I sit next to Deborah Stratman watching the Finnish documentary Nedarma by Anastasia Lapsui and Markku Lehmuskallio. We’ve never met before. She warns me, ‘My film is very dense.’ At this point, I still haven’t seen Stratman’s Last Things and somehow the prospect of density fills me with relief; I wouldn’t have expected anything less from a film about rocks.
Nedarma feels almost like an epilogue to Deborah’s essay film. Perhaps it is because of our shared experience of watching it together. Or perhaps it is because Nedarma focuses on the northern nomadic tribe, the Nenets, whose chant of cosmology, rooted in deep layers of permafrost, links beautifully with Last Things’ journey into deep geological time.
Throughout the highs of the festival, I pay close attention to intervals. I purposefully long-blink during films, enjoy the vacuum and solace offered by the toilet cubicles, and feel the strange proximity of the waves that I can somehow still hear when I make my way back into the dark room for another screening.
I savour the feeling of anticipation. ‘It will all make sense once you‘ve watched the film, let’s talk then’, says Ilinca. Ilinca is the most attentive listener—there is such an intensity in the way she puts one word in front of the other. She talks about expansion of the self through film, most specifically listening, and her research on sound and posthumanism. She shares the treasure of arriving at a point of connection through her interest in ‘polytemporality’ but more deeply and unexpectedly, through her love of Clarice Lispector’s words, narrated on this occasion by filmmaker Valérie Massadian.
In one of the many revelatory moments of Last Things, geoscientist Marcia Bjornerud shares a vision of an expansive world glimpsed from her window:
‘I can see the evidence of glaciers that were here the other day, and beneath that is the bedrock and beneath are the roots of ancient mountain belts. So they are ghosts of the past still amongst us, and they are very real! I can walk into those times as if they are geographic spaces, that’s what I mean by a polytemporal world view.’
I thrive on Deborah’s fascination with the ‘writing’ embedded in rocks and the geologists’ ability to read the landscape’s varied grammar, though she makes it clear that she does not intend to speak on behalf of rocks or pretend to read them (she is learning!). Here, she paraphrases Marcia on an ingenious description of stone varieties:
‘Igneous rock is dramatic, explosive, daytime soap opera—sedimentary rock is the diarist, writing day by day—metamorphic rock is the essay writer. These were maybe originally sedimentary or igneous, but then they get crushed and moved around. They’ve travelled and they’ve been places. Maybe they have even had their past erased…’
This immediately makes me think of the terolinguistics, those involved in the speculative study of ‘more than human languages’, a delicate and delirious multispecies field of scientific knowledge practised by the many fabulators such as Ursula le Guin, Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, in whose work Deborah has found inspiration.
I sometimes cannot fully grasp the scope of Marcia’s matter-of-fact narration, struggling to switch between scales—this is perhaps the density to which Deborah was referring. But the film offers a surprisingly rhythmic symbiosis between the languages of sci-fact and sci-fi, the actual and the speculative: sometimes both exist in harmony, sometimes there is a brutal and awakening ‘gear shift’, and sometimes something completely new is born in the gaps between.
During the Q&A, Deborah talks about volvox (a genus of green algae), laughing. ‘There is a scene of green balls with mini little balls inside: those are volvox, they metabolize sunlight and produce oxygen because of the chlorophyll in them. Each sphere is actually a colony of individuals and they reproduce asexually via colony inversion. The big ball is the mama and the small balls inside are her daughters. At some point the daughters turn themselves inside out, so their flagella face outward, making them mobile. Then they bust out of mama shell. But you could also look at them drifting around and be like: those are cool green balls! You know, just appreciate them at face value.’
The film generously offers a multiplicity of voices, allowing the viewer to fall in with the narrative that resonates most. While I watch, I don’t feel the pressure of picking sides.
‘I hope you have, if not an out of body, certainly a multiple body experience.’
Illuminated by a spotlight—like a star—Ilinca introduces Stratman’s film to the packed cinema as if she were the captain of a space expedition, a move that couldn’t be more appropriate for the mind-bending journey that is Last Things.
‘This story takes place during a state of emergency and calamity. It is unfinished because it is still waiting for an answer.’
From the opening moments we are made aware that the film is not finite or a closed circuit, but rather porous, built on associative layering both metaphysical and grounded. A mysterious white shape appears and disappears in silence creating an after image, one of many visual and aural manipulations in the film.
The myriad of intensely satisfying colour images gives the film ‘a delicious candy snack’ appeal (Deborah’s words). The moment the voice of the geoscientist acquires a storytelling quality, she speaks of the peach/earth analogy, which makes me salivate.
We swim in infinite fractal forms growing and propagating beyond the frame, some beautifully captured by a Bolex camera screwed directly into a microscope in a way that feels alien and terrestrial at the same time. The experience is almost spiritual when married to the sound, an experience of seduction and magnetism.
