The phrase "animal rescue" suggests that humans are the rescuers, but The Wound And The Gift sets out to demonstrate, through gorgeous animation and exquisite cinematography, how this anthropocentric bias fails to capture the uniqueness, complexity, and reciprocity of relationships that form between humans and animals.
Documentary director Linda Hoaglund has assembled a world class team of collaborators to explore such relationships, and in so doing reveals a startling individuality that transforms these creatures into characters. The Wound And The Gift takes it's title from an old Japanese fable, which suggests that human actions inevitably betray the trust between Man and Nature. Hoaglund uses an animated telling of this tale to parse beautiful documentary footage, guiding us from the familiar sense of responsibility we take for animal rescue, through to a recognition that often they are the ones rescuing us.
Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson deserves great credit for the empathic power of the film, which she shot using Sony's new and groundbreakingly affordable high-def, high-speed camera, the NX 700. Her stunning slow-motion footage affords us long and languid looks at subtle animal behavior, transforming every animal subject into an individual. And as individuals is also precisely how Johnson shot them; up close and very personal. Johnson has an impressive resume that doesn't quite begin with the Oscar-winning Fahrenheit 9/11, and surely won't end with the currently Oscar-nominated Citizenfour. Hoaglund, who attended the screening, afterwards recounted an interesting story about how she and Johnson connected. Upon seeing Hoaglund's last film, Things Left Behind, Johnson reached out to Hoaglund directly, saying she felt the director was a perfect fit for her own cinematographic intentions. Based on The Wound And The Gift, I sincerely hope this isn't the last of their collaborations.
The film truly is a collaborative work though, a fact that Hoaglund was at pains to stress. New York superstar artist Victo Ngai (Forbes 30 Under 30) exquisitely illustrates the fable that Hoaglund uses to punctuate her documentary, animated by Joe Wu with a subtlety that beautifully complements the film's serene pace. Here it is also worth mentioning the great work of editor William Lehman and musical collaborators Satoshi Takeishi and Shoko Nagai, who are all seminal to the film's hypnotically sedate tempo.
This is Hoaglund's fourth film, following a powerful trilogy of feature documentaries exploring the experiences of the Japanese in the Second World War (Wings Of Defeat, ANPO: Art x War, Things Left Behind). Having grown up in Japan, Hoaglund began her film career writing subtitles for Japanese films by the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Myazaki, and she clearly learned more than a thing or two from her immersion in the work of such masters. Fortunately not all of her gigs were such inspiring works, and it was a growing frustration with the decisions of film-makers whose work she was subtitling that helped compel her to take up directing herself.
Rather boldly, Hoaglund chooses her own ending for the classic fable, though the human-animal subject for the film's final chapter would seem to offer little alternative in the face of such serendipity. Her ending is decidedly less dour than the original, and I think better reflects the trajectory of contemporary humanity, given the bright light of our growing knowledge. As the evidence mounts, we are slowly emerging from a world in which humans are the only species considered to possess true individuality, into one in which we recognize ourselves not just in other humans, but other species as well.
The Wound And The Gift is an incredibly moving film, but the tears are rarely for sadness. Rather, they are for beauty, a personal prerequisite for Hoaglund's film-making, and for the joy that is evoked as one realizes the world is not so lonely as it might seem for a human consciousness. I'm not alone in pondering the place of humans; we seem so isolated by our unique perspective on the universe - alone in our utter individuality. Where we have opportunity to engage intimately with animals, like our pets, we often eagerly grant them analogous individuality. Rarely, however, do we extend this respect - and I do think respect is the right term here - to the animal mind in general. This, despite the obvious reality of animal consciousness at least as sophisticated as our pets'.
I left this film inspired, and perhaps also troubled, by the recognition that I share a planet not just with several billion human individuals, but countless animal individuals as well, each of us in our own way enduring life's trials and tribulations. As is the case for all forms of discrimination, it is only by denying the subjective individuality of others that we are able to objectivity them, and thereby justify the degradation of their personal significance. The Wound And The Gift gently challenges its audience to confront this profound paradox; the simultaneous recognition and denial of individual animal consciousness... the wound that is the gift.
P.S. Ms Hoaglund, should you ever find yourself reading this, I should like to add my 2c to the post-movie discussion about your animated fish. Many interpretations were discussed after the film, but I felt that a poignant one was overlooked. I found the presence of the fish in all the animated scenes made them appear filtered through water, as though seen from within a fish tank, or a watery world in which the camera exists. The film opens with that beautiful shot of a fish watching a crane, which flies off freely while the fish remains bound to the water. The way the fish briefly breaks the surface seemed to emphasize the existence of these two distinct worlds, and the urge - futile - to bridge them. The fish's ubiquitous presence throughout the animated segments consistently reminded me of the separation of these worlds; that I was a fish, watching another world, oblivious to the wet ether of my own. We are inextricably tied to our own world of human consciousness, which is finally quite separate from the animal world. The two worlds do touch, as air and water do, and even exchange to some degree, as a breaching fish or fishing heron, but in the end we are creatures of a certain type and cannot escape our perspective. When attempting to grapple with what animals experience, and with how they perceive their relationships with us and their own world, we are inevitably stopped at the interface. Like the fish, we push at it, sometimes even briefly through it, but when we breach the divide we are fish out of water, trying to swim in a consciousness that calls for flying. We will never see mind's-eye-to-mind's-eye with animals, but this does not preclude us from recognizing their individuality, and from developing rich and reciprocal relationships that live in the limbo between our respective, individual, consciouses. That is what your fish meant to me.
The Wound and the Gift - Trailer from Linda Hoaglund on Vimeo.