but it also does something more. It highlights what qualifies as ecocinema as it showcases diverse scholars applying various theoretical approaches to more nuanced visions of environmental films across time, genre, and film type. In addition Volume 2 shows how ecocinema theory and practice has evolved into a broad field of ecocritical studies of film and video. This book’s vision parallels the parameters which David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson had expanded for film studies when explaining distinct approaches researchers now take when exploring film history. By showcasing the work of ecocinema scholars seeking to “overcome the historical legacy of binary thinking and intellectual norms” (3) and amplifying intersections between ecocritical approaches and decolonial, queer, feminist, Indigenous, vitalist, and other developing theoretical, cinematic, and social practices” (3), Ecocinema Theory and Practice effectively fulfills its stated goal: “to demonstrate the unique ways cinema studies scholarship can address environmental injustices and global environmental change” (3).

Much has changed since publication of the first volume of Ecocinema Theory and Practice—in ecocinema studies, but also in our planet’s climate and environmental health. As this volume illustrates multiple ways the fields of ecocinema have changed in the last decade, those changes also highlight how environmental issues are finally on the radar more generally in cinema and media studies. The burgeoning field of ecocinema studies, however, is also responding to Earth’s deteriorating environmental state. As The World Meteorological Organization note, the last ten years included the eight warmest on record. According to WMO,

“The 10-year average for the period 2013-2022 is estimated to be 1.14 [1.02 to 1.27] °C above the 1850-1900 pre-industrial baseline. This compares with 1.09°C from 2011 to 2020, as estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment report.”

WMO’s State of the Global Climate Report outlines the dire consequences of a warming climate, from extreme weather and crop failure to deadly rains and flooding. The study also promotes environmental justice, asserting,

“All too often, those least responsible for climate change suffer most – as we have seen with the terrible flooding in Pakistan and deadly, long-running drought in the Horn of Africa. But even well-prepared societies this year have been ravaged by extremes – as seen by the protracted heatwaves and drought in large parts of Europe and southern China” (Prof. Taalas quoted in “Eight Warmest Years…”).

These floods in Pakistan clearly highlight the devastating impact of climate change. Fires and smoke from these Australian bush fires not only affected local wildlife, but also impacted worldwide pollution due to climate change.

These changes explicitly underpin Ecocinema Theory and Practice 2, opening up ways and reasons “to demonstrate the unique ways cinema studies scholarship can address environmental injustices and global environmental change” (3). In fact, funding for this important project came from universities located in areas devastated by climate change-amplified fires: the University of Oregon’s Libraries Open Access Publishing Award and University of Melbourne’s School of Culture and Communications. Oregon’s wildfire season is ongoing and lengthening due to climate change (https://www.oregon.gov/odot/climate/Documents/
), as are bushfires in Australia. As the Guardian noted, after the 2020 Australian bush fires, “Melbourne’s air quality was the worst in the world.” Editors Stephen Rust and Stephen Cubitt share explicit connections with these fire-prone regions.

Organized around the filmmaking and viewing process, Ecocinema Theory and Practice 2 asks and addresses key questions like those broached by Bordwell, Thompson, and Jeff Smith in the 2020 edition of Film History: An Introduction: “How have uses of film medium changed or become normalized over time?” (xv); “How have the conditions of film history—production, distribution, and exhibition—affected the use of the medium?” (xvi); and “How have international trends emerged in the uses of the film medium and in the film market?” (xvi).

Ecocinema Theory and Practice 2 succeeds not only because it broadens definitions of ecocinema studies, as these three connected sections suggests. It also coheres these disparate pieces by giving voice to global scholars who address environmental injustices related to all aspects of ecocinema studies: materialities, discourses, and communities.

“Cut to green: tracking the growth of
ecocinema studies”

In their introduction, the volume’s editors situate this second volume in relation to both a changing world and a changing scholarly landscape for ecocinema studies. As they note, “film can no longer be considered apart from its imbrication in the fabric of the world” (1). Their introduction emphasizes this perspective, one that asserts,

“Cinema has become unthinkable apart from its dependence on mining, electricity generation, and fabrication with their attendant pollution, on global logistical operations and supply chains massive ecological footprints, on material and technical infrastructures with direct consequences in the physical world, and on the problem of waste.” (1-2)

Although the introduction delineates a list of approaches explored in ecocinema studies during the ten years since publication of their first volume, this second volume primarily looks forward rather than backward as it responds to the acceleration of environmental disasters and climate crises largely impacting the Global South. The volume provides a brief overview of sections and chapters, but the editors’ assertion before these summaries highlights its powerful focus:

“Contemporary cinema, and thus ecocinema studies, works at this fault line between enclosure and escape, to evolve new alliances between humans, technologies, and ecologies beyond the economic evolutions of profit-driven anthropocentrism.” (9).

