In Awe, Against Gravity, and Speculating An Unstable World in Climate Breakdown

September 27, 2022, 3:19pm

by Diana Rahim

In the current era of climate emergency, how can the visual medium be used to consider nature and the environment anew? How can film be used to explore and mend the rift that has alienated humans from mother nature and created such tremendous, even irreversible damage? In SKYLiGHT, Makes This World Live Young Again, and New Normal, we see three short films with different approaches in their consideration of, and response to, nature and the environment. From the reverent, the didactic, to the speculative and exploratory.

SKYLiGHT (2022)

In SKYLiGHT, we are brought into a meditative visual experience that invites a re-enchantment with celestial bodies. The film opens into a sepia landscape with the sheen of sultry fog that constantly hangs over the tropics. Humans and structures alike are made inconsequential and are relegated to the shadows as the sun and the moon take centrestage.

Image still from SKYLiGHT (2022), dir. Yeo Wee Han

The Changi Airport control tower is almost unnoticeable against a massive rising sun. Tiny indistinguishable humans play in the shadows, occupying the same visual profile as comparatively huge buildings and structures. Everything that enters the frame is isolated sonically, and we hear with isolated clarity a single flag flapping in the wind, the heavy downpour of rain, the pure chirping of birds and the deep soundscapes of a forest.

SKYLiGHT is almost primitive in how it evokes awe through paring it down to the essentials, paying attention only to the bodies that exist in slow, deep time. After all, many of our ancient ancestors who did not have the absolute and destructive control of nature we do today, regarded the sun and moon with such reverence that they were the objects of worship.

The symbols of modernity in the form of constant construction, the perpetual presence of cranes begin to grate in how they inhibit a proper view of the celestial bodies.  As SKYLiGHT progresses, man-made structures of national pride like the Helix bridge and the Singapore Flyer come into view, though they stand no chance with the colossal moon in the sky.

Image still from SKYLiGHT (2022), dir. Yeo Wee Han

The philosopher Theodor Adorno had posited that the human’s desire to dominate nature along with the hubris that nature has been fully understood, has created distance between nature and humans. This is the process of disenchantment that we experience in the modern world. For this reason, SKYLiGHT’s decision to render massive man-made structures are visually inconsequential compared to the gargantuan sun and moon can be seen as an attempt of re-enchantment with nature—to render the objects of our modernity and hubris inconsequential compared to the timeless celestial bodies we barely regard with even a shred of awe today.


Make This World Young Again (2021)

The scene opens to the sound of electronic drum presets, bright colours, an animated ivory-white Merlion perpetually shooting water from its mouth, a scenic park and its pond, an anthromorphosised insect directing the camera at the viewer and an array of Polaroids in tourist sites across the world: the Eiffel Tower, Mount Fuji, and Singapore’s Merlion. In this way, Singapore is presented as one of the global cities of a precious world that needs saving.

Still from Makes This World Live Young Again (2021), dir. Richard Wan Kum Wah

The kitsch music video of the “edutainment” genre is not only reminiscent of children’s sing-along videos, but also didactic songs meant to be instructional for young ones. If there is a climate emergency we are dealing with, the complexities and its difficulties are not explained, in fact the problem is explained as “mother nature is feeling ill and blue” and the solution required seems to be “love” and actions that “come right from the hearts [sic]”.

Scenic images of the future that is desired, a utopian one that is lush, green and where the problem of climate collapse is averted is presented as the goal. To reach this goal, the viewer is asked to make a series of choices. Throughout the music video, in order to avoid the fate of the anthropomorphic ants struggling to stay afloat in floods, suffocating in air pollution, and living in barren landscapes ruined by savage heat, huge Xs and ticks provide a simple guide: choose a paper bag instead of a plastic bag, discard hazardous waste properly, use an electric car. In sum, the tactic is explained through the slogan: “Let’s Go Green”.

