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Will Steffen (left) and Roger Hillman (right). - click to view larger image
Will Steffen (left) and Roger Hillman (right)

Will Steffen

Will Steffen is the Executive Director of the Australian National University's Climate Change Institute and is also science adviser to the Department of Climate Change, Australian Government. Previously he worked at the Australian National University as the Director of the Fenner School of Environment and Society.

Will has also served as the Executive Director or the of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), based in Stockholm, Sweden, and before that as Executive Officer of IGBP's Global Change and Terrestrial Ecosystems project.

Roger Hillman

Roger Hillman is a Reader in the German Studies Program in the School of Language Studies and in the Film Studies Program in the School of Humanities at the Australian National University. His interests include European literature, European cinema, music and narrative.


Following the screening of Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of Balance Associate Professor Roger Hillman and Professor Will Steffen link the film's imagery and soundtrack to the concept of the anthropocene — the period over which human numbers and energy consumption have grown exponentially, producing anthropogenic environmental change.

Koyaanisqatsi: Life out of balance audio

Listen to Associate Professor Roger Hillman and Professor Will Steffen's discussion after the film screening.
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Presenters: Will Steffen, Director, Climate Change Institute, Australian National University and Roger Hillman, film historian, Australian National University

CAROLYN STRANGE: Well, that was a multi-sensory experience. As we promised at the beginning, we're bringing science and the arts together today in various ways, and that was one example. So now we do so by asking a scientist and a humanities scholar to provide responses to the film. After which, we'll open the floor to questions for a few minutes.

Associate Professor Roger Hillman teaches in Film Studies and German Studies here at the ANU. He'll be speaking first, followed by Professor Will Steffen who is Executive Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute. They'll both speak for about five minutes each on their impressions of the film, from their various points of expertise, and then we'll allow you to offer your comments and questions.

So, Roger, if you would like to begin please.

ROGER HILLMAN: Thanks, Carolyn. It's probably very apt for the film, we can't see human faces out there. We can see figures in a very dark landscape. I'll just touch briefly on two aspects of this film: firstly, the balance or relationship between the soundtrack and the images we're seeing; and secondly, a very brief potted film history, putting this film in some sort of context.

The soundtrack here, clearly, is crucial for this film, and it's a very different kind of a balance either to ethnographic film — although the images seem to be crying out for some sort of documentary approach — and also a very different balance to a standard feature film.

I think most ethnographic filmmakers would be suspicious of the use of mood music in the first place, let alone one that's a wall-to-wall soundtrack for the entire film, and yet that's the direction that many, at least, of these images are pointing us in.

In terms of feature films, of course, we're missing entirely here the two normally crucial levels of the soundtrack — dialogue, and for that matter ambient sound, natural sounds. So the overall sense is very much of a hermetically sealed off reality. I think that's an issue for the film, and I would be very interested to hear your own reactions to that aspect of it, apart from anything else.

It's as if the seething humanity we're seeing there is under the microscope of the camera lens, and it's neither emitting sounds, nor seemingly conscious of sound, and yet sound dominates.

A relevant category here, I feel, is that of — I think it was Steven Feld, the anthropologist, who coined this phrase — something like 'sonic territories'. The question arising from this, I think, use of sound in the Philip Glass soundtrack, is part of the loss of what makes humans human, their loss of any sense of sonic territories, something which they can identify with, in terms of a sonic landscape, a sense of being at home acoustically, et cetera.

Very briefly, what that balance takes us to in film history, I think, is silent cinema. Where, again, it was never silent, for a start, but it was free of dialogue, and it was free of ambient sound. So you had images, and you had a soundtrack which, frequently at least, could be varied. In other words, there weren't too many silent films that had a set soundtrack. It usually depended on the inclination of the honky-tonk pianist, or the full orchestra if you're in a New York cinema, on that particular night.

But there were exceptions to that. One interesting exception, I think, from the late 20s was Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Big City, which is not totally unlike this film, I think. The dramatic balance in silent cinema was similar to what we've got here, except for that fact of the soundtrack itself being interchangeable. Whereas, I don't think we could imagine anything replacing that. We might wish we could, at times, at parts of the film, but the Philip Glass soundtrack is obviously a crucial part of it.

Secondly, most of you will be too young for this, but I remember in the 50s, as a kid, finding a very impressionable experience in Cinerama. Some of the sort of approach to imagery here I think, is in that direction, of films that were coming out in the 50s and 60s in Hollywood, which basically were attempted nature documentaries, and above all, with that larger than life sense of the screen and the screen in interaction with particular sound effects.

The German filmmaker I'm reminded of, to a degree by this film, is Werner Herzog, which might sound very surprising, but a couple of Herzog's documentaries, actually made on both sides of this particular film, are not unlike this, the early, quite crazy Fata Morgana is very much a lament for civilisation, and what has happened to civilisation in relation to the natural landscape.

