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A dominant formal language of visual representation has established itself around animals on screen in recent years. The animals we typically keep as pets have informed a cinematic commerce of domesticity, while wild animals find themselves under an even more clinical gaze, distanced from corporeal experience and often only looked at in captivity. Carlos Casas’s Cemetery (2019) however attempts to map a more metaphysical and spiritual experience onto the representation of animals on screen, telling the story of an elephant who travels to a mythical graveyard in the wake of a catastrophic earthquake on the Indian subcontinent.
The film introduces its main subject Nga — an old Sri Lankan elephant — through fleeting glimpses under torchlight. Before long, Benjamin Echazarreta’s cinematography engages with the elephant through haptic close-ups, gently gazing upon the painterly patterns of depigmentation as he traces the geography of its skin. Nga’s human companion Sanra is seen feeding and bathing the elephant, gesturing towards the harmonious bond between man and animal that later scenes explore in a more spiritual manner. As a radio broadcast charts the regional devastation of a 9.7 magnitude earthquake, monkeys watch over Sanra’s activities like agents of an ecological surveillance system. Like a breathing entity, the forest comes alive through dynamic and pulsating sound design, featuring field recordings from musician and sound recordist Chris Watson.
Detached from civilization, the film becomes a vivarium where the presence of an international group of poachers — introduced in its second part — feels not only visually distressing, but also psychologically abhorrent. As the poachers split up and succumb to the environment through inexplicable means, the sound design builds into a dizzying spell, preparing the viewer for the transcendental experience of riding the back of Nga as the elephant strides through the forest in the third act.
It becomes clear that Casas has prioritised a reciprocal relationship with Nga — even going so far as to incorporate infrasound recordings from his related installation ‘Sanctuary,’ — and though the film grants us daylight views of the elephant early on, its prevailing duration takes place in reduced visibility, detouring from the established spectatorial conventions of ‘looking at’ animals. The dark of the forest becomes a tactic for lulling the viewer into a heightened sensory state, where the film’s audible components and the palpable desire to elucidate the dim images on screen invites a spiritual cinematic entanglement between the audience and the elephant.
For these reasons it feels essential to see Cemetery in a dark cinema, because in many ways, Casas’s film is a proposition for how we can engage corporeally with animals on screen, as well as one that conjures the obvious thoughts about the vulnerable natural world in the age of the Anthropocene.
Cemetery (dir. Carlos Casas) will have it UK premiere at Tate Modern (Bankside, London SE1 9TG) on September 18. The screening is jointly presented by Tate Modern and the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival.