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A Formidable Presence Onscreen: A Conversation with Salma Monani on Ecocinema

Godavari (2006)

Godavari (2006)

By Rayson K. Alex and S. Susan Deborah.

Salma Monani is Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania, United States of America, and currently a Carson Fellow at Rachel Carson Centre for Environment and Society in Munich, Germany. As an environmental humanities scholar, Monani’s primary research in ecocinema studies is informed by literary ecocriticism, history, communication studies, film and cultural studies. Her co-edited collections Ecocinema Practice and Theory (Stephen Rust, Sean Cubitt and Salma Monani, 2013), Ecomedia: Key Issues (Stephen Rust, Salma Monani and Sean Cubitt, 2015) and Ecocriticism and Indigenous Studies (Joni Adamson and Salma Monani, 2016) are important contributions to the environmental humanities’ bringing film and the voices of non-White and not-Western perspectives into ecocritical view.

In 2015, Susan and I invited Salma Monani to deliver the keynote address at a Conference on Ecocinema themed “Celebrating Landscapes and Waterscapes” organized by the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences Pilani, K.K. Birla Goa Campus, Goa, West India, on 08, 09, 10 October 2015. The conference was organized as part of the tiNai Ecofilm Festival (www.teff.in) for which Monani served as one of the jurors. In her keynote address entitled “Ecocinema Studies: Past, Present and Future” she gave an overview of Ecocinema Studies by reviewing the scholarly development of the field. In tracing this development, Monani points to how ecocinema studies’ practice is one that employs an ecocritical analysis of all types of cinema and engages their production, distribution, and reception. The following is a sample of our conversations with Monani.

Could you give us a short history of ecomedia studies and ecocinema studies and your own engagement with these areas of research?

Salma Monani (SM): As fields of study, ecomedia studies and ecocinema studies are both relatively young (really twenty-first century fields of study), but they are fast growing areas of research. The former is the broader area of research, exploring non-print media of all types, from more traditional twentieth century forms such as photography, graphic novels, and film to more recent forms such as video games and online media. However, as a coherent area of interdisciplinary research it has emerged with close ties to ecocinema studies, which focuses on cinematic texts in their contexts.

When I was working on my Ph.D. in 2005, I became interested in considering how we might examine film ecocritically. There were a handful of texts that explored this topic, from historian Gregg Mitman’s Reel Nature (1999) and Derek Bouse’s Wildlife Films (2000), which engaged with natural history documentaries, to David Ingram’s Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Film (2000) and Sean Cubitt’s Ecomedia (2005), which also considered Hollywood films. Scott MacDonald’s had also published his ISLE article (2004), which used the term ecocinema to describe avant garde and slow cinema.

By the time I finished my Ph.D. in 2008, it was apparent that there was a growing interest in engaging film ecocritically. Adrian Ivakhiv published the first overview of green film studies in ISLE (2007); at the same time Paula Willoquet-Marcondi was working on her edited collection Framing the World (2010). At conferences like the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) and the Society of Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS), I was able to network with other scholars interested in this focus.

Avatar

Avatar (2009)

Steve Rust, Sean Cubitt, and I began working with these scholars and others interested in exploring the idea of ecocinema studies to network and bring the community together. Our edited collection Ecocinema Theory and Practice (Stephen Rust, Sean Cubitt and Salma Monani, 2013) is one amongst an explosion of sorts that marks the beginnings of intense attention to this area of research. Even as a scholarly focus on ecocinema studies was taking off, Steve Rust and I were also interested in thinking broadly about non-print media. Our interest was spurred by our sense of cinema being part of, and oftentimes merging with, a broader mediascape. We established the Ecomedia Studies blog in 2009, which helped link us to a network of scholars interested not just in film but in various types of non-print media.

In their rapid growth, both ecocinema studies and ecomedia studies do seem to be founded on one key conceptual idea: The rapid developments in media technologies in the last half of the 20th century and into the 21st have made non-print media a formidable ecological presence – materially as well as symbolically. It behooves ecocritics to engage with this presence. How we do so has been the driving force of both areas of research – with a vibrant sense of theoretical and practical approaches based on the diversity of mediated forms explored, the specific ecological pre-occupations of scholars, and the types of questions that emerge as a consequence.

So, would you say ecocinema is a different “genre” of cinema or is it any cinema that is understood in an ecological perspective?

