By Yun-hua Chen.
I am dedicated to creating films that facilitate our healing process with the natural world.”
Geographies of Solitude, screened at the Berlinale Forum 2022, is a breathtakingly beautiful experimental documentary which affectionately portrays the ecosystem on the Sable island, the remote sliver of land in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean, as well as the feelings of solitude, and the dedication of Zoe Lucas to the island. Zoe Lucas is a naturalist and environmentalist who has lived there over 40 years as the only full-time human inhabitant, and tirelessly collects marine litter, archives her findings, and studies pollution trends.
Shot on 16mm, with organically produced soundtracks, and unique eco-friendly filmmaking techniques, Geographies of Solitude is a memorable amalgram between environmentalism and film aesthetics, between nature and nurture. Jacquelyn Mills not only films nature, but also films it in a cinematic means that is as close to nature as possible. She hand-processed film in plants, exposed film with natural light, and painted film with non-toxic emulsion. For her soundscape she used homemade non-toxic contact microphones, underwater hydrophones, and electrodes to capture the sounds of the island’s organics. Creating an extraordinary film world of her own, she moves the audience organically with a feast for the eyes and ears. The island being the main character, the film is rendering justice to the power of nature while highlighting the damage that human beings do. Jacquelyn Mills’ camera breathes with the island and pays tribute to all life forms there including wild horses, seals, insects, to all natural phenomena, Zoe Lucas’ lifelong endeavors, and to filmmaking as a medium that captures both the benignity and brutality of nature.
How was the shooting process?
The shooting process of this film was rewarding, challenging, and full of discovery. It took on a life of its own and was inspired by experiences of serendipity along the way as well as the spirit of Zoe’s curiosity.
How long did you stay on Sable Island and how big was your team?
I was a one-person team the first two shoots, in December 2017 and September 2018. On the third shoot in June 2019 I brought trusted creative collaborator and additional camera person, Scott Moore, to accompany me. This way I could share the technical responsibilities which allowed me to focus more completely on the creative elements of the project for the final shoot of production.
What were the physical challenges that you faced?
The physical demands of traversing the island by foot with the weight of the heavy film gear is worth noting. I filmed in conditions of blowing sands and snow, in fierce winds, in fog and rain. I didn’t put pressure on myself to move fast. I only had enough film to capture 10 minutes a day. In that way, I was able to fully experience the realities of the island before filming, which were so rich they paled any physical challenges I encountered. Along with these physical challenges I also experienced soothing moments, calm days and even a few naps between the dunes.
There is a strong feeling of solitude and isolation in your film, as your film title indicates. Was it psychologically challenging for you to shoot on an uninhabited island? How do you see the concept of solitude in nature?
Personally, I have found while in solitude in nature there is a certain space that opens up and ability that arises to reconnect with my deeper instincts. In these moments, I reflect on own my relationship with the natural world as well as what energies I would like to contribute outward. Part of the reason I filmed alone the first two trips to the island was to experience the place and its inhabitants quietly and privately. I wondered how can we be more delicate and thoughtful with our surrounding environment? How to face certain confrontations that become clearer while alone, with less noise, such as cycles of impermanence, and our current environmental crisis.
How did you meet Zoe Lucas? How was your collaboration?
I was lucky as Zoe and I have a common trusted friend. I was able to share with her my last documentary “In the Waves” and explain my intentions of creating a film that intimately involved Sable Island. She generously agreed to act as my guide. Zoe was incredibly supportive in both getting me to Sable Island three times, and also in our creative collaborations while there. I owe this film to her.
Geographies of Solitude portrays nature through its portrait of time passing, with the change of light and seasons. How did you capture the feelings of time on Sable Island?
The passage of time is fascinating to experience on Sable Island. I hoped to visit during different seasons to investigate how the island and its inhabitants adapted and appeared in all conditions. I knew that I would not have the chance to be on Sable Island year-round, due to the complexity of travelling to and living on this remote island. That said, I had the opportunity to experience Sable Island in winter, a spring to summer transition as well as a summer to autumn transition. Thus, touching on each season, and a variety of weather conditions within those timeframes. From my perspective, unless there are obvious indicators such as blowing snow or lush plant life in view – the island really appears to be a timeless place. The way the seabird’s shadows soar across dunes, the swirling sands, the seals observing from the waves, the bug activity, the horses running through dunes or scratching on a piece of driftwood, visible life-cycles in all stages, rippling ponds, endless waves, even the persistent plastics washing ashore. This place is seemingly permanent in its impermanence.