Part I, “Ecocinema materialities”

Part I takes a material approach to ecocinema as it showcases and addresses negative environmental externalities associated with ecocinema itself and its production. Although beginning with a detailed exploration of environmental degradation associated with the digital film production process, the chapters included here gain credibility for readers because they also showcase human ecological ramifications and proffer possible solutions to everyday film-induced eco-disasters. Sean Cubitt’s “Unsustainable Cinema: Global Supply Chains” and Dubashree Mukherjee’s “Energy and Exhaustion in a Coal Melodrama: Kaala Paathar (1979) highlight the varied filmic negative consequences.

Chapter 1, “Unsustainable, global supply chains” by Seán Cubitt demonstrates that ecology and economies have been deadly enemies and asks if cinema can provide a way to overcome their mutual suicide pact. Throughout the chapter Cubitt explores

“the geopolitical dimensions of the global film industry’s supply chain networks at a time when digital production, distribution and exhibition are placing tremendous strains on human and non-human alike, asking whether human economies bound to the physical limitations of the earth can sustain our insatiable hunger for media entertainment.”

The chapter examines and explains physical aspects associated with film industries, while also offering at least the possibility of more sustainable approaches. Although Cubitt asserts, “A key premise of this chapter is that ‘sustainability’ (as figured by the corporate practices that dominate global economies, including the film industry) is a false reconciliation of economics and ecocritique,” (21) he also ends his chapter on an optimistic note. As Cubitt declares,

“We should learn from the disastrous logistics of the cinematic supply chain how to design intelligent and collaborative human–technical–ecological logistics of our own” (30).

Chapter 2, “Greening Mexican cinema” by Carolyn Fornoff, effectively fulfills the goals explained in its thesis. Fornoff integrates ideas about human ecology with possible sustainable production and exhibition practices highlighted in each example. Noting that Mexico’s sense of independence was reinforced by the nationalization of the oil industry, Fornoff explores ways Mexican cinema might point towards new, green energy production, escaping both external economic domination and providing a clean sustainable future. As Fornoff notes, the chapter offers an “abbreviated materialist sketch of Mexican cinema” (37). To do this, the piece first “examine[s] how the infrastructures of cinema have intersected with those of oil” (37). The chapter then explores who can access Mexican cinema, asking “what is lost when cinema becomes increasingly atomized through consumption regimes that mimic capitalism’s focus on surplus and the individual” (37). To further explore these premises, the chapter applies this materialist sketch of Mexican cinema to “a post-carbon cinema exhibition,” Cine Móvil ToTo, an “initiative that makes visible the connections between cultural consumption and energy production” (37). With its clear structure and engaging approach, the chapter more than fulfills its goals.

Chapter 3, “Energy and exhaustion in a coal melodrama, Kaala Patthar (1979) by Debashree Mukherjee moves beyond analyzing environmental ramifications of global digital production, distribution, and exhibition to humanizing those costs through both local and historical explorations of Kaala Patthar. According to Mukherjee, the film “opens up the history of coal (and cinema) as a history of not just energy, but also exhaustion, which is clearly framed in the film as industrial capitalist extraction” (53). The chapter asserts that slow violence to India’s environment cannot be separated from national forms of production. The chapter offers new insights as it illuminates ways Kaala Patthar connects exhaustion of bodies with exhaustion and extraction of landscapes. For Mukherjee, the film draws on the “three pillars of early melodrama”: “heightened sentiment, musicality, and action” (66) “to understand not only how we have come to this pass, but where we can go from here” (66). With its comprehensive exploration of India’s history of coal and outstanding close reading of Kaala Patthar as revelatory melodrama, this chapter also expands definitions of ecocinema studies.

Chapter 4, Marta Lopera-Marmol and Manuel Jimenez-Morales’s “The sustainable audio-visual industry in Catalonia seen through the green shooting initiative” highlights solutions to the various negative environmental effects of digital film industries. The chapter offers a way to critique and address film production by positing “Green Shooting.” The chapter explores Catalonian/Catalan strategies of the Green Shooting Initiative as an antidote to less sustainable film production approaches. For Lopera-Marmol and Jimenez-Morales, “Green Shooting is framed on the premise that to achieve degrowth and environmental balance, social and economic players need to be accounted for” (71). As Lopera-Marmol and Jimenez-Morales assert,

“If Catalan cinema wants to carry out a comprehensive, updated transformation of its sector, it should place sustainable recovery at its epicenter and champion the promotion of Green Shooting practices” (81).

With clearly delineated sections and explanations, the chapter serves as a roadmap for implementing Green Shooting practices that address environmental, social, and economic justice issues and as a proposal for specifically improving Catalan cinema practices.