And a film made after this one, and perhaps even more striking, is his Lessons of Darkness, which has some of the most stunning visual images in the history of cinema, until one realises that what we're seeing is the burning oil wells of Kuwait in the first Gulf War, and that Herzog has persuaded a pilot to take him up above all this, and photograph it, as if it were his own private apocalypse. He has a very interesting soundtrack relating to that too, part of which is Wagner's Ring, which is particularly apt.

Philip Glass has made two other films, I think, worth mentioning alongside this one. I mean, he's set a whole number of films, but The Thin Blue Line about Randall Adams' fight for justice against the Texan legal system, has perhaps the best use of Philip Glass' music, because of this very quality of circularity, of going nowhere, matches in that film perfectly the Texan legal system. And so it almost is as sort of a sonic equivalent of what we're seeing on the screen.

Where Philip Glass I think also works extremely well is in the film The Hours, where the rapid repetitive quality creates a sonic editing device to link the lives of the three female leads in that film, and thereby span the historical eras that they represent.

The final point, I think, in this roving gaze across cinema history, has got to be digital cinema. That the effect of this ant heap of humans in time-lapse photography in particular, it's nearly always slow-motion or time-lapse. We very rarely see them in real-time. Points to, I think, what we've become far more familiar with film and digital images.

The name of your symposium, Violent Ends, in that sense, I think, is directed at humanity, at least as much as at the landscape.

I might leave it there. Thanks, Carolyn.

CAROLYN STRANGE: Thanks very much Roger. Will?

WILL STEFFEN: My perspective is obviously quite different coming from a science background. What I took home from the film, is it really picked up very well one of the phenomena that we're talking a lot about these days. That's the concept of the anthropocene — the fact that humans have now become so active and so large in numbers, that they are, in fact, rivalling or exceeding some of the great forces of nature. But in particular, there's an aspect of the anthropocene and the stage of the anthropocene, which that film, in fact, picks up perfectly, even before these concepts were developed in science. That is the concept of the great acceleration. The post-1950 absolute explosion of human numbers, human economic activity, technological activity, and so on.

I thought that film did a fantastic job of picking up the great acceleration, that is, what we could probably do in a hundred scientific papers published in Nature.

The things that it really captured were, one, human numbers. There were always many, many humans, even though it was basically set in one country. Even more importantly, was the freneticism of the activity, which is embodied in the word acceleration. I could show you any number of graphs that capture that, in terms of numbers and rates of change and so on, but he captured it beautifully, both in the music and in the images and the time-lapse of just the sheer freneticism of the activity of humans.

Roger pointed out another aspect which is really interesting. That's the sealed off feature. In the film, humans are virtually sealed off entirely from nature. There is a beginning sequence where we see a natural world, then we have a very, very short transition of some human dominated landscapes, of agricultural landscapes, and mining, and so on.

Then, almost the entire rest of the film is in an urban setting, urbanisation. So, I think this sealed off nature is important in two ways. It picks up the urbanisation, and the fact that a growing number of humans are now, in a way, sealed off from the natural world that supplies ecosystem services on which we depend. Part of that being sealed off is a loss of hands-on, day-to-day knowledge of what the natural world is really like.

It's interesting that if you look at urban areas, urban citizens, in general, are better educated than rural people. Many of them have taken ecology. Some of them have even taken ecology at the ANU, and universities like this. So they have a good textbook knowledge of how nature works, but we're losing the hands-on knowledge of people who live in nature day in and day out, and make a living more directly from nature. This is part of the sealed off nature, I think, that the film really picked up.

The last point I want to make, is the violent ends, the endings, the very foreboding ending that this film had. Most of the threats that were depicted in the film were human made threats, more directly against other humans. There was obviously the atomic weapon, there were all sorts of weaponry shown, and then there was the last image of a missile coming down.

It was a little bit before its time, probably. What it didn't really pick up, was the threat, simply of the numbers and the freneticism of humans, which is the threat we're seeing now. That's the threat of, not ashes falling from the sky, but many tiny gases being emitted from the surface going into the sky, which is one of the major threats, along with many others.

But I think that then captures the theme of this workshop on Violent Ends, and the last comment I'll make is that the types of changes you may trigger with such frenetic activity and such numbers of people, are so-called abrupt changes, non-linear changes in the Earth's system. Things that happen fast, and all out of proportion to what's driving them, and that, of course, brings you to a violent end.

So, I think, in a way, this movie obviously was some decades old, and in some regards, it was dated, but in some other ways, it's very timeless, because I think it's picked up some of the major trends that we see in the human enterprise today.

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