LFF Experimenta 2022: hybrid humans and new ways to commune with nature

A number of the films in this year’s Experimenta lineup imagine bold new strategies for approaching our relationship with the natural world.

27 September 2022

By Sarah Perks

Piaffe (2022)
London Film Festival

“A machine made this. I need a human,” is the reprimand from Eva’s boss in the captivating Piaffe, this year’s Experimenta special presentation. Eva responds by growing a horse’s tail that gets her chomping at the bit and making hay too. 

‘Piaffe’ is the movement in dressage in which horses trot on the spot, moving neither forward nor backwards. It’s a move that creates a sublime moment in the film when Eva goes to a techno club in Berlin. Eva embarks on a sensual and surreal journey when she embraces her equine modification and begins to explore outside human societal limitations. The debut feature of visual artist Ann Oren kicks off a theme that unites several films in this year’s selection: exploring humanity through our relationship with nature.

The species hierarchy is questioned by Marianna Simnett in her fictional short The Severed Tail, whose piglet protagonist encounters a fetish club ruling the social order of the day. To produce the film’s thrilling climax, Simnett researched seahorses, the only known species in which it’s the males who get pregnant. Her film asks how we might reclaim our sense of animal solidarity through role play, performance and subversive practice. 

100 Ways to Cross the Border (2022)

This chimes with the ‘ecosexual’ movement pioneered by Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, as featured in 100 Ways to Cross the Border, a thrilling hybrid queer documentary about performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña by feature debut director Amber Bemak. Annie and Beth are part of the artistic menagerie around Guillermo, who officiates their marriage ceremony with the earth as a way of cojoining and literally breaking down anthropocenic borders.  

In Grace Ndiritu’s Becoming Plant, consciousness is the conduit of choice for becoming one with nature through the imbibing of psychedelic mushrooms. The participants of Ndiritu’s film are dancers and so represent this collaborative experience to us as explorative and stylised movement. This choreographic, cinematic turn also evokes the legendary animal-human movement of Siobhan Davies in her arresting autobiographical film Transparent. 

Aribada (2022)

Several of the films also share an implicit queering of nature too. Aribada’s hybrid format follows the experiences of Las Traviesas, a group of indigenous transwomen using esoteric performance in a coffee-growing region of Colombia. Their native yet outsider reality meets the resurrected Aribada, a shapeshifting shaman who adopts the form of animals such as crocodiles to conduct mischief. The ability to shapeshift, code-switch and the blurring of boundaries across nature represent our frustrations with societal conventions, our inability to avert crisis. Yet they also present an opportunity for ways forward and a different understanding of ourselves as part of nature. 

How we exist in such a moment of ecological crisis has been an intense focus for writers, artists, academics and filmmakers for some time now, from speculative sci-fi to hybrid horror. And while the contemporary art world was early to embrace theoretical debates around the anthropocene, everyone from Gucci to Janelle Monáe has found a way to incorporate some of evolutionary biologist Donna Haraway’s influential theories into their work. 

Post-pandemic, however, something feels different about the screen presentation of such ideas. Films such as these Experimenta selections suggest that humans desire a more hybrid and complex relationship with wildlife, in which we ingest (Becoming Plant), merge (Piaffe), procreate (100 Ways to Cross the Border), morph (Transparent) and even pass into the preternatural with it (Aribada).

It’s as if these cinematic exchanges are trying to tell us something, or forcing us to confront an inconvenient truth highlighted by coronavirus and our increasingly extreme climates: we can’t separate ourselves from nature, so we must start picturing ourselves as part of it. 

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