High Museum of Art: Films

Altered Environments by Linda Dubler

While the Museum gears up for The Allure of the Automobile, you might want to visit just to take in some of the great stuff in the High’s permanent collection. Currently on view is an exhibition  curated by Danielle Avram called Altered Environments. She’s pulled together a mixture of paintings, prints, drawings and photographs that, in her words,  depict “altered landscapes.” Avram explains that “In artistic practice, the process of applying change to an object or location is called an ‘intervention.’ The works on display in this exhibition show interventions that are intended as metaphorical statements about the relationship between people and their environment.”


Though the theme of the human impact on the environment may sound quite modern, it’s one that’s been treated on screen for a long time. Early “realities” brought distant and pristine landscapes to film viewers (with Nanook of the North being a stand-out).

The Western took as its subtext the difference between indigenous peoples’ relationship to the land and that of the pioneers. The Range Wars that pitted cattlemen who wanted the land to remain open (no, they weren’t early environmentalists) against homesteaders who wanted to protect their farms with fences form the basis for many Westerns, including  Shane and Michael Cimino’s much maligned Heaven’s Gate.

And of course there are the sci-fi movies of the Fifties populated by outsized insects and other aberrations (Them!, 1954), the result of man’s monkeying with nature — specifically via the atomic bomb. The entire post-apocalyptic genre plays off our fears of how humankind’s hubris and disregard for the natural world will result in a unlivable planet — a theme that’s infiltrated popular entertainments like Wall-E and Avatar.


Three lesser known films that we’ve shown in the past couple of years at the High and that explore the topic of our impact on the landscape are definitely worth seeking out. Two of them treat China’s massive Three Gorges Dam project in very different ways. Up the Yangtze is a documentary made by a Canadian filmmaker, Yung Chang, who grew up hearing his immigrant grandfather’s stories of the great Yangtze River. He went on the spend several years following two young people who work for Victoria Cruises, a company that organizes Farewell Tours of the Three Gorges Dam area. Chen Bo Yu/Jerry, a kid from an affluent background who speaks English and exudes self-confidence, seems a natural for the job, unlike Yu Shui/Cindy, a bright teen from an impoverished family of illiterate farmers who’ve already been displaced by flood waters. For her, with her limited English and dirt poor background, dealing with a ship full of rich Western tourists is an utterly alien experience.

Still Life, which won the Grand Prize at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, is a visually ravishing meditation on the rapid pace of change that has transformed China, and the impact of that change on its people and landscape. The film is set in central China’s Fengje, a 2000-year-old  town on the Yangtze that is being simultaneously demolished and rebuilt by the Three Gorges Dam project, which has displaced more than two million residents. Still Life‘s parallel narratives follow two characters: a coal miner in  search of  his wife, who left sixteen years earlier with their daughter, and a nurse seeking a divorce from her engineer husband who has chosen his job over their marriage. Although their paths never cross, they are,   in the words of The New York Times’s Manohla Dargis, “connected by context, culture, language, and landscape.”

An unforgettable documentary that illuminates the  law of unintended consequences when it comes to the environment is Hubert Sauper’s chilling Darwin’s Nightmare. It’s about what happens when humans upset the fragile balance of nature and the way globalization exploits that disaster. During the 1960s, a predatory fish, the Nile Perch, was introduced into Tanzania’s Lake Victoria. A voracious species, it quickly decimated all other fish in Africa’s largest freshwater lake. The bounty of huge, meaty fish led foreign investors to build modern processing plants nearby, so men who traditionally farmed left their villages to fish and work in the factories. With the structure of village life undermined and food shortages following the drop in farming, women turned to prostitution and kids became homeless. Today, tons of frozen Nile Perch are exported to Europe and Asia from Tanzania, where the locals are literally left to pick over the bones.

Darwin's Nightmare

Linda Dubler

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