Professor Sarah Kanouse‘s experimental nonfiction film “Grassland” has been screening this summer at festivals in the United States, Greece, and Colombia. The nineteen-minute film, which recently received the Honorable Mention award from the Experimental Forum film competition in Los Angeles, combines stop-motion animation, live action footage, text fragments, and expressive sound to address the ecological history and present-day land uses on the Pawnee National Grassland in eastern Colorado.
Created as part of the government’s response to the ecological and economic collapse of the 1930s known as the Dust Bowl, the Grassland now hosts ranching, hiking, fracking, wind power, and active nuclear missiles launch sites within a few miles of each other.
“I’ve long been drawn to little-known places that seem unusual or bizarre at first glance but, when you look more closely at their histories actually reveal a great deal about how the dominant U.S. culture has perceived and used nature over time,” Professor Kanouse explained. “The film juxtaposes how the land has been shaped by shifting government policies and changing social values—including enduring Indigenous beliefs—that reverberate far beyond this particular place.”
The film is less a traditional documentary than an essay and uses collage and stop-motion animation to connect the divergent concepts and histories of the land.
“Because we take landscape for granted, it can be hard to convey just how constructed a particular place is. At the Grassland, it was especially difficult, since many of the things I wanted to depict are literally invisible because they are underground. I decided to use animation to represent what couldn’t be photographed. It was my first attempt to use animation in a film, so that was an exciting new challenge in terms of aesthetics and technique,” Professor Kanouse said.
“Grassland” premiered at “Experiments in Cinema” in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the end of April, and has now gone on to the Twisted Oyster environmental media festival in Greece and the Cineautopsia festival in Bogotá, Colombia (upcoming in August). The film will also travel this academic year as part of the program “Animate Landscapes,” which Kanouse is co-organizing with fellow artist and University of Illinois professor Deke Weaver.
Professor Kanouse happened across the grassland while on a road trip a few years ago.
“I have done a lot of work about the nuclear weapons complex and took a detour through the grassland because I knew there were missiles there. I was floored by the amount and impact of the fracking and wanted to know more,” she said. “I had some projects out in Colorado over the next couple of years that took me back to the state, and I shot a little here and there for several years before putting together the film.”
“Ultimately, I hope Grassland prompts viewers to think about what has gotten us to a state of environmental emergency and alternative values and beliefs that might help us survive it,” Professor Kanouse explained.
Congratulations to Professor Kanouse on the international reach and recognition of her film.