Part II, “Ecocinema discourses”

Chapters revealing “analytic frames and new keywords” are explored in “the Ecocinema Discourses” section, whichs merge theory and practice in ways that mirror what might traditionally be defined as ecocinema studies. What stands out in this section are the ways that new voices and regions of focus globalize ecocinema studies. Each author opens up intersectional ways to illustrate how these films and approaches might begin to address environmental injustices.

Chapter 5, “Extraction and wild cinema in Africa” by Catejan Iheka explores African cinema and offers and applies the concept of “wild cinema” as a tonic for colonial visions and filmic practices. It focuses on two distinct films, the Neill Blomkamp-directed science-fiction film District 9 (2009) and the documentary addressing land concessions in Liberia, The Land Beneath Our Feet (2016).

The movie District 9 gives audience members a different view of both Africa and exoticizing  of Africans. The Land Beneath our Feet documentary won many awards for its authentic representation of Africa and battles for home.

Although from two genres, these films, for Iheka, have similar goals: an attempt to repair the process of the film making while restoring the environment through “wilding” and “decolonization.” According to Iheka,

“Bucking convention toward the open commons, wild cinema names a process—from production through distribution to consumption—that is attentive to a variegated social ecology, attuned to the land, and generative of community relations” (88).

Through careful close readings of these two disparate films, this chapter effectively argues for a wild cinema that will “challenge viewers and readers to refocus attention on the violence of the never-ended expedition to Africa with a view toward never going back” (100).

In Chapter 6, “Polytemporality in the slow ecocinema of Lav Diaz: an installation in a trauma field,” Elio Garcia “offer[s] a theory of ecocritical spectatorship called polytemporality and illustrate its two theoretical dimensions—aesthetics on the one hand and alterity on the other” (103). Through this lens of polytemporality, Garcia highlights Filipino cinema and climate trauma by focusing on the work of Philippine artist Lav Diaz’s documentary Storm Children: Book One (2014), which records the aftereffects of the 2013 super typhoon Haiyan. It creates the conditions for audiences to experience an environmental disaster as it illuminates the vulnerabilities of those living in the Global South. As Garcia asserts,

“Radical aesthetics is politics—the long take, deep focus, and single camera that prompt viewers to experience polytemporality are necessary to not only represent what it means to survive in the trauma field but also to construct and simulate for the spectator the long exhaustion of the climate subalterns and emphasize the urgency to change the course of the Anthropocene from creating unlivable worlds.” (115)

Chapter 7, “Exploring SF ecocinema: ideologies of gender, infrastructure, and US/China dynamics in Interstellar and The Wandering Earth” offers a space for authors Andrew Hageman and Helen Wang to compare constructions of food and education in science fiction blockbusters from divergent cultural contexts: Interstellar (2014) and The Wandering Earth (2019). The authors, working collectively, showcase culturally situated and divergent solutions to dystopian situations in the films, noting that the transplanting of humans in Interstallar and moving the planet itself in Wandering Earth also highlight cultural differences that illuminate “ecocinema studies’ critical and transnational comparative dialogue” (119). As Hageman and Wang conclude, although “both Interstellar and The Wandering Earth contain inspirational seeds for ecological futures and the ideological entanglements that threaten to distort or destroy these seeds” (132), they also provide opportunities for discussions that might help build “collective futures on Earth” (133).

In chapter 8, “Keaton’s chimera, or the comic assemblage of mountains,” Christian Quendler highlights “chimera” in Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality (1923) as queering of comedic ecocinema. After providing textual and filmic evidence supporting the claim that “landscape only becomes a laughing matter when it is first made human and subsequently turned mechanical,” (135), the chapter more explicitly explores landscape and chimera through a close reading of Our Hospitality. The chapter argues that the film “de- and re-territorializes Appalachia through humorous de- and re-coding of genre and gender, as well as national and personal histories” (136-7). For Quendler, humor “is crucial to grasping the multidimensionality of environments” (137). Our Hospitality revisits the chimera by presenting it through comic representations interacting with their mountain environment, including a chase scene that relies on Keaton’s main character Willie’s cross-dressing and his horse’s anthropomorphic disguise. As Quendler asserts, “Keaton complicates and develops the basic syntagma of the chase sequence into an elaborate chimeric organism” (146). This chapter introduces a new way of applying a queered ecocinematic lens to a classic slapstick film.

Chapter 9 “Matrix of ecomedia: fan worlds as environments” by Anthony Lioi serves as the last chapter in this second section and as a transition to the final segment of the anthology, “Ecocinema communities.” Lioi first explores questions surrounding “a world constituted by a matrix of media” and applies multiple theoretical lenses to “the matrix as a form,” including “the semiotics of Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva” and “the narratology of Erin James and the media theories of Alenda Chang and Adrian Ivakhiv” (151). Ultimately, the chapter illuminates these theories through readings of “two artifacts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)—Black Panther and WandaVision— to understand the matrix of ecomedia as empowering archive, impediment to interpretation, and irreducible multiplicity” (151). The chapter concludes by delineating three major “takeaways” for scholars and students of ecocinema that impact how we read and interpret ecocinema and define environments.

