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Dreaming the Environmental Crisis

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 extralinguistic

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


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.

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