Exploring Human & Animal Relationships Through Experimental Cinema

Illustration by Diane Kim

Cassie Pataky

Senior Staff Writer

“How can experimental cinema, with its radical, non-narrative, [form-focused] interest, enable us to conceptualize human-nonhuman interactions differently?” Kim Knowles, a Senior Lecturer in Alternative and Experimental Film at Aberystwyth University in Wales, asked the audience.

Knowles was a guest speaker at the Carsey-Wolf Center’s recent screening, which presented three experimental films about the relationships between humans and nonhumans in the Pollock Theater. The Carsey-Wolf Center, which fosters discussion and understanding of media, is located in the Social Sciences and Media Studies Building adjacent to the Pollock Theater. Following the screening, UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) Film and Media Studies Chair Peter Bloom moderated a discussion about the films. He was joined by Knowles and Carrie Noland, a professor of French and Comparative Literature at UC Irvine. 

Experimental films explore alternatives to narrative format and cinematic conventions. Created outside of commercial filmmaking, these films play with sound, speed, and filming techniques. Because they are so different and simply weird, experimental films enable the audience to open their mind to more perspectives than a typical narrative film.

Through the experimental film genre, the three films shown on Jan. 26th — Blua, Laborat, and The Masked Monkeys — explored the creation of empathy between species. Blua links a series of small, seemingly unrelated clips of positive and negative relationships between people and animals, including two fictitious scenes discussing reincarnation as animals. Laborat depicts researchers dissecting and scanning mice in an MRI, but is overlaid by a technical score and visual effects. The Masked Monkeys focuses on the relationship between a trainer and his monkey in an Indonesian street performance.

The screened films created a visceral experience for the viewer with unique sound and strobe effects. As a result, moments — such as hearing the beating heart of the mouse as it is dissected on screen — became physical experiences, bringing the audience closer to the depicted animals.

“It’s hard to watch because of the proximity: we’re asked to almost touch the body of the mouse. The filmmaker is asking us to be aware of it,” Knowles commented about this scene in Laborat.

Emphasizing human and animal hands in the films created empathy in the viewers. Hands are seen as quite human-esque, as we use them to accomplish many things throughout our daily lives. In one shot of Blua, a woman’s hands and her dog’s paws are side by side in the frame, placing the two creatures on the same metaphorical level — each takes up an equal amount of space and focus in the frame. 

“We see the emphasis on ‘we are all one and the same.’ There’s something that draws us all together, and I think the filmmakers are wanting to draw attention to that,” Knowles commented. 

Both humans and animals use movements and gestures to communicate. Noland explained that we often interpret and imitate the movements of animals (or they of us), but there’s a lack of transparency between the two communicators. In Blua, a boy raises his arms so a tiger will lurch up on hind legs and have his paws meet the boy’s hands behind the glass. Each creature did not fully understand the other, but “there’s a kind of empathy going on there: standing up means something for both bodies,” Noland said.

Many of the films demonstrated that restraining movement creates vulnerability. Oftentimes it is an act of control, usually by the human, that isn’t reciprocated well by the animal.

One audience member pointed out that there is a spectrum of animals: they vary by cognitive ability, which we often dictate as “class.” We often think about human-animal relationships as between companionate animals, such as dogs, horses, etc. What happens when we must reconsider our relationship with “pests,” such as rats or insects? By incorporating all “classes” of animals, the films drew attention to these relational differences. 

“The condition of subjugation being presented makes them more human than the humans staging them,” Bloom explained.

The speakers questioned whether the subjugation of the animals in the films was what created our empathy for them. The audience felt most connected to the animal on screen when it could not control its body and life. At these times, when the powerlessness of the animal was emphasized by the filmmaking, the audience easily saw human qualities in the nonhumans. Conversely, the humans staging the animals, such as the trainers in The Masked Monkeys, were less human because they held dictatorship over the animals.

Contradicting much of the discussion, Noland claimed, “Asking the question of whether the animal is being humanized doesn’t seem to be right because I think the films themselves are working towards blurring that boundary.” 

The films weren’t trying to humanize animals — or elevate animals to human status. Rather, the films connect humans and nonhumans in a different way by leveling the two to a more equal standing.