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Empathising With Animals: Non-Human Subjectivity In Documentary Film

Kooij, D (2020) Empathising With Animals: Non-Human Subjectivity In Documentary Film. Doctoral thesis, Liverpool John Moores University.

PhD thesis Demelza Kooij 20200311.pdf - Published Version

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This practice-based research explains how non-human subjectivity can be suggested in documentary film and identifies film techniques that allow a spectator to empathise with an onscreen animal. It argues that a spectator cannot be told to feel empathy, and instead should be offered an experience that allows them to practise empathy whilst watching and listening. Henceforth, both theory and practice explore how audience and onscreen animal can be connected in cinema and what the requirements are for a human spectator to relate to and embody the onscreen animal and its film world. The argument starts with the proposition that humans are not capable of fully portraying non-human subjectivity in documentary film, because any depiction will be an anthropomorphic interpretation of what that might be. However, there are films that do give a sense of non-human subjectivity, including those made in this research. To resolve this apparent contradiction, this study examines how the illusion of onscreen animal subjectivity is formed in the audience’s minds, how the audience empathises with the animal, and how a filmmaker can construct a cinematic animal that invites empathy. The thesis firstly offers a theoretical framework that outlines how humans have conceptualised human and non-human animals and how this has transformed over time. In describing what sharing a gaze with a non-human animal entails as per “The Animal That Therefore I Am” (Derrida, 1997) it demonstrates how dialectics help to access animal otherness. Furthermore, it argues that anthropomorphism and dialectics can be part of practices that decentralise the human subject and can put thinking such as ‘becoming-animal’ into action. In order to evaluate theoretical ideas and concepts, such as animal otherness, animal subjectivity, decentralisation of the human subject, and to see how they work in practice this research includes textual analyses of three documentaries made by other directors that have non-human protagonists, as well as the production of three short films: The View From Here (2012, Kooij), The Breeder (2017, Kooij), and Wolves From Above (2018, Kooij); and the longer film Wolfpark (2019, Kooij) where techniques were repeated and this film demonstrates how liminality can be visualised on screen. These analyses demonstrate that the six techniques for suggesting animal subjectivity in documentary film and provoking empathy are: depicting animals as breaking the fourth wall; anthropomorphising animals; juxtaposing humans against non-humans; the inclusion of abstractions and defamiliarisations that render the image otherworldly or unheimlich; avoiding didactic voice-over to stimulate imagination; and to allow for poetic or artistic interventions, rather than attempting to suggest non-human subjectivity with strictly observational or scientific means. Ultimately, the thesis celebrates (re)imaginings of actuality on part of the authored filmmaker, as it argues that artful interventions are the most effective way to express subjectivities of human and non-human animals, and encourage feelings of connection and sharedness through cinema.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Animals; documentary; film; empathy; environment; wolves; pets; wildlife; nature; filmmaking; practice; practice-based
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN1993 Motion Pictures
Divisions: Screen School
Date Deposited: 12 Mar 2020 12:14
Last Modified: 08 Nov 2022 13:59
DOI or ID number: 10.24377/LJMU.t.00012485
Supervisors: Lydia, P and Jo, C
URI: https://researchonline.ljmu.ac.uk/id/eprint/12485
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