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Dreaming the Environmental Crisis

Anna Henry

Department of Anthropology, McGill University, Canada.

Abstract    Dreaming the Environmental Crisis immerses the viewer in seven dreams that touch on the question of human impact on the environment. Through these dreams, the film questions our representations of the environmental crisis and explores other ways of imagining and narrating it. 


Résumé     Le film Dreaming the Environmental Crisis propose de s’immerger dans sept rêves qui touchent à la question de l’environnement et de notre impact sur ce dernier. À travers ces rêves, le film interroge les modes de représentation de la crise environnementale et propose d’explorer d’autres manières de l’imaginer.

Keywords   dreams; environmental crisis; sensory ethnography; ethnographic film


Film     2022; digital; 14min22s


Many studies conducted in the anthropology of dreaming showcase the importance that dreams can play in making sense of the social and the political (Galinier et al. 2010; Mageo 2003; Mageo and Sheriff 2021; Tedlock 2001). Lived social and political realities can also be echoed in some people’s dreams (Beradt 1968; Sliwinski 2017). Yet, dreams sometimes evade the realm of word-based knowledge by conveying an embodied and sensory form of information. Because of their focus on the senses and on non-written ways of knowing, the methodologies of sensory ethnographies and of ethnographic filmmaking can attend to and convey this form of embodied knowledge (Boudreault-Fournier 2017; MacDonald 2004; MacDougall 2006; Taylor 1996). This film aims to explore how the environmental crisis might be reflected in dreams through the method of sensory ethnography.


Because of its ubiquitousness and accessibility, film is a powerful medium to communicate ideas to large audiences (Dodds 2008). Yet, mainstream cinematic representations of environmental destructions (e.g., Hollywood apocalyptic films) tend not only to reproduce and perpetuate a romantic and Western-centered view of the environment but also to foster an alarmist and anxiety-provoking narrative of the environmental crisis (Gergan, Smith and Vasudevan 2020; Ingram 2004). By coining the notion of ‘slow violence’, Rob Nixon challenges this very representation of environmental disaster as a spectacular apocalypse and argues rather that environmental destruction often operates at a much slower pace and is rendered invisible because it most prominently affects marginalized communities (Nixon 2011). In the case of filmmaking, Scott MacDonald argues in favor of an ‘ecocinema’ that would allow viewers to pay a different kind of attention to the environment thanks to the use of ‘eco-cinematic longshots’ (MacDonald 2004; MacDonald 2022). According to him, ‘eco-cinematic longshots’ such as the ones used in Gottheim’s Fog Line (1970) or in Hutton’s Time and Tide (2000), enable viewers to become “devoted not to the consumption of image and action, but rather to the transformation of our way seeing the world around us and providing an instigation for our living more thoughtfully within it” (MacDonald 2022, 38). In my own film, working with very long shots (the shortest shot of the film is 1’02” long and the longest lasts for 3’07”) allows me to question the spectacle-driven and alarmist representations of the environmental crisis and to propose a slower, more contemplative way to think about this issue. As every shot of the film matches the account of one person’s dream, very long shots also allow the viewer to focus on the voice of each dreamer and to pay as much attention to the images on screen as to the images conveyed through the narration of the dream. Finally, limiting visual overload by presenting these longshots in black and white colour scale leaves space for the auditory component of the film to take on its full significance. Diana Allan argues that meanings emerge from oral narratives as much from the word-based content itself as from the extra-linguistic and performative aspects of stories (Allan 2018). In the film, repetitions, hesitations, silences, as well as the voices’ textures, intonations and inflexions say as much about the dream as the oneiric images themselves. 


When I first started looking for participants who would be interested in this project, I didn’t think that many people dreamt about the environmental crisis, or at least remembered these dreams. However, after talking to many friends and acquaintances, I realized to what extent I was mistaken. For the purpose of this film, I listened to approximately 25 dreams, recorded 15 of them, and used 7 dreams in the final product. Even though I tried asking people ranging from many ages and backgrounds, most environmental dreams that were shared with me belonged to young people. I would not be able to say if this is because younger generations are aware of the crisis in a more embodied and visceral way or if this might be explained by the fact that most people I spoke with were my friends and thus, as I am, concerned about environmental issues and comfortable sharing disturbing dreams with me. I was also surprised by the diversity of emotional registers conveyed in the dreams: whereas I had been having mostly nightmares about the environmental crisis (which were probably linked with my eco-anxiety), many dreams that were shared with me had an unexpectedly playful, amazed, and sometimes hopeful tone. 


Many scholars from various disciplines have emphasized the need to explore new ways of imagining and narrating the Anthropocene by focusing on multiplicity, relationality, and storytelling when thinking about the environmental crisis (Ejsing 2022; Escobar 2018; Houston and Vasudevan 2018). Making this film allowed me to listen to many people’s stories and dreams, thus creating a relationship with them through the practice of dream sharing. Listening to one dreamer’s experience of loneliness on a red plastic beach, to the irritation generated by individually wrapped pineapple pieces, or to the beauty of a purple sky slowly falling also forced me to attune to different ways of imagining the environmental crisis. These imaginaries were not necessarily made of spectacular tornados and dangerous oil spills, but rather embedded in a slower, intimate, and more complex kind of violence. 



This work wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Critical Media Lab. I would like to thank deeply Lisa Stevenson, Philippe Léonard, the Sensory Ethnography class of 2022, and all the dreamers who agreed to share a part of their night with me.



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Gottheim, Larry, director. 1970. Fog Line. 11min.


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Hutton, Peter, director. 2000. Time and Tide. 35min.  


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MacDonald, Scott. 2004. “Toward an Eco-Cinema.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 11 (2): 107–32.


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MacDougall, David. 2006. The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.


Mageo, Jeannette Marie, and Robin E Sheriff, eds. 2021. New Directions in the Anthropology of Dreaming. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.


Mageo, Jeannette Marie. 2003. Dreaming and the Self: New Perspectives on Subjectivity, Identity, and Emotion. Suny Series in Dream Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press.


Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.


Sliwinski, Sharon. 2017. Dreaming in Dark Times: Six Exercises in Political Thought. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 


Taylor, Lucien. 1996. “Iconophobia.” Transition 69 (69): 64–88.


Tedlock, Barbara. 2001. “The New Anthropology of Dreaming.” In Dreams: A Reader on Religious, Cultural and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming. 249-264. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US.

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