2014, HD video, sound, 47 minutes
Amelia Groom: This Unwieldy Object enacts a sustained reflection on its own medium. Can you comment on this filmic engagement with the temporality of film, and with cinematic history?
Anna Zett: In the years leading up to this film, cinema was my main field of research and engagement, specifically one genre: US-American dinosaur film. Many people think there is only the Jurassic Park franchise, but films facilitating an on-screen-meeting between animated dinosaurs and living people actually represent one of the most traditional genres of cinematic history. With various predecessors in other media and in European science fiction, the dinosaur feature was developed between 1915 and 1925 in California—where it is basically at home until today. When I did an academic research about this subject in 2011, I found that this genre is surprisingly consistent in its ideological structure and strongly tied to US-American imperialism. While submerged in this film-historical analysis, I began to fantasise about turning this stuff into an essay film project of my own and in the end two works came out if this research: Dinosaur.gif and This Unwieldy Object. Formally they are very different from each other, but they are equally dedicated to making the viewer aware of the connections between certain moving image technologies and certain ideologies. Actually, also the Jurassic Park franchise enacts a sustained reflection on its own medium, but the crazy thing is: it lies while doing it, it performs a dishonest quasi-reflection for the sake of spectacle (Dinosaur.gif kind of explains this in detail). After I understood how that works, I wanted to do something very different.
Maybe this sounds a little weird, but I wanted to use the means of technologically mediated deception in an honest way. In my video and audio works I try to never use manipulative methods without simultaneously revealing what I am doing.
AG: You call the film “a modern research drama”, and as much as it is a film about film, it’s also research about research. Pretty much every person you interview speaks about a different research methodology. What is the relationship between research and drama?
AZ: Interesting, I haven’t yet thought of it like that. For me this film tells the story of a bottomless discovery: someone who is driven by their own phantasies goes on a journey to find the real thing, the hard facts, the actual object, but of course this turns out to be impossible in all kinds of ways. So it was meant to be based on the hero’s journey of the scientist or the researcher—a central character within the European imperial mythology. But in the editing process it became a much more personal affair. After I finished my theory studies I wanted (and badly needed) to learn how to extend my ability of conscious reflection from the realm of thoughts and symbols to the realm of feelings and perceptions. So somehow the film is a product of an important developmental step in my personal life, and I would say it was mainly this internal transformation that brought the drama to the research. The film is consciously using a dramaturgy suggested by my life in order to develop a narrative arc and to open up an emotional connection. Yet, at the same time it is not a film about me, it is a film about research, a film about the impossibility of objectivity, and about those absurd situations that occur when people do something in the context of colonialism, imperialism and capitalism. All the characters in the film (including the filmmaker-protagonist) and all these researchers, collectors, artists and scientists—they all have their specific agendas and approaches, no one is or has this unwieldy object. The film ends with a type of release, though, I guess I kind of let go of the “object” throughout the film, and what remains is hanging out together in the Badlands, Oglala Lakota sitting around a fire telling a joke about a ghost.
AG: One of the palaeontologists in the film speaks about their research in terms of entering a crime scene and looking for clues everywhere in order to reconstruct the situation. As the film goes on, the voice-over reflects on the fact that if these sites of prehistoric study are indeed crime scenes, then they cover other crime scenes—those of the genocidal histories of the American frontier…
AZ: The main conclusion in my thesis about US-American dinosaur films was that the dinosaurs were exhumed, animated and put in a centre-stage in order to replace the indigenous population within the national creation myth of the USA.
Terrence Malick’s pathetic epos The Tree of Life (2011) is a great example for this mythology: the film is simultaneously set in four eras: 1) the creation of the universe, the earth and all life forms; 2) the time when dinosaurs ruled the earth; 3) white middle-class patriarchal suburbia in the 1950s; 4) today.
It seems to me that, in the US, this is actually very popular sequencing of the past, one that is supposed to give an answer the questions “where do we came from? What was here before us?” You can believe in science and in the theory of evolution and still be locked in a horribly simple national myth—a myth whose main purpose isn’t actually to remember Earth’s past, but to forget the violent history of Euro-American settler colonialism.
The best way to hide a memory is not to forbid it but to replace it with a proxy-memory, a symbolically related, but safer fantasy. I cannot repeat my whole argument here but there are direct historical links between fossil excavation and military expansion, between paleontology and the White House. Dinosaurs are not only aggressive monsters that devour white people and destroy imperial infrastructure, they also symbolize extinction. Those qualities were also projected onto America’s indigenous population throughout the nation building process. Hollywood then took on the task of haunting the public with the technological reanimations of these animals, to terrify the public with a paradoxical threat that represents both wilderness and technology, both triumph and catastrophe, both consumerism and nature conservation, all at once.
When we started recording this film, this was just a thesis, and I didn’t know what would happen on the road, what we would find, who we would meet, and what they would say, but in the end this idea found a place in the film and it became a lot more complex, material and personal.
Maybe there is one thing to say about the word “crime” here: was the displacement and (attempted) genocide of the indigenous population in Anglophone America a crime? From an outside view it seems that in the US it still isn’t actually remembered like that. Many genocides happen without any legal consequences for the perpetrators, even without moral condemnation. History is mostly written by the winners, so unless a powerful imperial institution moves in from the outside and brings people to court, there simply is no crime. When that palaeontologist talked about fossil excavation sites as crime scenes I immediately made the link to the non-existent historical crime scenes of the American frontier. Both crime scenes are imaginary. Both don’t have perpetrators, even if there are records of what happened.
AG: At a certain point, the voice-over observes that “erosion is both good and bad”. Erosion can unearth the ground’s secrets, like its buried fossils, but erosion is also what wears those discoveries down and returns their forms to the raw stuff of the ground. How did these dynamics of covering, discovering, fragmenting and grounding down inform your filmmaking process?
