'To Instill a Love for Them': Plant Cinematography and Botanical Ethics (ASLE Ecomedia)

'To Instill a Love for Them': Plant Cinematography and Botanical Ethics (ASLE Ecomedia)

PLEASE NOTE: due to copyright considerations, most film clips are not embedded in the video. To view the clips:

At minute 08:05, please visit the link: www.aparchive.com/metadata/youtube/08419a30038e4da796b515153daa401f#

At minute 11:31, please visit the link:
www.acpillsburyfoundation.org (especially from 02:42:00 to 03:06:00)

At minute 16:42, please visit the link:
(especially the first minute).

Written and narrated by David Attenborough, and released in 2012, the documentary ‘Kingdom of Plants’ 3D was filmed over one year at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. It incorporated advances in time-lapse cinematography and other techniques, such as infrared, to render the lives of plants visible to viewers. The audience metamorphosed into active participants when, for instance, tablets could be employed to accelerate and reverse flowering, as part of the documentary project. A review of the film in ‘The Guardian’ implies the aptness of time-lapse to expressing the particular beingness of plants, commenting that ‘it’s only when you speed them up that they reveal their true nature’.

Notwithstanding its technical chic, Attenborough’s documentary can be regarded as a relatively recent incarnation of the more-than-100-year-old lineage of ‘plant cinematography’ (Petterson 2011, 90) within the broader context of the ‘environmental documentary’ tradition (Duvall 2017; Hughes 2014). Most notably, the British naturalist and filmmaker Frank Percy Smith innovated time-lapse techniques in landmark documentaries such as ‘Birth of a Flower’ (1910) and ‘The Germination of Plants’ (1911), becoming one of the first cinematographers to record the opening of a bud. Moreover, in 1912, the photographer Arthur Clarence Pillsbury produced a time-lapse film to advocate the protection of Yosemite wild flowers threatened with extinction. Pillsbury aimed to ‘instill a love for them, a realization of their life struggles so similar to ours, and a wish to do something to stop the ruthless destruction of them’.

Invoking theorizations from the field of critical plant studies (for example, Marder 2014), this paper will examine the extent to which contemporary botanical cinematography promotes ethics through its mediation of vegetal life. An ethical regard for plants—one grounded in scientific principles of vegetal intelligence—provides a countermeasure to the aestheticization of flowers. In developing my analysis, I will refer to prominent examples of botanical documentary filmmaking of the last thirty years, including ‘The Birth of a Flower’ (1910), ‘The Wildflowers’ (1912), ‘Our Botanical Biosphere’ (1990) and ‘Kingdom of Plants’ (2012).

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