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Jessica Sarah Rinland’s hands-on conservationist cinema

The avant-garde documentarian explores the interplay between natural and unnatural worlds in two recent films now streaming on MUBI.

British-Argentinian director Jessica Sarah Rinland’s films don’t approach nature on its own terms. Unlike other nature documentarians, she’s more interested in the ways humans take care of the wild world and the de-naturalization inherent to that process. Fitting for a filmmaker who won the Arts & Science award at the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 2014, the subjects of her films are often plants, animals, and artifacts. Disembodied hands of scientists act as supporting characters and subtextual cues as they sneak into frame. MUBI is hosting two such films this month—Black Pond (2018) and Those That, At A Distance, Resemble Another (2019)—with each finding a sweet spot between the art house and schoolhouse.

Black Pond focuses on the land maintained by the Elmbridge Natural History Society outside of London. While scientists speak about the plants and animals native to the region, Rinland’s colorful still 16mm photography blends with historical photos of the land in a way that makes the film feel outside time. Between past and present, the landscape has minimally changed. Records show it was occupied for a time in the 1600s by The Diggers, a proto-anarchist political dissident group. This historical connection to some of the earliest recognized agrarian socialists roots the film in a vaster conversation about the shift in Western environmentalist movements from radical to mainstream.

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MUBI’s other Rinland selection, Things That, At A Distance, Resemble Another (2019), is similarly focused on scientists who work with collections of natural and historical artifacts. The professionals profiled are all involved in the process of either restoring or fabricating materials, and the film’s central gambit is to move so fluidly between the two that the real and the fake become inseparable. The film’s main “character,” as such, is a chipped elephant tusk that goes through numerous rounds of cleaning, sculpting, and smoothing to create a pristine final product. Showing that the art of preservation sometimes involves reverting a natural thing to such a pure state as to render it completely unnatural, Rinland interrogates what it means to maintain a version of the natural world that may have never existed.

However, Rinland seems more optimistic and reverent of these practices than the aforementioned suggests; she features her own hands doing ceramics work in Those That, At A Distance… The film’s final image is foreboding nonetheless; with its restoration complete, a 3D-rendered version of the elephant tusk spins slowly in mid-air, calling to mind an item inventory screen in an early 3D video game. The image is startling, if only for being a clear departure from the warm celluloid-based images that make up the rest of the film. But the sudden intrusion of the digital is the logical progression of a film that also features laser-cleaning of dirt from an elephant tusk. No matter how “true” the physical process of capturing images on film, it’s still an elaborately constructed human invention that creates a copy of reality.

In taking the film in conversation with Black Pond, Rinland is clearly fascinated with the point at which the natural becomes unnatural through human conservation. Even the overtly environmentalist work of the Elmbridge Natural History Society can be bogged down in technicality, studying, and demystifying the natural world to the point where the land is more like a zoo with invisible walls, or a Baudrillardian copy of nature.

Although Black Pond takes this on more directly, both films are also haunted by the specters of those who used to inhabit the worlds we preserve. The Diggers, in particular, lend a political subtext to Rinland’s work; early agrarian socialists (as well as the Indigenous peoples whose artifacts are being handled in Those That, At A Distance…) used the land symbiotically, and they recognized a human role in an ecosystem that was both sustainable and sociopolitically necessary. Regardless of the quality of work, a nationally-backed government body now specifically tending the land to prevent excessive human interaction feels ironic with this framing. But Rinland is careful to still recognize the necessity of the work. It is not environmentalists’ fault that the safest way to engage with the world happens to be with gloves on. Rinland’s keen ability to explore this historical ambiguity through beautiful imagery makes her films necessary viewing.

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