Sunday, April 21, 2013

I loved this movie

This post was going to be the second of a two-part combination, the first being about a movie I hated. I’ve found myself procrastinating on that one, though, probably because I haven’t been much inclined this week to write about art that makes me angry, so I thought it would be a good idea to talk about the film I enjoyed first!

I was surprised at how much I liked this movie, since I’d gone into it with such high expectations. I’d wanted to see it since I first heard it was showing in New York, and seriously considered making the trip for the express purpose of catching it in the theater. I’m glad I didn’t, especially since as good as it is at 51 minutes it’s quite a short film. This is an entirely appropriate length, but I would have had a hard time justifying the time and expense to see something the length of a television show which I’d eventually be able to watch online.

While I had only the trailer and a couple of reviews to go on, I knew that it was 1) a political documentary 2) about the Cold War 3) featuring rabbits. Given this, I couldn’t conceive of any way I’d dislike it. So my high hopes looked to make some disappointment inevitable, but fortunately that wasn’t the case - I was delighted.

Rabbit is, on one level, a traditional animal fable – the director Bartek Konopka describes it as a work in the new “fairy tale-allegory-docu” genre. The music, narration, and occasional anthropomorphic elements* contribute to this reading. And it seems from what I’ve read – which isn’t that much, to be sure, since I can’t read the languages involved – that the filmmakers approach it primarily at this level: they mean to tell the human story through the device of the rabbits. And it works on this plane, using the story of the rabbits to examine the human politics of security, fear, and freedom.

Happily, though, it doesn’t seem to be possible today to make a traditional animal fable or allegory, and that’s probably especially the case in the medium of film. This is apparent in the fact that the reviewer in the Guardian felt compelled to ask the director if he’s a [ahem] “rabbit-lover.” Because the rabbits aren’t animated or particularly anthropomorphized,* and because the movie tells the story (even if all of the footage isn’t entirely authentic) of actual rabbits, you can’t easily look through them to humans – see them as a pure representation or symbol of human experience. Watching the close-ups of their faces, viewing their responses to frightening events, seeing them hiding together underground, it’s difficult to accept them as mere vehicles for the human story. On one hand, it’s difficult not to sympathize with the rabbits as rabbits and not just as anthropomorphized human stand-ins. On the other, it’s hard to avoid drawing connections between their rabbit experiences (of terror, curiosity, joy…) and those of human animals, thus helping us to understand our own experiences more fully.

Further, in documenting the treatment of rabbits by humans to illustrate the treatment of humans by other humans, the film can perhaps advance our thinking about the connection between the practices of and rationales for oppressing animals and the practices of and rationales for oppressing humans. This could lead to a better understanding of both, including of the forms of deception - and self-deception - that facilitate our perpetuation of and acquiescence in these systems.**

At yet another register, the film might have some genre-subverting qualities, calling into question both the nature documentary and the animal fable. The conventions of the nature documentary are upended in Rabbit. These documentaries are often constructed so as to erase both the documentarians’ presence and the wider human interactions with and effects on the wild animals filmed. (When humans are featured, it’s in the role of the sympathetic scientist and expert.) Putting disruptive and destructive human actions front and center, the movie reveals the nature documentary itself as in some sense a means of obfuscation and the erasure of domination.***

By upsetting some of its conventions, Rabbit could possibly challenge the ancient genre of the animal fable itself. The movie doesn’t hollow out the rabbits’ experience to deny them their independent existence. It questions humans (literally, I mean - they interview people) about their own actions toward the rabbits. It plays on double meanings that reveal shared identities, as when someone describes border guards shooting people “like rabbits.” This might possibly encourage people to think critically about the symbolic function of traditional animal fables. In some sense, they could be seen as the artistic “exploitation” of animals, used fictionally as mere human allegories and denied respect as beings independent of their usefulness to human narratives.

I have no idea how much of this was consciously intended by the filmmakers. It’s possible that it’s a subversive result that you could only get from an artist who’s sensitive to the effects of their artistic choices but isn’t intending to produce a work “about” animals or how we treat them. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. At worst, it’s a clever, original, and insightful political film.

*The movie’s weakest moments in my view are those in which the rabbits are most anthropomorphized, as when the narrator says that each rabbit family was provided an equal burrow. In contrast, they’re sometimes discussed in species-centric terms, like when they’re described as especially “timorous” (that’s a word you don’t hear often enough); this actually makes their shared qualities with humans far more visible than the anthropomorphic bits do.

**I’m reminded of the parallels between East German propaganda about happy, contented workers and the propaganda of the contemporary animal exploitation industry. (The film’s final scene, which I won’t spoil, leads to similar linkages and questions.)

***Hey, at least I’m not talking about “the human gaze.”

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