Film

A Portrait of Philosopher Donna Haraway as an Impassioned Storyteller

A documentary about the canonic thinker, shot mostly in her home office, seems straightforward at first, then jellyfish start shimmering across the screen.

Donna Haraway in <em>Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival</em> (2016), directed by Fabrizio Terranova (all images courtesy Icarus Films)
Donna Haraway in Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival (2016), directed by Fabrizio Terranova (all images courtesy Icarus Films)

Elliptical, self-effacing, and subdued, Fabrizio Terranova’s Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival (2016) is no ordinary talking-head documentary about the influential philosopher, thinker, and scholar. Set in and around her forestial California home, which Terranova conceives as an assembled space with filmic techniques, the documentary (screening this week at Anthology Film Archives) is at once a glimpse into Haraway’s life and a casual credo exuding her way of thinking.

Although it’s a daunting task to summarize the depth and breadth of Haraway’s complex and abstract thoughts, to put it generally and briefly, she is a feminist whose beliefs are not rooted in out-and-out environmentalism, but rather in self-sufficiency, Marxist materialism, and in a relationship with technology. Her concerns about civilization manifest in her critiques of fascistic, racist, misogynistic, and male-dominated Western institutions and ideologies. In recent years, she has had a more pronounced concern for the ballooning population of Earth. To curtail that rapid growth (a line of thinking for which she’s been criticized Sophie Lewis), Haraway advocates for kinship among a wide variety of species (“oddkin,” as she puts it) instead of reproduction.

A scene from Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival (2016)
A scene from Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival (2016)

Story Telling for Earthly Survival begins immediately and unassumingly: in a medium close-up, Haraway recounts how she became fascinated with the history of orthodontics when she first stepped off a train and met Princeton University students with perfectly straight teeth, eventually learning about the standard, “correct” bite, which derives from statues of Greek gods. Throughout this scene, and for the rest of the film for that matter, Haraway comes off as energetic, enthusiastic, funny, playful, and an engaging storyteller, who not only uses words but her hands and body language as well to communicate. In fact, as the subtitle indicates, this is a portrait of the philosopher as a storyteller, whether she’s talking about her childhood, her family, her partners, or, most especially, her work.

For the most part, and amidst a smattering of archival footage, Haraway talks directly to the camera about her life and life’s work. Terranova doesn’t present her history as bullet points but as nodes of activity that make up the thinker. He moves from one subject to another and back to the first, which can seem a bit haphazard. We learn about her stern, Irish Catholic upbringing in Colorado; her sports journalist father; her longtime friend and companion, the Australian shepherd Cayenne (and see her and Haraway, in archival video, compete in agility competitions); and her non-heteronormative relationships, first with Jaye Miller, who was gay and lived with his partner before dying of an AIDs-related illness in 1991, and currently with Rusten Hogness, a radio producer and science writer. As for her work, although Haraway briefly brings up her canonic essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1985), and at one point watches with amusement her 1987 appearance on Paper Tiger Television, the ideas of her recent book (the concepts of “kin” and “chthulucene” come up in discussion), Staying with the Trouble (2016), speckle the documentary, culminating in a 10-minute representation of “The Camille Stories,” an open-ended work of theoretical, speculative fiction. It’s best to have some familiarity with Haraway’s ideas before watching this documentary, which doesn’t neatly present her works but rather plunges the viewer into the midst of them.

A scene from Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival (2016)
A scene from Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival (2016)

At first glance, Story Telling for Earthly Survival seems conventional, run of the mill even, its subject simply engaging in a monologue with the camera. Yet Terranova’s use of green screens disrupts this initial view of the film. The director changes the shots’ backgrounds, altering perception and pointing to the film’s sense of construction. In one instance, as Haraway talks and talks and talks in the foreground, another Haraway types on her computer in another room in the background. In another, a giant, undulating jellyfish floats across the screen. In fact, Haraway describes her home in a way that highlights her constructed environment: she built the house, and she’s surrounded herself with her passions, her loved ones, and her friends and family. This all goes hand in hand with Haraway’s non-naturalist philosophy.

Story Telling for Earthly Survival presents Haraway as full of life and vitality; her ideas seem exciting because she is so excited. Her home is both tranquil and roiling with activity, and you never know when an aquatic invertebrate is going to drift by. In the film, whether it’s the space represented or the ideas espoused, nothing is settled, all is moving, destabilized, and ultimately reorganized.

Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival plays at Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Avenue, Lower East Side, Manhattan) on April 27, 28, 29. A full schedule of upcoming screenings around the world is available on the film’s website.

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