A picture postcard from the Grand Canyon. A topographical map of India. A T-shirt airbrushed with a gray wolf howling at the moon.
Most of us see more representations of nature than we do of the real thing. What that means is the focus of David Bernabo’s new essay-style documentary, “Wild Human.”
Bernabo, a multidisciplinary artist based in Pittsburgh, is an experienced filmmaker. Earlier documentaries have explored subjects as diverse as the history of the Mattress Factory art museum, Pittsburgh’s food industry, and (with journalist John Miller) life in a post-industrial small town in West Virginia.
For his next project, Bernabo said, he wanted to tackle climate change, but decided he didn’t have the resources or contacts. “Wild Human” still examines how people have impacted the earth, and asks what that bodes for the future. (Spoiler alert: Bernabo is not hopeful.)
“Wild Human” is part Western-states travelogue, part essay and, unexpectedly, part performance film, all unified by Bernabo’s understated voice-over narration. It opens with a high-angle shot of tourists swarming a national-park lookout platform in Bryce Canyon, in Utah: On the edge of a railed cliff overlooking a spectacular Western panorama, they leisurely stroll about in ball caps, taking photos and clutching take-out coffee cups. It’s a “normal” scene suddenly rendered weird: once-inaccessible wild grandeur domesticated for mass consumption.
If wilderness means land unaffected by humans, contends Bernabo, we don't really have any wilderness left. (Indeed, some experts think we’re in a new geological era inadvertently crafted by Homo sapiens, the Anthropocene.) The film’s seemingly oxymoronic title refers to the question of whether humans are part of nature – we are products of evolution after all – or something separate from it, an occupying force that degrades everything it touches.
The questions are heavy, but Bernabo’s approach is wry, even whimsical. Along with a few interview subjects (including Gavin White, of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy), “Wild Humans” features artists, musicians and dancers performing, or talking about how their craft relates to representations of nature. There are also ruefully amusing montages of “fail” videos, some of which suggest nature’s indifference to humanity. Bernabo also comments on the way people have personalized nature into an experience they can bring home with them.
That’s where the representations of nature come in. Bernabo references the concept of the "view from nowhere," reflecting our misleading belief that we are objective observers.
“Everybody has a very subjective view of whatever they're looking at,” Bernabo said. “And then you take that and you just extend it to postcards of a national park, a T-shirt, floral prints on your dress. Things like that. I think it's interesting how you stop noticing that it's coming from something that’s naturally created around you. And it's also kind of funny to talk about -- and it's kind of gruesome to talk about, when you talk about SeaWorld or zoos or things like that, that trap aspects of nature.”
“Wild Human” also detours into intellectual realms where people attempt to impose order on a chaotic world – via conspiracy theories, for example, but also our very economy, where we live beholden to abstractions like stock prices, which can rise even as the natural world they’re ultimately based on erodes. And with Anna Henson and Caroline Record, Bernabo explores what happens when virtual-reality artists can create their own worlds with, for instance, their own rules of gravity -- but still run up against cultural and technological barriers reflecting our tendency to use VR for violent gaming.
While no part of the world is untouched by human-caused phenomenon like climate change – and even plastic pollution -- Bernabo acknowledged there remain large swaths of basically untrammeled lands, even if they’re corralled inside national parks. However, in his narration for the film, he predicts almost in passing that the days of human civilization as we know it are numbered.
“I am a very optimistic person, but I'm pretty cynical about where the earth will be in the next 30 years,” he said. (In this, too, he’s got company.) Bernabo cites record rainfall in Pittsburgh, and the recent epic hailstorm in Guadalajara, Mexico. “You’re already seeing the climate being changed and you're seeing the impacts of that already, and there seems to be no political will to change course. So I think it's healthy to mentally prepare for change.”
“Wild Humans” receives its first two public screenings this week. Friday’s showing at the Mattress Factory requests a donation at the door. On Saturday, the Carnegie Museum of Art hosts a ticketed screening as part of the museum’s Moon Party (celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing). The Carnegie screening is followed by a discussion with Bernabo and other participants.