Carlos Casas (b. 1974, Spain) is a filmmaker and artist who engages with the overlap between documentary, experimental film and the natural world. He develops immersive soundscapes to explore questions of memory and mortality. His film, Cemetery follows the story of Nga, an old elephant and Sanra, his mahout, on a journey to a mythical elephant's graveyard following an environmental catastrophe. As the journey progresses, we find both man and elephant are pursued closely by group of poachers.
The artist generously shared Cemetery for the Composing Worlds Conference Opening Event on 13th December, 2020. If you have missed this opportunity during the conference, the remarkable film is available on MUBI until December 17. If you would like to view the post-film Q&A with the artist and conference participants, click here.
Reasons For Watching Cemetery
Essay by Deborah Schrijvers
Extinction studies pioneers and scholars Deborah Bird Rose, Matthew Chrulew and Thom van Dooren state that the currently unfolding Sixth Mass Extinction is characterized by a high number of species being lost, taking place across a diverse range of life-forms and the compressed time frame within which it is occurring, driven by habitat loss, direct exploitation, and climate change (1). They view extinction as a biological and cultural complexity of our world, and therefore a biocultural phenomenon (5), which necessitates a situated approach. In light of this understanding of extinction, theoretical, ethical and political action are required, as well as different stories to inform and imagine these different forms of action. Storytelling can be considered to be a form of action in itself. What type of story does Cemetery tell and why does it matter to human-animal relations research?
From an environmental humanities and animal studies approach, Cemetery visualizes the ecological entanglements that shape environments and interspecies relations and communities. It visualizes the double-edge of human-animal relations: on the one hand, the intimate and relational bonds as exemplified between elephant and mahout, which in their case is a relationship based on care. On the other hand, the film demonstrates the vulnerability of life under colonial structures and the ongoing hierarchical species divide which stimulates the capitalization of animal bodies. Practices of extraction like trophy hunting and elephant poaching for ivory are both historical and contemporary issues that demonstrate the exoticization of elephants. This exoticism is intricately linked to the inscription of race of non-Western fauna, as well as their reduction to the status of exploitable objects. Although this second, more negative, aspect of human-animal relations is not central to the film, it nonetheless meditates on exploitation of hum(animal) cultures in the Global South, which destroys the potency of sharing a differentiated world otherwise than through a contemporary capitalist prism. In the process, it kills off species, communities, cultures and local economies. Without words, the seemingly voiceless elephant in Cemetery speaks back, not as a liberal subject with rights, but as a relational subject who participates and shapes the (visual) world of which we are all part. This leads the viewer into the realm of the nonhuman beyond indexical representation, due to the choice of interspersing human and animal focalization. As such, we are offered nonhuman perspectives that we are able to visually experience with – and possibly from.
This non-anthropocentric filmmaking is apparent in the suggested nonhuman point of view shots of the elephant, yet leads the viewer to question whether it might be the point of view of the mahout who, after all, is riding the elephant to the graveyard. Do the perspectives intersperse, or are viewers stimulated to consider these point of views as interchangeable? Casas’s non-anthropocentric filmmaking is also apparent in point of view shots of the natural environment that voyeuristically follows arriving poachers who try to read traces of the elephant in that same environment. Decentralization of the human perspective is also suggested by the cinematographic structure of the film, which consistently first shows the vegetal or mineral environment before other species enter the shot. The meticulously sound editing is also key in the centralization of the relational yet diverse environment, as the audio track exuberantly emerges as its bursts with the abundance of noises made by cicadas, birds, amphibians, monkeys and grasshoppers. This agentic natural force annihilates attempts to reduce the immeasurable unity of matter, as the poachers operate within the intersectional colonial logic of supremacy over Asia and the nonhuman. The agency of nature is therefore portrayed as more forceful than human weapons and scientific technologies, destroying attempts to enforce colonial capitalism on this dynamic entanglement. This approach is close to new material feminism as philosophized by Rosi Braidotti, interested in theorizing a posthuman and post-anthropocentric approach to matter. Braidotti calls vital materialism a “concept that helps us make sense of that external dimension, which in fact enfolds within the subject as the internalized score of cosmic vibrations” (56). She considers living matter as intelligent and self-organizing on every scale – including bacteria, minerals and plants – but is enabled to conduct itself in this way due to its relation to its surroundings. Evolution is therefore understood as a process that is interactive and open-ended.
Finally, in Cemetery, material decentralization of the human is conceptualised and viewed through relational entanglement of embodiment with environments, comprised of humans, animals, vegetation, minerals and fungi, and as such engineers ways of viewing (with) the nonhuman. Life screened in the film as a biocultural phenomenon entails the dissolution of the influential ancient Greek bios-zoe binary as emphasized by philosopher Giorgio Agamben in his discussion of ‘the animal question’, placing all matter in the wider scope of zoe instead. It is in this domain that the transversal force of generative vitality takes place, which is a trans-species movement. This visualisation is important, because academic, activist and juridical texts alone are unable to shift our conceptual framework: we need stories and imagination to appreciate what the world has, had, will and might lose quite soon.
Carlos Casas’s film Cemetery is a layered artwork that invites you to a plethora of readings and experiences. The film follows the last Asian elephant’s journey to the mythical elephant graveyard to die, accompanied by a mahout, while being hunted by poachers. The film comprises myth, documentary, fiction and visual experimentation and in this process, becomes a form of visual thinking. It touches upon questions of human-animal communities and relations – most notably human-elephant relations – but also extinction, colonialism and contemporary capitalism. Due to its richness, I want to invite the viewer to consider Cemetery as a film that is able to think along with these issues, as I believe it visually re-imagines multispecies relations in an affirmative sense beyond the South-Asian context of the film. Cemetery is able to do this through its emphasis of the agentic force of natural environments while engaging with ongoing human practices of exploitation of non-Western matter and life, which are shaped by subsisting colonial structures.
Deborah Schrijvers starts her PhD project at University College Dublin within the department Environmental Humanities at the School of English, Drama and Film. She is an Ad Astra Phd Scholar.
Cemetery. The Book.
Cemetery. Journeys to the Elephant Graveyard and Beyond compiles a selection of the visual and research materials accumulated during the development of the film and project Cemetery (2009–2019). This book presents the artist’s research process from early archival investigations to location photography, from drawings and diagrams to collages, from archive films to archive boards, shedding light on the early stages of the development of Cemetery. Now available for preorder.
Cemetery as Process
A peek into the exquisite deliberations made for the film Cemetery.