Ilinca invites us to think of (and with) sound as something that is not separate from everything else. Whether it’s the sound of Deborah’s heartbeat, the real whispering of the sun’s magnetosphere, or the extraordinary chords of Okkyung Lee, the film renders audible the sounds of geological memory.
These sounds feel strangely familiar, almost as if the film is acting as a catalyst to re-experiencing something that is already in the fabric of our cells. ‘I know about lots of things I’ve never seen. And so do you,’ says the ghostly and grainy voice of Valérie Massadian.
‘The connections are not obvious or immediate. You can do your own wandering with so much freedom,’ says Ilinca. We talk about afterthoughts and building our own constellations. She talks about patterns that she is naturally drawn to, in this case a surprising scene in which a group of people hold mirrors to reflect sunlight straight into the camera lens. The ‘star people’.
‘That scene reminded me of something. I didn’t know what at first but it is this photograph by Robert Frank that I sort of always carry with me. There is a group of children on a beach at night and they are holding sparklers. I call those little stars, in Romanian, steluțe.’
Languages again. One of the feelings that invades me through the film is that of inexplicable and beautiful sadness. I wonder if the sadness is prompted by the prospect of catastrophe and vast silence, a vulnerable planet that has not yet been murdered.
‘The film came from my own anxieties and low grade, constant trauma about the extinction we are in the midst of… and so it does carry that grief with it. I think I am not the only one feeling it’, says Deborah.
Last Things is an ecological film at its core, promoting what Anna Tsing calls the ‘arts of noticing’, the way the human appears uncentred as a teller but not discredited from the narrative in its queerness and ability to put vast scales into intimate contact. Mainly, Deborah extends to us a beautiful offering, the tool of polytemporality, without of course an instruction manual.
Very aware of our own restricted and embedded sense of temporality and recognising that we probably cannot and will not be able to understand rock time, Deborah still invites us to think like geologists. ‘If we are able to write science fiction’, she says, ‘maybe we can also imagine other times and other temporalities that are not ours.’
I am left with a sense of hope rather than despair. Deborah brings us back to our ‘pathetic’ human bodies towards the end, but I am thinking maybe it is time for us to let the rocks do their work, just as the ferromagnetics feeding from the blood of humans do in J-H Rosny’s novel The Death of the Earth.
On the train home, I am struck by the relevance of this paragraph from Olga Tokarzcuk’s book Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead:
‘It is clear that the largest things are contained in the smallest. At this very moment, as I write, there’s a planetary configuration on this table, the entire Cosmos if you like: a thermometer, a coin, an aluminium spoon and a porcelain cup. A key, a mobile phone, a piece of paper and a pen. And one of my grey hairs, whose atoms preserve the memory of the origins of life, of the cosmic Catastrophe that gave the world its beginning.’
I am a terrible stenographer so I carry a basic zoom recorder around to record my conversations during the festival and somehow this object also becomes a fourth character in this review:
‘I want to say for the record that I have very few audio recordings of my voice. Or at least not of this magnitude. The other one I can remember is from when I was 3 years old. My father asked me to talk to Ilinca from the future. I went really close to the microphone and said (dramatic pause), ‘Ilinca, (laughter) hello?’. She doesn’t hear me, as if somehow I was there at the other end too.’
Ane Lopez is an artist from Spain living in Glasgow. Ane works as the Programme Facilitator of the Glasgow-based artist-run initiative Market Gallery, and is the co-founder of A+E, a collective of artists working together towards a playful post-oil vision. Ane has recently collaborated with film festivals such as Take One Action and Femspectives as an artist and programmer. She is also a board member of Document Human Rights Film Festival.
Artist and filmmaker Deborah Stratman makes work that investigates issues of power, control, and belief, exploring how places, ideas, and society are intertwined. She regards sound as the ultimate multi-tool and time to be supernatural. Recent projects have addressed freedom, surveillance, public speech, sinkholes, levitation, orthoptera, raptors, comets, evolution, extinction, exodus, sisterhood and faith. She has exhibited at venues including MoMA NY, Centre Pompidou, Hammer Museum, Witte de With, Tabakalera, Austrian Film Museum, Whitney Biennial and festivals including Sundance, Berlinale, CPH/DOX, Viennale, Locarno, Yamagata, and Rotterdam. Stratman lives in Chicago where she teaches at the University of Illinois.
Ilinca Vânău is a curator, researcher and artist living in Edinburgh. She has worked with programming teams at Cork International Film Festival and Edinburgh International Film Festival. With BFMAF, she has taken part in the Early Career Critics Workshop and the Berwick Young Programmers scheme. She is currently working on a PhD project in Film Studies at the University of St Andrews, researching sound and posthumanism in recent moving image works made by women filmmakers and artists.
Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival (BFMAF) is an artistically ambitious organisation for new cinema and artists’ moving image based in North Northumberland on the English border with Scotland. A work in progress, leading through collaboration, it has a resolute commitment to the mutual development of the artists, audiences, filmmakers and programmers that make the festival possible.