Your eco-friendly filmmaking technique is very intriguing. Can you perhaps talk more about that? Where did these ideas of experiments come from? How did you find the right balance between the material you want to use and the images you want to create?
I actually didn’t intend to use any of these experiments in the final film. It is a complete surprise to me they have found a place in the film. They are a result of asking many questions that pivoted around the notion of how nature can make a film. When there was an image or sound that came out of those experiments it would lead me deeper down that research path and to creating more. I am grateful to a very talented Canadian experimental filmmaker Terra Jean Long who opened my eyes to the world of eco-friendly filmmaking techniques. She consulted me as I began this journey and helped me process my first images in seaweed. It was in that moment my curiosity was ignited. I wanted to discover ways I could cinematically underline Zoe’s environmental commitment. I wanted to explore a kind of cinema that was innovative, immersive and experiential. That involved the elements of Sable Island on every level, both natural and unnatural with the marine litter.
How did you achieve the breath-taking cinematography, especially in terms of lighting at night?
Thank you for this comment, it is very much appreciated. Sable Island in breathtaking. As is Zoe’s completely unique perspective of it. Zoe would guide me toward sensorial places to experience the island both visually and sonically. I would usually spend hours or even full days in one place just observing before I would film one or two long takes or record sound.
Regarding the nighttime material, I was stunned at the starry night sky and the absolute calm of the place in darkness. I had brought a digital camera with me each time, as a backup in case the film or film equipment became compromised. I ended up using that camera more than I expected. I would find a place to gaze up at the sky, and after so long, try to capture what I was feeling.
Can you tell us about your choice of 16mm film? Can you please talk about your thoughts on how the medium suits the subject matter, and the practical implications it implies?
I wanted there to be a clear intention behind every step in the creation of this project. There are several reasons why I chose to shoot on film. I was inspired by the ritual of film. By holding the moments in my hands as I changed the rolls. I was inspired by the moments I missed. Those moments were just for me, and still seemed to find their way into the film invisibly. Only shooting several minutes a day allowed me to experience the island before filming, to convey what I was feeling from a still place. To feel first, then film. Furthermore, the eco-filming techniques explored in this project were only possible on 16 mm and 35 mm film, which produced a cohesive aesthetic. Finally, film is actually more versatile than most digital mediums in challenging conditions such as extreme heat, cold and being exposed to elements.
Shooting on film, on an exposed sandbar in the Northwest Atlantic, requires a rigorous attention to detail to ensure there will be an image, and some sound, at the end of the journey. There is a risk involved. Even if all gear is tested regularly, anything can happen while on location and there is nowhere on Sable Island to fix the gear or order more film. The risk became part of the many rituals in this film. While I was very methodical in the technical aspects of this process I also had a great deal of luck on my side all along the way.
How did you develop your organic soundscape?
The sound scape of this film was created using a native sound bank I recorded on Sable Island. I was haunted by the sounds of this place and felt compelled to find a way to express them in the film. I used contact microphones to record within objects from the island. I recorded 4 channel and 6 channel surround sounds in each location so in the theatre we would feel the immersion of being in this place. I recorded foley after each moment filmed so even the smallest details could be sourced authentically. I recorded footsteps of bugs and gave a bee a microphone. A snail crawled across the surface of my recorder. I placed hydrophones in ocean and pond water, and in buckets of plastic Zoe cleaned. I used electrodes to translate the living patterns in plants and bugs into music. The sound in this project has been a labor of love and I want to thank my co-sound designer Andreas Mendritzki for evolving the soundscape to the final theatrical version.
The amalgam between ecological living/research and ecological filmmaking is very interesting. How would you like to explore further in your future filmmaking?
I am dedicated to creating films that facilitate our healing process with the natural world. While making this film I had the extraordinary opportunity to participate in three artist residencies in Iceland. My next project will be a continuation of this one, a docu-fiction exploring the natural wonders of Iceland through the journey of a spiritual pilgrimage.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and her contribution to the edited volume titled A Darker Greece: Film Noir and Greek Cinema is forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press.