At this point in time, when humanity has almost exhausted the planet’s natural resources, big industries are now turning to the sea, throwing money into deep-sea mining, digging a deeper hole in the equation. The ocean bed was where French naval officer Jacques Cousteau initially headed to evade war. A diver and underwater adventurer, his idiosyncratic exploits inspired the red beanies of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic (2004). As Liz Garbus’s documentary Becoming Cousteau demonstrates, his early experiments in the sea were bold, ambitious and fatal. Rigorous measurements of time and depth lacked the knowledge of how a body responds to the pressures outside of our natural habitat.
Becoming Cousteau documents the eponymous diver’s U-turn, after creating a name for himself as inventor of the aqualung and making a series of exciting ‘true adventure’ films – films that included detonating portions of the coral reef and killing predators that were hunting within their natural ecosystem. Cousteau’s learning process happened in public. Ultimately, he dedicated years to fighting for environmental awareness and protection of the sea. He was speaking publicly about catastrophic environmental change 50 years ago.
At the start of the 1970s Cousteau began creating work to urgently address the deteriorating sea life. But the TV commissioners wanted adventure films. People wanted the sci-fi dream of a subaquatic frontier, man transformed into ‘homo aquaticus’. The experiments scientists had undertaken of transplanting gills into mice looked promising. When asked if people will live under the sea, Cousteau said: “We should first build a good civilisation on land”.
Becoming Cousteau is a portrait of the public and the private; the importance of Cousteau’s family life and the dynamics that shaped his work, but also the public work he undertook to change what was rapidly becoming the norm – a world sleepwalking into an environmental catastrophe.
Natalia Almada’s Users is a film that creates a visual language for this cultural sleepwalking. The language she uses to subvert the norms of our burgeoning technological dependence is one that feels like a missive from the future. The soundtrack is exquisite in its world building. The Kronos Quartet and the sound design shift between the hum of electronics and the sound of a John Carpenter sci-fi, highlighting the intersection of our technological world and the mythology of sci-fi. Almada’s narration is like a letter to the future, or a lesson from the future. The science-fictional form feels like a subversion of documentary language.
Users is also about what human connection feels like and sounds like. It asks what is lost in the act of simulation, the technological conveniences that can replace the presence of a mother. Scenes flow into one another intuitively; an intimate scene of Almada’s son being breastfed is followed by a close-up of plant seedlings. The camera zooms out to reveal people moving through what initially appeared to be the natural world; people gliding around on lifts, monitoring and maintaining an artificial plant nursery that recalls the space garden of Silent Running (1971). There is a haunting sense of drifting, disconnection and a sinking reverie. The natural world disintegrates into fizzing pixels.
In one sequence a deep-sea diver descends into the murky sea for precarious work in a hostile environment on a pipe that carries our data. The contrast and connection between the manual labour and technological convenience underlines our cognitive dissonance; “So effective that we forget it is there”.
Amnesia or misremembering is at the heart of Sam Firth’s film The Wolf Suit. Firth recreates the memories of her childhood, those of hers, her sister’s, and her parents, that she’s been orbiting since her dad left the family home. The tape of her mum’s interview winds around the reels in a cassette player, another separate tape for her dad’s interview. Firth has spent a lifetime trying to unravel the separation.
The Wolf Suit breaks down the nuts and bolts of the memories and their filmic reconstructions, with her estranged parents watching the actors playing out scenes between them that each remember differently. There are elements of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (2008) and Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012); films that use performance and surreal elements of reliving family fallouts to see if a shared truth will reveal itself, or a clue to the origins of a lifelong feud will drop out like a key. Or perhaps, in terms of drama therapy, embodying these traumas will release them.
The Wolf Suit is a film that should come with the disclaimer ‘no parents were harmed in the making of this film’. Perhaps there is a danger of reopening wounds in archeological digs of the past, when experiences of mental illness and abusive relationships bubble to the surface. However, Firth lovingly explores conflicting experiences and perceptions, and how our feelings about people can complicate our beliefs.
Firth also plays with false memory, which is perhaps a way of the brain interpreting, or making sense of an event. These films ask questions about how we process, or can make revisions, to the ways in which we understand the world we move in. They show how perception can change over time, or perhaps – in the case of Users – it’s already changed in ways we don’t yet fully understand.