Still from Makes This World Live Young Again (2021), dir. Richard Wan Kum Wah

Educational efforts around the theme of individual consumer choices have been done before, and of course, we are still heading towards climate catastrophe. One wishes that the easy choices presented through a series of Xs and ticks will be enough, but we know it’s going to need far more transformative solutions.

New Normal (2021)

In a bare black and white landscape, a young woman walks into frame. As her face eventually fills up the screen, the camera pans and reveals a young man viewing the scene on his wall. He shuts the projector and walks out, finding himself thrown to the ground after being struck by raindrops that pierce through his umbrella. Steadying himself, he looks up to see the young woman from the movie he was watching. In New Normal, the year is 2025 and gravity on earth changes moment by moment. Gravity, one of the fundamental laws of nature, is upended. Naturally, such a world is rendered chronically unfamiliar and unstable.

In what we consider to be “real life”, women do not simply walk out like they do in the movies. Yet in a world where natural laws are upended, many of the strange things that happen do not feel out place.

New Normal can be considered to be of the speculative fiction genre, Robert A. Heinlein had provided a definition of it as a subset of the science fiction genre, detailing speculative fiction as:

“[N]arratives concerned not so much with science or technology as with human actions in response to a new situation created by science or technology, speculative fiction highlights a human rather than technological problem.”

Throughout the short film, the protagonists go through doors to find themselves in unfamiliar places and unsettling situations. The young man especially is constantly confused, finding himself distressed and lost, calming down only when he is met with the young woman we first see in the black and white film.

Still from New Normal (2021), dir. Chul Heo

The human action response to this new situation of a gravity-unstable world, then, is one where finding each other is comfort and cure in an unstable world. When he is first struck with piercing raindrops, she provides him with a “gravity safe” umbrella. At the end of the film, as gravity changes yet again to “-20”, he is provided with a safety cap. The visual effects are undeniably alluring in the final scene, as raindrops seem to gravitate upwards, as does a slim lock of her hair.

Only one line is ever said in the film, and it is uttered as the music crescendos. The young man declares quietly: “The 25th hour is coming” and they stare as the top section of Marina Bay Sands is lifted off the three towers of hotels. It is not space, but time itself too that has experienced an upending. But while the short first began with him alone and looking into the spectacle of film, it ends with him having human company that had provided him safety.

Still from New Normal (2021), dir. Chul Heo

Conclusion

Though all three shorts are markedly different, they present three different approaches to a world that is increasingly becoming destabilised by the climate emergency. SKYLiGHT returns to the basic, fundamental emotion of awe, one that is almost spiritual in its approach in appreciating timeless celestial bodies. Make This World Young Again is decidedly practical in comparison, in its call for individuals to take actions in their everyday lives that may help to bring the healing we so desire. Yet where SKYLiGHT and Make This World Young Again differ is how Singapore’s status as a global city is regarded. While Make This World Young Again depicts Singapore’s company with other global cities as point of pride and as a further boost in the call for global cooperation, in SKYLiGHT, Singapore’s concrete infrastructure, including our ports and commercial buildings that make us a node in a global network of capital, aren’t particularly the main point of the short. In fact, in re-enchanting celestial bodies, it necessarily would (whether deliberately or not) refuse the disenchantment of modernity and the human race’s obsession with capital accumulation and growth at the expense of the environment—the very thing that has led to our climate breakdown. New Normal as a speculative short is infused with the foreboding aura of instability that we currently inhabit, but as with many speculative works, it also explores the possibilities that can manifest when basic foundational laws are upended.


About the Writer

Diana Rahim is a writer, editor and visual artist whose current pre-occupations include the politics of public space and the experience of the environment. Her recent work has been published in Making Kin: Ecofeminist Essays from Singapore, Singa-Pura-Pura: Malay Speculative Fiction from Singapore and exhibited in group shows by Singapore Art Museum and Singapore Art Week.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Film Archive.