  • Black Panther emphasizes a masculine hero.
  • WandaVision questions reality and what it means to be human.

Part III, “Ecocinema communities”

The anthology refocuses on environmental justice as its aim by centering its concluding section on community justice, theory, and practice. In chapter 10, “The Digital Art of Jonathan Thunder and Missy Whiteman,” Angelica Lawson “examine[s] how artistic communities and collaborations create ecomedia that highlights Indigenous cosmologies in sharp contrast to settler colonial industrialism and capitalism” (167). As Lawson notes, the chapter focuses on

“the music video “Time Dreams” (dir. Whiteman 2016), Minneapolis digital billboards, and Thunder’s art installation Manifest ’o to show how together they emulate cinema’s aesthetics and creative teamwork to animate and Indigenize urban landscapes while illuminating the ethics and values of Indigenous cosmologies.” (168)

Chapter 11, Aarón Lacayo’s “Of toxic dust and sad places: ecochronicity and debility in Julio Hernández Cordón’s Polvo (Dust, 2012)” argues “that [the documentary] Polvo revisits the legacy of Guatemala’s civil war and its impact on the country’s Indigenous Mayan community by interweaving disability and environmental concerns” (182). Like the documentary, the chapter ends on a hopeful note, highlighting how the subject of the documentary, Juan “wants to recover his life precisely by reclaiming the land where his village once stood. According to Lacayo, “In doing so, he embraces a sad, damaged place on his own ecochronic terms” (193).

Chapter 12, Emily Roehl’s “Indigenous post-apocalyptic filmmaking at Standing Rock” showcases an ecocritical analysis of the documentary We Are in Crisis (2016)that counters settler colonialism and celebrates indigenous soundscapes, landscapes, and narratives through re-envisioned drone shots. According to Roehl, the chapter “reads [the documentary] We Are in Crisis into long traditions of Indigenous filmmaking and resistance to what Grace Dillon (2012) and Kyle Powys Whyte (2018) describe as an apocalypse that has already occurred” (196). It also serves as a call-to-action and argument against resource extraction.

Although a little out of place in this section, in chapter 13, “Blurry streams: the pandemic film festival,” Mila Zuo argues against streaming art films, asserting instead that “cinema, like the coyote, ought to remain feral, unknowable, and dangerous” (224). The chapter responds specifically to the move to digital film festivals during the Covid-19 pandemic and suggests this change in distribution and exhibition marginalizes artists and their “challenging works” (212).

Chapter 14, “Seeing locally, expressing globally: participatory filmmaking and aesthetics” by Mariam Abazeri rounds out the section well, as it “examines how participatory videomaking shapes and represents a self-conscious expression of culture, enacting and communicating a social system of values and behaviors, referred to here as Adab, that helps determine individual and collective socialities of ethics and aesthetics” (229). For Abazeri, adab refects and transmits cultural attitudes and sensibilities through `proper aesthetic and ethical forms, of thinking, acting and speaking, and thus of perceiving, desiring, and experiencing’ (2020, 5)” (233).

“Afterword: the sequel effect” is provided by Jennifer Fay and explores Ecocinema Theory and Practice 2 as a sequel that “re-cast[s]” and “radically re-vis[es]” the first edition. According to Fay, the purpose of the afterword is to

“consider its ‘sequel effect’ primarily on the first volume, which must now be considered Ecocinema Theory and Practice 1 (Ecocinema 1), and also how these two collections, taken together, reflect on the field of ecocinema and environmental media studies, areas of inquiry that have bloomed in the intervening decade between volumes. (241)

Together these three sections and afterword augment the work begun in the first edition of Ecocinema Theory and Practice, but they also illuminate the changing field of ecocinema studies—a field that has not only expanded its approaches but also opened its arms of inclusivity. In future anthologies, we hope even more avenues of the field open up. For example, t make the important work of ecocinema studies more widely available, we hope accessible student and mainstream-centered scholarship takes center stage. And with a warming planet and increasing environmental disasters hitting the Global South, we also hope more work examining the rhetorical effects of ecocinema might gain traction, answering questions regarding how these films might actually change audience perceptions and encourage activism. The work exploring documentaries in the “Communities” section might serve as a good starting point for this expansion and amplification of viewership and new kinds of audience response. As a “sequel” to the first volume, Ecocinema and Media 2 is a welcome addition to Ecocinema studies, and we highly recommend it.