SM: Ecocinema is not a genre to me. It is the latter. It involves the ecocritical approaches by which you engage any cinema. But, your question is a good one because the word ecocinema does seem to imply a “type” of cinema instead of an ecocritical approach. Part of this is linked to its history and early understandings of the term. For example, the way Scott MacDonald and Paula Willoquet-Marcondi framed it was indeed as a ‘type’ of film – e.g., slow cinema (MacDonald, 2004) or also explicitly activist cinema (Willoquet-Marcondi, 2010). But, the way the field has advanced, we now understand “ecocinema” can be any type of cinema, i.e., we understand “ecocinema studies” as employing an ecocritical perspective to a variety of types of cinema.

But, we have to realize that suggesting that all cinema is ecocinema doesn’t mean that all cinema necessarily lends itself equally to ecocritical interventions. Adrian Ivakhiv in Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature (2013) puts it well. Yes, we can understand all cinema as ecological, but some films potentially lend themselves to a better sense of ecological relations. Think of a typical Bollywood musical; it is very hard to cite it for thoughtful ecological engagements, whereas in an explicit environmental documentary you might get that sense better. We can, and in my opinion should, make evaluative comparisons. But, as Andrew Hageman suggests in his chapter in the Ecocinema Theory and Practice (2013) collection, we shouldn’t necessarily be too quick or self-righteous in our evaluations. For example, we have to remember that Bollywood has a huge audience; thus exploring its ecological possibilities (and pitfalls) can indeed be quite insightful. And, this latter argument for paying attention to mainstream cinema has been made convincingly again and again [along with the references to (Ingram 2000), (Cubitt 2005), (Ivakhiv 2013), (Rust et al. 2013), consider also (Naraway and Pick 2013), (O’Brian 2015), (Taylor 2014)].

In your keynote address you clearly stated that ecocinema studies is interdisciplinary in nature. But, in India, interdisciplinarity is still not necessarily the norm. Could you place ecocinema in a definite context of a discipline, say, of psychology or sociology? For instance, how do you think ecocinema studies offers an opening for a political scientist to approach a cinema?

Yes, I do think of ecocinema studies as interdisciplinary. But, to be interdisciplinary, we can’t forget the discipline. We have to be good within the discipline. And, lots of disciplinary angles can inform ecocinema studies. For example, we know that lots of ecocinema is political, so we might consider what methodologies and theoretical frameworks political scientists can bring to ecocinema. For example, methodologically, political scientists might use a lot of interviews to get at some of their answers, or surveys, or understandings of stakeholder engagement. So, could we engage a political scientist during the production of cinema – for example, in a documentary to help figure out how to critically engage the stakeholders in an environmental debate? But, also might a political scientist be able to help us interpret the reception of a film based on understandings of political theory? How does the political scientist interpret cinema? I think it is quite easy to ask them to bring their disciplinary lens to cinema. Similarly, for example, you have psychology. Amongst other things, psychologists are interested in affect and emotion, both of which are important aspects of the cinema viewing experience. You can use the theories and practices of psychology to understand how audiences engage with the cues a film sets up to engage emotion and affect (which is something that is already been done by scholars like Alexa Weik von Mossner [2014, forthcoming 2016] who is interested in cinema’s affect). Similarly, with sociology, different societies might have different responses to films. Sociologists can inform our understanding of how different societies with their different cultural biases make sense of ecological messages.

So, how would one communicate this disciplinary interest to a sociologist/political scientist?

Papilio Buddha (2013)

Papilio Buddha (2013)

SM: You could ask a sociologist if he/she is interested in environmental issues and film and if he/she would be interested in doing a study that needs such expertise. For example, Anthony Leiserowitz’s (2004) studies are wonderful early examples of how social science and statistical methodologies of survey analysis were used to understand audience reception associated with the Hollywood blockbuster, The Day After Tomorrow. Humanities scholars don’t usually engage in such quantitative research, but the analyses complements the understandings of humanities scholars who do close visual analyses and historical research. I think that is the fun of ecocinema. You don’t become shoddy in your own discipline. As a humanist, I might not be equipped to do statistical analyses; I am not a sociologist. But, the field’s interdisciplinarity invites such research. I would love to collaborate with a sociologist to do that.

But does this dilute a discipline?

SM: You are getting to a very interesting point. The question is, are you really diluting the two fields or are you combining the strengths of the two fields? You as a humanities person would say, “I am going to do a close analysis of texts and put it into a historical and political context,” and then the sociologist comes along and says, “that is fabulous, let us see if the numbers co-relate and/or confirm your interpretations and/or track your historical data.” So neither is actually diluting the work, but together they are strengthening what they each have.

