Anthropomorphize This!

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The Lives of Animals, a program of innovative documentaries curated by The Flaherty, screened in March and April at New York City's 92YTribeca.

In Theory of Religion, Georges Bataille attributes the difference between animals and humans to the idea that animals live in a state of immanence, in continuity with the world, without self-consciousness, subscription to limits or conceptions of the future.

A recent series of screenings at Flaherty NYC series, The Lives of Animals: Speculative Empathy, attempted to turn this notion on its head by either imagining how animals may come to possess these human attributes or, more radically, how we, as humans, can think beyond this difference.

The New York City series, an offshoot of The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, took place at the 92YTribeca. You can read our preview of Flaherty NYC.

The short films in the Speculative Empathy program included animator Jim Trainor’s Moschops (2000), Harmony (2004) and The Magic Kingdom (2002) and artist Nancy Andrews’s On a Phantom Limb (2009) and Behind the Eyes are the Ears (2010). The animals, creatures and phantoms in their collective works do not subscribe to the reductive anthropomorphism found in some nature documentaries or in Disney’s animated films. Jim Trainor was even once called “the Walt Disney of sexual anxiety.”

In Harmony, animals reveal their Christian guilt. A hyena, a lion and a chimpanzee admit to murder and abuse, while dolphins come across as jarring in their confessions to rape (“We raped her… We couldn’t not do it any more than we could remove the built-in smiles from our faces, which in turn is not to say that we were not happy, which is not to say that we were not weirdly happy all the time.”).

Watch Jim Trainor’s Moschops (in two parts):

Putting these animal behaviors in the language of human transgressions chips away at the familiar representations of moral animals in popular films. The dolphins’ confession is negated, in part, as it resorts to a claim that they exist as is — there is no meaning to ascribe to their perpetual smile. One should not imbue meaning into a dolphin’s actions, but one should also not be blind to the dark and instinctive side of Flipper either.

In Moschops, a dino-like female cooly reminds us of the animal’s nature: “We didn’t love each other exactly, but at night we all slept together in one big, stupid pile.”

It is similarly the lesson put forth by Werner Herzog in Grizzly Man, where his narration foreshadows Timothy Treadwell’s death as footage shows Treadwell becoming increasingly chummy with the bears. Treadwell, after successfully rebuffing aggression by an older grizzy boasts, “I know the language of the bear.” Herzog lingers on this shot and poses that this may have been the bear that killed Treadwell.

One can only speculate, not know the language of animals. It is perhaps with this logic that in Trainor’s most observational piece in the series, The Magic Kingdom, he abstains from the explicit voiceover narration that forms the dark humor of his two strictly animated pieces.

"Behind the Eyes Are the Ears" by Nancy Andrews

The Nancy Andrews film "Behind the Eyes Are the Ears" screened at Flaherty NYC at 92YTribeca in March 2012.

If Trainor is interested in mapping unique human subjectivities on animals, then Andrews’s work is interested in placing the distinctive sensory realities of animals onto humans. Her work, which explores human humility, nicely succeeds Trainor’s forays into guilt and the limits of knowing.

The two also serve as a nice juxtaposition in their differences. Andrews is more explicit in her desire to explore beyond animal-human dualisms to highlight hybridity through phenomena such as phantom limbs.

On a Phantom Limb is an autobiographical, mixed-media film that brings together animation, photography, a musical score and archival footage and examines the director’s battle with a life-threatening condition. Within the film, the surgical procedure that saves the protagonist’s life also partly transforms her into a bird. This is visually symbolized throughout by the Dadaist assemblages showing birds with animal parts, and vice versa.

In the post-screening Q&A, Andrews cites the bird “as a mythological surrogate or avatar that helps us transcend Earth.” She noted that films such as Bride of Frankenstein and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes were inspiration for her shorts, but her films also undoubtedly take up Donna Haraway’s “cyborg manifesto” to embrace the lived contradictions and subjective multiplicities of the self and body.

Nonetheless, in all of their musings, both Trainor and Andrews’s work end on an ambivalent note on the nature of existence. The male moschop in Moschops upon his death reflects, “Nothing on earth has the right to live, only a chance.” On a Phantom Limb reminds us by the end, “We are each condemned to contemplate our skeleton.”

The Flaherty NYC: The Lives of Animals series ran at the 92YTribeca in March and April 2012. Find out more about the series and future events at

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Kapish Singla
Kapish Singla is a Winter 2012 intern with POV Digital. He has previously interned at Cinereach and Rooftop Films. He holds a bachelor's degree from Wesleyan University in anthropology.
  • Dave Mikol

     Good to see his work in
    progress. It’s remarkable that he has two very different impressions of
    our flag on opposite walls. And that the viewer must walk thru the
    narrow hallway, and is actually caught up in the experience. Go Dominic!

  • Tracy Droz Tragos

    I so much appreciate the thoughtfulness of this article – and indeed, as one of the filmmakers of RICH HILL, we are in the midst of executing on just such a proposal. Many organizations and
    influencers with whom we are aligning have told us straight up that they appreciate that our film does not have a specific “ask,” and that we might ultimately be more effective – however these things get measured – because of that. Happy that there is this conversation. Tracy

  • A.G. Vermouth

    I appreciate your perspective and the question you’ve posed. However, I’d go so far as to say the “social issue” docs you speak of are most often closer to being “poverty porn,” and “art docs” like “Rich Hill” and “Pine Ridge” actually end up being less exploitative of their subjects, as those subjects’ stories are not manipulated with a paternalistic POV.

    Having produced both “art” docs and series of grant-funded films for large poverty NGOs, I’d have to say your definition of “poverty porn” here is a bit misplaced. In my experience, “poverty porn” is just as you’ve described above in your sixth paragraph: those docs that feature the barefoot children of the developing world, usually unsmiling with bloated bellies, tears in their eyes, and a VO that puts whatever English words into their mouths that a producer deems appropriate…. usually to sell an audience on donating money to a cause. THAT’s “poverty porn” in my book, and it’s a long-running trend I, for one, have tried to reverse in my filmmaking by instead using the genuine voices of the subjects to tell their own stories.

    Looking at the list of favorite docs in your bio, I’d have to say only two of the five are “social issue” docs. The other three are “art” or “biographical,” and as such strike me as apolitical. The other two, though very well crafted, were the ones that raised my ire at the exploitation of their subjects, and manipulated viewers to indignant or maudlin tears. In fact, I think Andrew Jarecki probably became more obsessed with Jesse Friedman’s cause after having to defend accusations that his film misrepresented the facts in order to further his cause. I happen to think Jesse Friedman is innocent, and that the Nassau County employees in the film display a willfully ignorant mob mentality, but isn’t that just the film guiding my perceptions? And should it be my place as a viewer to judge a situation from one particular POV—that of a filmmaker WITH a cause? Me? I’d rather look at honest art.