Evoking Orangutans

In these short comments I want to link Green explicitly to the overarching theme of this conference – Nature Inc. (which I take to mean Nature Incorporated). I want to use the film to attend to two related but distinct meanings of the verb ‘to incorporate’:

–       First, the forming of a new corporation – or a collection of people authorised by law to act as one individual, having an existence, privileges and liabilities separate from its constituent members. Although there are many types of corporation, in the context of this conference Nature Incorporated is taken to indicate the transformations of nature associated with neo-liberal capitalism.

–       The second, more general meaning of incorporate is to join different ingredients into one mass. These ingredients need not necessarily be people. Here Nature incorporated might refer to the processes through which the material world is transformed, metabolised and subsumed – the soil from a deforested rainforest becoming incorporated as part of us when we eat palm oil. A corporation is also a colloquial name for a pot belly.

These two definitions give us a Nature that is both corporate and corporeal. Both of these adjectives help us to make sense of and critically engage with what is presented in Green and to examine more generally the nature of film and the political potential of different ways of evoking human-environment interactions.

The corporate character of those actors responsible for deforestation is a central theme in the film. This is a story about corporate power and the environmental destruction associated with global capitalist expansion. We see faceless, monolithic factories and anonymous but beguiling brands. Green even finishes with a familiar list of shame – an inventory of a range of corporate entities held to be complicit in the systematic destruction of the rainforest. There are many themes here that resonate with what we are concerned with at this conference.

However, this is not a traditional campaigning film or documentary. The villains are not readily identifiable. The central message is opaque. Responsibility is diffuse. Rather than pointing fingers the film aims to trace and make connections. It seeks to witness the prevalent networks and metabolic processes that link products to places, people and ecological change. We see forests become timber, paper and palm oil – ingested and incorporated into diverse bodies and economies. Green aims to illustrate the dynamics, materials and consequences of an incorporation in which we are all complicit. In fuelling our cars and bodies, in buying our furniture or doing our business we are connected to the rainforest and its inhabitants. In the film, even the carers at the orang-utan sanctuary casually discard their waste paper. The film wants to lay bare these connections and in so doing touch us and move us.

We can situate Green within a genre of political/documentary film that focuses on defetishising commodities. This genre is currently popular – think of the End of Line and Darwin’s nightmare (fish), Blood Diamond (diamonds), Black Gold (coffee) the Constant Gardener (pharmaceuticals) and Food Inc (food in the US). With differing degrees of plot and fiction these films seek to reveal what goes on behind the scenes, generating powerful, critical representations of corporate power and consumer responsibilities.   The narrative is didactic. The message is clear. The sequencing is familiar, dramatic and consonant. These films are easy on the eye and on the ear, even if their message appals. Perhaps they serve as a form of absolution for guilty consumers; a cathartic purging of complicit and an affirmation of a faith in ethical consumerism. The evil-doers are readily identifiable, even if they are faceless corporations and requisite actions are prescribed – buy this, boycott that, sign this petition, etc.

In contrast Green deploys a range of narrative and filmic styles that unsettle and subvert this genre and the mode of politics it prescribes. Much of the film is steeped in the style and techniques of experimental film. The voice-over is absent. Although the three part structure is fairly clear, the narration is subtle. We are taken through a series of nonlinear flashbacks that unsettle the time series. The sequencing of images and soundscapes is unconventional, disconcerting and at times unresolved. The sound of the lorry at the beginning of the film, the chainsaws and the industrial machine are in carefully crafted discord with the tranquillity of the forest. In a similar fashion to more experimental commodity documentaries like Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread and Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured landscapes, the images are left to speak to and touch us without narration. The film maker wants to gives us space to think, to provide a shock to thought without the imposition of narration. This is a politics of the avant-garde, of dissonance and disconcertion. The consumer’s absolution is less easily secured. The film leaves an itch, not a flagellator’s bruise.

However, unlike other films in this avant-garde style (including Rouxel’s most recent film Alma about deforestation in the Amazon) we have a charismatic, anthropomorphic individual protagonist – stuck in the last tree like the iconic polar bear on the melting ice-cap. Green is an individual victim with a face, eyes and hands. An all too familiar flagship for a distinctly humanist mode of concern. Green provides a face for the cause. It pulls at our well conditioned heart strings. Raised on Disney and the vernacular of a host of other caricatured animations we are moved. However, Green is discrete. It pulls its punches. Although the central character dies (or so we are told), this death is noble and humane. There are no shocking dismembered corpses here. We can contrast Green with other evocations of orang-utans including a recent viral video produced by Greenpeace to target Nestle about this issue. Here a generic male office worker takes a break from shredding paper to eat a kit-kat. As he opens the packet we see 4 fingers; 4 orangutang fingers. As he bites into this simian flesh blood drips onto his keyboard to the horror of his office colleagues and the visceral disgust of the consuming public. This strategic deployment of a visceral logic of shock and disgust was effective (perhaps more effective than Green).  Nestle swiftly shifted their sourcing practices. Greenpeace wanted to show the blood on our hands. In Green there is no blood. You and I are not there. Perhaps the film’s genre associations with natural history film mean Nature remains somewhat exotic and distant, we are still voyeurs and perhaps less impelled to connect?

To sum up: The is a film about incorporation, about the shifting political economy of food and fibre provision and the material processes associated with those changes. Green argues that we should attend to both of the meanings of incorporation. The faceless aggregation of irresponsible and unaccountable profit-making actors matters, but we need to trace the corporal connections that link us to the products they provide. We are all connected; absolution by shifting consumption is not so easy. Films like Green provide a powerful medium to bring these processes to our attention, to campaign for greater awareness and action. They do so in very different ways, with different political and ethical consequences. Green differs in the style of witnessing it offers, but for a film bent on political change its unconventional format risks eluding the well-tuned aesthetic-ethical consciences of the Western consumer-citizen-spectators it seeks to reach.