Thinking of interdisciplinarity as diluting one’s work is a problematic mindset, which often believes that you have to be an expert in everything. But, we aren’t asking for someone to be an expert in everything. We are asking different experts to collaborate to strengthen and broaden our understandings of what is incredibly complex – multi-dimensional environmental issues and the ways they are mediated. This ability to be aware of other ways of seeing and thinking can, and quite frankly in my view should, assist our own critical practices.

We are committed to enhancing the scholarship on ecocinema in India. Could you give us some ideas to take it out of our circles, primarily to attract scholars, researchers and practitioners to the field?

SM: I myself work in an interdisciplinary department, but I understand the sort of disciplinary friction that can form when people are not open to other ways of engaging the world than from their own narrow disciplinary perspectives. However, environmental issues are not “silo” issues, they require multiple ways of understanding. So, instead of being defensive about a particular discipline or the humanities, and saying, for example, “you scientists do not know what you are doing,” if we can say “how do we work together so that we can strengthen both our fields,” you can encourage collaboration. How can your perspective mesh with or strengthen my perspective, so that we might engage with the complexity of environmental concerns. We should have a conversation. I would say, keep reaching out, keep talking about it. Think outside your disciplinary box, e.g., “what will it be like if I think like a political scientist”? or “How would you approach this?” – that is what I always say to my colleagues. There are no easy answers, but to grasp and make sense of ecological problems we need each other.

There are some wonderful recent publications that help articulate why. For example, the inaugural article in the Journal of Environmental Humanities has a lovely piece co-authored by Deborah Bird Rose and her colleagues (2012). In fact, along with our own Ecomedia text (Rust et al. 2015) a number of recent articles that engage Environmental Humanities as a field help give us some insight on how and why we must think across disciplinary boundaries (e.g. Neimanis et al. 2015); (Holm et al. 2015).

You are one of the founders of the online platform of Ecomedia studies. You have also been moderating the website, www.ecomediastudies.org. How has this initiative helped in bringing together Ecomedia scholars from across the world? How would it help in supporting the discipline?

In God's Land (2012)

In God’s Land (2012)

SM: You are right, Steve Rust and I set up the Ecomedia Studies blog site as a community resource for ecocinema and ecomedia studies scholars in 2009. The blog was an outcome of our own realizations that there was no “one-stop” place where a person might find resources relevant to ecomedia and ecocinema studies. It emerged out of an SCMS meeting where Steve had organized two panels on ecocinema studies. The scholars who attended were interested in such a resource, so Steve and I decided to set up the site.

I believe it has played a valuable role in bringing together the community. In its early days, particularly, we were happy to see strong support, with scholars contributing blog entries as well as supplying us with resources for the references and syllabi page.

As an open access, online tool, I think it has been particularly useful to scholars interested in this area of research but with nobody at their institutions who does this sort of work, and particularly to international scholars, whose institutional resources are often limited. While we did not set up the blog to track visitors and viewers, over the course of its seven years, Steve and I have heard from scholars across the globe as they discovered the blog and looked to it as a valuable resource.

As the fields of ecomedia studies and ecocinema studies gain traction in academia as legitimate areas of research, other resources like the SCMS special interest group Media and Environment, and the ASLE special interest group―Ecomedia Studies―with their Facebook presences now also serve the purpose that the online blog first set out to do. These additional sites and the growing institutional support for the fields are very encouraging; they are also partly reasons why Steve and I, who have volunteered our time towards the blog with no financial or institutional backing, are now happy to step back and retire the blog.

We sent out our final blog post announcing this retirement, and both of us encountered a sense of the bitter-sweet. We heard back from people from various parts of the globe, who thanked us for the resource and its value to their own work. While the posts on the blog will not be continued, Steve and I are looking forward to transferring some of the other resources (such as the bibliography) to the International Environmental Communication Association’s (IECA) web page.

Have you thought of a journal in ecomedia or ecocinema studies?

SM: Yes, absolutely. The idea of a journal in the field has always been on the radar. But, as with all journals such an initiative requires not only enthusiastic support but financial and institutional backing. Currently Janet Walker at University of California, Santa Barbara, is working with her institution as well as a number of us with expertise in the area to help get a journal in ecomedia off the ground. Such an initiative is very exciting as academic interest in the field grows.

What do you think is the future of ecomedia studies/ecocinema studies in academics?

