Radical nature, stories of water and minerals, portable ecologies, landscape as protagonist, portrait of a place, anthropocene dreams, geography and imagination.
Can a landscape be a protagonist? When ecology is acknowledged as a living entity, can a film of a place be considered a portrait? These are the questions illuminating internationally-acclaimed filmmaker Samantha Lang’s newly commissioned work Brown Lake. Shot on location at North Stradbroke Island in early 2021, this is a work of visual storytelling that teases then withdraws the conventions of environmental documentary.
Lang spent decades visiting the lake, a special and significant place for the law, country and culture of the Quandamooka people. Here, two great bodies of water, the Brown Lake and the Pacific Ocean, almost come together in a sub-tropical mix of tea tree oil and sand. Tourism and mining are the colonising industries. Mineral sands have been mined for decades to extract zircon (of value in engines, spacecraft and electronics), rutile (a brilliant white pigment), ilmenite (for paints, plastics, metals and cosmetics) and silica (for glass production). Mining leases cover more than half the island, with dredge mining the main method of extraction. And sixty percent of the local mainland water supply is drawn up.
Lang has worked across commercial and independent cinema for many years. Across these cinematic realms, filmmakers have often depicted the environment as a source of terror and fear in this country, but rarely – except in the work of Indigenous artists and their collaborators – in balance with human society. When she returned in early 2021, she expected to see depletion and exhaustion. The lake’s water levels have been dropping for years, and is it any wonder? Her intention was to make a story of an ecosystem with a great body of water at its centre, one that was threatened, mined and nearly abandoned.
But instead of ecological unravelling at Brown Lake, Lang found a story of regeneration. Mining had ceased on Stradbroke Island in 2019, and with tourism suspended for much of 2020 due to the pandemic, the lake had begun to replenish itself. It hadn’t taken long. Water levels were up. Life seethed. Reeds regrew. Bugs proliferated.
Lakes are solar heated and lunar powered. They always remember to go out and come in. They hold climate legacies: their sediments record information, natural archives of epochs past. Dust, charcoal from bushfires, dead insects, pollution, pollen, pulverised minerals and other detritus fall onto the surface and settle to the bottom. Where does a body of water – seeping into sand, fed by clouds in weather systems – begin and end?
Remember, almost all things are water. It’s distributed in the air, it sits on Saturn’s moon, it’s in subglacial lakes on Mars, in morning mist, in droplets of ocean spray, and it’s held in the cells of humans, plants and animals. “Water is something you cannot hold,” wrote the poet Anne Carson. It’s always on the move, a quality not recognised by the classic Western painting in its rectangular frame with static horizon line and still body of water.
Energised by a sense of natural elements as living forces and active entities, Brown Lake is one of a wave of Earth-centred artworks that aim to stop addressing nature and start merging with it. After all, extraction is more than an industrial activity. It’s a way of thinking, deeply embedded in our culture.
The idea of non-human perspectives in film and art may sound strange, until you consider its long history. A sentient ocean on a remote planet formed the impetus of the sci-fi classic Solaris by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky; the wind-blown leaves of the Douglas Firs in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s TV series Twin Peaks seemed to watch Laura Palmer and know her secrets; the ancient geological forms in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock were an active player in that film’s plotline. All these works escape the human condition, live imaginatively and see through other perspectives. Those perspectives are the story.
And now, Samantha Lang films the surface of Brown Lake the way she might film an actor’s face, but not before a hazardous montage of overhead satellite images show the way the land has been divided, mapped and monitored for conquest and ownership. Soon, the island’s noisy, invasive tourists are filmed like scuttling aliens, watched by indifferent lizards who are at home in the lake’s surrounds. Industrial capitalism is captured as something foreign. Through Lang’s askew, low-angle framing, we see a radical reimagining of the landscape – too often represented by artists as an inanimate object – as something that breathes and moves and lives. We see art and film in symbiosis with the ecosystems of this watery planet.
So much environmental art has spoken of dismal predictions, with nostalgia for a lost wilderness. But such dire visions might just reinforce the catastrophic Western notion of nature standing apart from culture. Have we fallen so far out of sympathy with this planet that we can’t imagine anything beyond degradation?
The work ends with a poem by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, who believed that through observing nature we understand our place in it and our responsibility to it. A poet from Stradbroke Island, Oodgeroo is one of our most significant poetic and political voices since the 1960s, bringing to light Indigenous ways of knowing country. In Brown Lake, ‘Dawn Wail for the Dead’ is performed by Oodgeroo’s great granddaughter Kaleenah Edwards. The poem contrasts Indigenous interaction over millennia, which privileged the lake as a place for women, with the destruction wreaked by those who stole this place. Through Oodgeroo’s wail, we get a different kind of human glimpse of the lake, and a reminder of what may be whitewashed if we only view places through limited Western sensibilities. Kaleenah Edwards has generously provided us with a translation of the poem, which we will publish on our website in the coming days.
Stradbroke Island is sandy country, tea tree country, occupied country. But it’s not spent. It is a hope, a vision, a place finding equilibrium.
Acknowledgement of Country: We pay respects to the Quandamooka People, the Traditional Custodians of the land and waters where this project was shot.
About Samantha Lang
Samantha Lang is a filmmaker who produces, directs and writes. Working in Australia, Europe and the US over the last 20 years, her films have screened at the Sundance, Toronto and Locarno film festivals, with her film ‘The Well’ (1997) competing at the Cannes Film Festival for the prestigious Palme D’Or.