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“Jungles, Earth, Mines, Ruins” ASLE 2015 Panel Review

2015 July 6
by Carter_Soles

At the ASLE Biennial Conference in Moscow, Idaho this year, I was quite happy to find that I could go from panel session to panel session seeing so many papers on film, visual media, video games, and the like. As Steve’s recent summary post and report on the Ecomedia Interest Group meeting make clear, 2015 was surely a watershed year for ecomedia studies at ASLE. Such exciting times!

China pollution

A still from Under the Dome, Chai Jing’s controversial 2015 documentary which Winnie Yee discussed in her ASLE talk on Chinese ecocritical photography. 

One of the most interesting panels I attended this year was “Jungles, Earth, Mines, Ruins: Representing Asian Environments in Cinema and Visual Media,” chaired by Kiu-wai Chu of the University of Hong Kong. This panel (designated E2 in the Conference Program) took place on Thursday, June 25 from 1:30-3:00pm and consisted of four presentations, discussed individually below.

As Kiu-wai made clear in his opening remarks, the panel’s over-arching goal was to address a gap in current ecomedia studies: discussion of non-Euro-American films and visual media. In an attempt to draw attention to cutting-edge work in Asian ecomedia studies, the “Jungles, Earth, Mines, Ruins” panel looked at the ways documentaries, fiction films, and still photography explore ecocritical themes in the works of key Asian visual media producers.


A 2005 photograph by Lu Guang. In her talk, Winnie Yee read Lu’s human subjects’ refusal to face the camera as a decentering of the human presence in Lu’s ecocritical photography. 

The panel’s first presenter, Winnie L.M. Yee (University of Hong Kong), discussed the work of Edward Burtynski and Lu Guang, two significant ecocritical photographers, in “Polluted Landscapes: Photographs of Post-socialist China by Edward Burtynsky and Lu Guang” [note: Winnie changed her title from the one printed in the program]. Her main argument was that Chinese photographer Lu’s work responds to and corrects Burtynski’s by creating images that emphasize the environmental costs of human behavior writ large while decentering individual human presences in the shots. For Winnie, if Burtynski’s work is seen as being an example of the Kantian sublime, Lu’s photographs provide an experience of the ecological uncanny, a more horrifying and less humanistic mode than Burtynski’s (toxic) sublime. Winnie elucidated this argument via some very sharp close readings of Burtynski’s and Lu’s photographs, including Lu’s eco-uncanny shot of sheep and a factory seen below.



UPDATE 7/7/2015: Winnie has provided the following links to Lu Guang’s works:

Works commissioned by Greenpeace (you shall find the little boy facing away from the camera as the cover of the album)

LuGuang_Polluted Landscape Cover

Works awarded by W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund

Website of Lu Guang


Alok Amatya (University of Miami) presented on Indian documentary cinema in “‘The Company has swallowed it’: Framing Indigenous Resistance to Corporate Mining in India.” Alok argued that Sanjay Kak’s Red Ant Dream (2013), while an important film for the ways it calls attention to India’s internal struggles over mining, fails to provide an insider perspective on these events and may serve to promote its filmmaker as much as it does the issues it purports to examine. Director Kak stays out of frame in Red Ant Dream, asking questions of his revolutionary peasant subjects from offscreen, yet this erasure of his physical presence from the film conveys the idea that what the viewer sees in Red Ant Dream constitutes neutral, objective reportage that achieves immediacy with its subjects.


Does director Sanjay Kak misrepresent the reality of Maoist and indigenous struggles with mining companies in India when he elides his own presence as interviewer in Red Ant Dream? 

In his talk, Alok asked: What if the film had been made by one of the actual participants in the Maoist resistance against Indian mining companies? What if Kak had shown himself interviewing participants, thereby “admitting” to his presence as an outsider who shaped viewer responses to events depicted via his interviewing and editing choices?



Kiu-wai Chu also questioned the critical impact of what viewers see in Jia Zhangke’s 2007 documentary Wuyong (Useless) in his talk, “Contemplating Soil: A Dialectical Ideological Eco-critique of Jia Zhangke’s Useless.” Deploying Andrew Hageman’s dialectical ideological critique methodology outlined in “Ecocinema and Ideology: Do Ecocritics Dream of a Clockwork Green?” (Ecocinema Theory and Practice, Routledge 2013, pp. 63-86), Kiu-wai analyzed Zhangke’s documentary techniques in order to ask questions about Useless‘ efficacy as (anti-)capitalist critique. Useless documents a project of the same name in which fashion designer Ma Ke buries various garments in soil for two years, then subsequently unearths them and displayis them as a high-end fashion line called “Useless.”

In his presentation Kiu-wai asked: Does Zhangke’s film achieve a critical distance that allows the viewer to seriously question Ma’s activities here? Is Zhangke so intrigued by the details of the fashion project that his film misses a chance to ask hard questions about the deeply problematic process of turning garments worn by the working poor into haute couture? Beyond these troubling questions, Kiu-wai was interested specifically in how immersion in soil created a new form of commodity, adding value, infusing these cast-away garments with new, highly commodifiable properties via their contact with the material reality of dirt. How and why does immersion in dirt connote “authenticity”? What is lost when this material connection to actual soil is packaged and commodified?

Finally, Jeffner Allen (Binghamton University, SUNY) gave an in-depth presentation on the theme of luminosity in the work of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul in “Effulgences: Decomposition, Particles in Motion, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Sonic Jungles.” Noting that Apichatpong is best known for his images of non-human animals, plant life, jungles, and the like, she explored the theme of light and effulgence in several of the director’s projects, including Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). Jeffner’s breadth knowledge of the Thai director’s work was impressive, and her close readings of individual frames from his films was engrossing.

At the end of her talk, Jeffner urged all of us to check out Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s information page on Animate Projects.


In conclusion, the panel on Asian Ecocinema chaired by Kiu-wai Chu approached this year’s ASLE conference theme of “Notes from Underground” in a particularly material, “grounded” way. The four panelists on “Jungles, Earth, Mines, Ruins: Representing Asian Environments in Cinema and Visual Media” discussed aspects of material culture (smog, pollution, dirt, water, light) as represented, problematized, and/or critically wrestled with in fiction films, documentaries, and still photography from mainland China, Thailand, and India. Beyond that, all four presenters supported their claims with keenly observed and sharply interpreted visual close readings of individual photos and screenshots, displaying a high level of formalist interpretive skill. It was a smart, stimulating, and entertaining panel and I hope we see more panels like this at future ASLE and ecomedia conferences.

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