SM: My sense is that ecomedia studies and ecocinema studies are here to stay. As suggested in my comments above, there is growing recognition that: a) non-print media is a force to reckon with in the twenty-first century, and b) part of its force is its ecological presence – both its material footprints and its symbolic meanings. In a world that we have to admit is facing unprecedented ecological change (in the form of climate change that marks what many call the “Age of the Anthropocene”) more and more scholars recognize the need to bring an ecological lens to cinema and media.

What is particularly important is how such recognition can deepen and broaden these areas of research. Already, in its short history, we have seen ecomedia studies evolve out of ecocinema studies, which itself has partly evolved from a somewhat narrow focus of thinking of ecocinema as a ‘type’ of cinema to questions that confront such typing. This evolution has involved concerted effort to critically draw on, and together, theoretical approaches in film studies and other disciplines, i.e., to think more carefully and deeply about how we study media.

As Steve and I describe in a recent interview with Ilda Teresa Castro (2016), the field’s evolution makes it academically but also practically relevant. One of the most important developments is that, thanks to the interest of scholars like yourself, it continues to expand beyond a United States and European center to engage media understandings from all over the world. Such understandings are imperative because both media and ecology are local and global forces that require critical interrogation not only from different disciplinary lenses but also from different cultural perspectives and contexts.

The conversations are alive, and how they develop are definitely going to continue to actively engage academics into the future.

Rayson K. Alex is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science Pilani, K.K. Birla Goa Campus, Goa, West India. Susan Deborah is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at MES College of Arts and Commerce, Goa, West India. Their collection, Ecodocumentaries: Critical Essays, is forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan.

References

Bouse, Derek. (2000), Wildlife Films, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Cubitt, Sean. (2005), Eco Media, Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi.

De Castro, Ilda Teresa. (2016), ‘On Media and Ecocriticism: An Interview with Salma Monani and Steve Rust concerning Ecomedia Studies’, Animalia Vegetalia Mineralia, https://animaliavegetaliamineralia.org/ecomedia. Accessed 19 May 2016.

Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, Matthew Chrulew, Stuart Cooke, Matthew Kearnes, and Emily O’Gorman. (2012), ‘Thinking Through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities’, Environmental Humanities, 1, pp. 1–5.

Hageman, Andrew. (2013), ‘Ecocinema and Ideology: Do Ecocritics Dream of Clockwork Green?’, in Salma Monani, Sean Cubitt, et al. (ed.) Ecocinema Theory and Practice, New York: Routledge Press, pp. 63-86.

Holm, Poul et al. (2015), ‘Humanities for the Environment—A Manifesto for Research and Action’, Humanities, 4.4, pp. 977–992.

Leiserowitz, A. (2004), ‘Before and after The Day After Tomorrow: A U.S. study of climate change risk perception’, Environment, 46. 9, pp. 22-37.

Ingram, David. (2000), Green Screen: Environmentalism and Hollywood Cinema, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ivakhiv, A. J. (2013), Ecologies of the Moving Image: Cinema, Affect, Nature, Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press Environmental Humanities Series.

—. (2007), ‘Green Film Criticism and Its Futures’, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 15.2, pp. 1-28. [Also published in Foreign Literature Studies, 29.1.]

Macdonald, Scott. (2004), ‘Toward an Eco-Cinema’, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, 11.2, pp. 107-132.

Mitman, Gregg. (1999), Reel Nature: America’s Romance with Wildlife on Film, Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Monani, Salma and Joni Adamson. (2017, forthcoming), Ecocriticism and Indigenous Studies: Conversations from Earth to Cosmos, New York: Routledge.

Neimanis, Astrida, Cecilia Asberg, and Johan Hedren. (2015), ‘Four Problems, Four Directions for Environmental Humanities: Toward Critical Posthumanities for the Anthropocene’, Ethics and the Environment, 20.1, pp. 67-97.
O’Brien, Adam. (2016), Transactions with the World: Ecocriticism and the Environmental Sensibility of New Hollywood, Oxford: Berghahn.

Pick, Anat and Guinevere Narraway, (2013), Screening Nature: Cinema Beyond the Human, Oxford: Berghahn.
Rust, Stephen, Salma Monani and Sean Cubitt. (2013), Ecocinema Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge.
—. (2015), Ecomedia: Key Issues, New York: Routledge.

Taylor, Bron. (2013), Avatar and Nature Spirituality, Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Weik von Mossner, Alexa. (2014), Moving Environments: Affect, Emotion, Ecology and Film, Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

—. (in press), Affective Ecologies: How Environmental Narratives Make Us Feel, Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Willoqet-Maricondi, Paula. (2010), Framing the World: Explorations in Ecocriticism and Film, Virginia: The University of Virginia Press.

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