AZ: That is a very difficult question. The editing process of This Unwieldy Object was maybe one of the most difficult tasks I ever set myself to. There were so many layers and fragments, fantasies and documents that I wanted to connect. I don’t know how it all came together in the end, I think my lived life and me trying to feel and understand my personal traumas informed a lot of it. In a way, this is also a film about death. How can I stay open to change and face the fact that I cannot hold on to life, not to the life of loved ones, not to my own life, or anything at all? In the decade before This Unwieldy Object—my formative years, when I was 20-something—death, and what you in German call "the labour of mourning" took up a lot of my emotional energy. I don't know exactly how to describe the effects this had on my creative work. In one way or another I had to become able to accept death and welcome erosion, so to say, the erosion of memory, the constant erosion of what I thought the world was like a minute ago. But maybe this isn’t only to do with death; it is also to do with the massive societal shift that I experienced as a child post-1989 in East-Germany. Forgetting is both good and bad. To figure out a good (and honest) way to forget the past, that’s maybe what interests me in the process of erosion as metaphor.
But at the same time, erosion is also just a physical process. My colour grader once called the kids in the film “agents of erosion”, the ones seen sliding down sediment hills full of potential fossils, just for the fun of it. This was in the part of Badlands that belongs to the reservation, in Badlands National Park that type of behaviour would be totally forbidden, even though erosion apparently both destroys and uncovers fossils simultaneously. This also relates to what our hosts at the Pine Ridge reservation talked about: for us nature is not a museum, like in a National Park, it is the place where we live (and that is why we respect it).
AG: The voice-over functions as one of the film’s stratigraphic layers, which both covers and discovers the imagery below it. Could you tell me about the use of the second person address in the voice over?
AZ: That relates to what I said earlier about manipulation. I wanted to slightly disturb the viewers/ listeners, I wanted them to question my decision to make them identify with me. Before we shot the film, I decided to embody some kind of protagonist so that I could easily turn this documentary into a fiction. Normally the protagonist is referred to as he or she, or simply shown on the screen. We are tricked into identifying with him/ her/ them by technical means, without necessarily becoming aware of the process. By making the manipulation obvious I wanted to give viewers the chance to recognize and possibly refuse this suggested identification. The authoritative “you" in combination with my body, makes one think: “wait, this is just a random non-binary white person with a German accent, it’s not me”. That’s what I wanted to achieve, while at the same time explicitly inviting the viewer to go a journey with/ as this person. Some people who watched it told me that it’s a bit like playing a character in a video game.
AG: I wanted to ask about the word unwieldy. To wield is to rule over—with the prefix un, it gives us something like ‘powerless’ or ‘lacking in strength’, as well as something more like uncontained… There’s a moment in the film where the voice-over comments on the ways in which the notion of private property is wrapped around objects as a taming device?
AZ: The title refers to a quote by the US-American historian Patricia Nelson Limerick, from her book The Legacy of Conquest (1987), where she speaks about Western history as "an array of efforts to wrap the concept of property around unwieldy objects”. This is such a rhythmically perfect and interesting formulation that it stuck in my head and found its way from my thesis into the film. Her book discusses the conquest of what was formerly called the Wild West. She describes how this conquest was actually mainly done by real estate agents, bankers and business people, while the myth tells it was done by adventurers on horseback. It could be described as a taming process. Taming is a colonial trope, but here I see it more from a Marxist perspective. The unwieldy object is subjected to the process of commodification, so to wield is actually a very fitting association: unwieldy like unruly, ungoverned, something that isn’t commoditised yet. Something that was previously owned commonly or not considered own-able at all, is turned into private property, so it can be sold and resold for someone’s profit. This isn’t only done to land, material resources and labour power; it’s also done to myths, songs, styles of expression, apartment buildings, debt, memory, this film, my art practice, your capacity to care, my attention, your social connections, the traces I leave while moving around. Something is an unwieldy object after it became desirable and before it appeared on the market.
“This Unwieldy Object” is presented in collaboration with Serpentine Cinema: On Earth, Missing and Memory and the General Ecology project of the Serpentine Galleries, London
Written, directed and produced by Anna Zett2014
Anna Zett, Leona Whiterock, Joey Manywhiskers, Clayton Phipps, Robert Bakker, Ron Ruschman, Peter Larsson, Patrick Dobbs, Curtis J. Belile, Ed Welsh, Wilmer Mesteth, Helene Gaddie, Darrin Pagnac, and many others
Camera: Janine Jembere
Sound Recording: Janine Jembere, Anna Zett
Additional Sound Recording: Hanna Bergfors, Birte Gerstenkorn
Music: Paul Arámbula
Sound Editor: Birte Gerstenkorn
Grading: Sebastian Bodirsky
Associate Producers: Janine Jembere, QCine
Special Thanks to: Adrienne Mayor, Helene Gaddie, Andrea Mangold
Thank You: Sally Shelton, Hannon LaGarry, Waylon Gaddie, Edwina Fillspipe, Ruth Ziolkowski, Black Hills Institute, Eric Jones, Jeff Hnilicka, Roxy Farhat, Naima Fowler, Philipp Hartmann, Echo Park Film Center, Hanna Bergfors, Mareike Bernien, Jesse Darling, Sarah M. Harrison, Imri Kahn Iwajla Klinke, Janine Jembere, Molly Nilsson, David Panos, Michael Runyan, Lior Shamriz, Ebba Fransén-Waldhör, Sergey Yashenko
Title Song: Molly Nilsson, Dinosaur Tears, These Things Take Time, Dark Skies Association, 2009