Subverting the Traditional Techniques of the Natural History Film: The Relationship Between Humans and Animals in Mark Lewis’s Cane Toads: The Conquest

The theatrical poster for Mark Lewis’s Cane Toads: The Conquest (2010) shows a large image of a cane toad as it stares directly into the viewer’s gaze from a low-angled close-up. The toad appears huge, taking up much of the frame. Its eyes are wide and soulful, working with the emotional backdrop of the sky behind it to proclaim an emotional moment, a life journey, a ‘conquest’. In many ways, the image tells us all we need to know before engaging directly with Lewis’s film. Firstly, we understand that the film is unlikely to be a typical natural history film. Looking at the DVD cover of David Attenborough’s The Blue Planet (2001), a vastly different emotional set-up and aesthetic is established. The cover shows a generic picture of a shark as it swims down into the ocean. In the image, we are looking into nature from a human prospective; an unemotional distance is established, the shark is reduced of individualism and personality, a lack of agency or intent is reflected onto the shark as a great beast to behold and wonder upon; this animal is reduced to pure spectacle. Looking back at the cane toad image, we now see a living creature with agency and personality. Lewis’s film subverts our expectations not only of the wildlife film, but also towards our relationship with animals and the ‘natural world’, as well as the way we look at and reflect upon animals as living creatures. In this essay, I will focus on the ways in which Lewis’s film subverts the traditions of wildlife film by blending the natural world with the human one. I then move on to highlight the effect that these subversive techniques bear on the relationship between humans and nonhuman animals in the film.

For a film focused on many contrasting human personalities, Cane Toads: The Conquest holds no consistently central human characters. In fact, the only consistently occurring characters in the entire film are the cane toads. Morgan Richards explains that, “Lewis radically shifts the framing of his films to focus on human-cane toad relationships … (placing) the cane toad, quite literally, at the center of his films.” (Richards, 2014, p.149) Meanwhile, the humans seem to live within the background of the film, often as quirky case studies that the toads spectate as they move further along their journey; the film focuses just as much on the toads perspective of the human as it does the human perspective of the toads. This is unusual for a typical wildlife film, which would normally prefer to exclude the presence of humans altogether; instead, focusing on depicting social animal interactions as otherworldly, as prestige images of pure life, untouched by the hands of modernised humans. Cane Toads: The Conquest subverts these conventions by including humans as images of spectacle. During one significant sequence, a re-enactment takes place in which an Australian man attempts to kill a never-ending stream of cane toads outside his caravan. The sequence is playfully stylized, yet from the variations of dark tone often seen in horror films. As the man kills the individual toads by driving a sharp metal pole into their backs, a suspecting toad looks on from the distance. The shots of the man are often positioned from a distant low-angle perspective, much like the vantage point of the viewing toad. Not only are we invited to view this scene from the toad’s point of view, judging the humans as strange and otherworldly, but we are also viewing the situation through the toad’s emotional prospective; the humans as subjects of wondrous spectacle and contemplated nonhuman judgment. Richards, again, points out, ”What saves (Lewis’s) films from reinforcing the ideology that invasive species are always irredeemably bad … is his constant questioning of expertise and his construction of animal-eye-view shots.” (Richards, 2014, p.157) The viewer is actively and subconsciously asked to empathise with the nonhuman other through viewing the world from their perspective and subjectivity. The effect of this technique is to increase the moral capacity of the toads, resulting in a deep sympathy for their death and destruction at the hands of our own species.

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Another way in which Cane Toads: The Conquest subverts the typical characteristics associated with natural history documentaries is to undermine the authority of scientific information. The film does include some interviews with scientists; however, these are not presented as authoritative voice-of-god exercises, but are often shot awkwardly, from direct center-of-frame shots, and with little mention of science. The film then mixes these interviews with the stories and opinions of the toads from everyday people, creating a mismatched dilution of specific scientific evidence. “By refusing to privilege any one perspective over another (Lewis) illuminates the complexity of the politics surrounding invasive species, raising profound questions about the political dimensions of both science and nature” (Richards, 2014, p.160) We are told the story of the toads from a wide variant of contrasting expressions, but are never invited to view these creatures only from the viewpoint of an educational or methodical procedure, thus a certain emotional connection is established towards the toads. To effect, by stripping itself of this information, the film is attempting to highlight the fact “that (no) single perspective could adequately explain the complexity of the issue surrounding cane toads.” (Richards, 2014, p.157) The moral issues surrounding the spreading and extermination of the toads alike cannot be resolved with information, but requires a collective moral perspective.

In his essay, ‘The Problem of Images’, Derek Bouse suggests that the conventional use of formal artifice within nature documentaries “may do less to acquaint us with nature than to alienate us from it … repeated exposure to nature and wildlife through a shroud of cinematic conventions may help make us less, not more, sensitive to it.” (Bouse, 2000, p.8) In order to disrupt these conventions, which are often associated with documentaries about endangered species, Lewis has approached the filmmaking of Cane Toads: The Conquest under what Helen Hughes calls the ‘ironic mode’. Through this, we can focus on the strange types of humor often used in the film, even during moments of great peril for the toads. The film often acts trivially and humorously, using parodies of horror films to pastiche and mock the way in which the media had been hyping the seriousness of the toads’ arrival; the film uses irony to undermine the moral anguish present throughout the film. Lewis is able to subtly mock the imposed seriousness of the situation by hyping and heightening the mood of the film. At times, he creates an almost Hammer Horror style; hundreds of toads hop their way forward in the darkness as packs of helpless humans try desperately to stop them. To effect, Lewis is making a satirical comment towards how the toads were portrayed by certain public groups, reinterpreting their arguments via humor. Hughes explains that, “because it both says and unsays what is says, irony is a useful way to express the ambivalence of implication in environmental issues.” (Hughes, 2014, p.88) She goes on to relate this to Cane Toads: The Conquest, stating that, “a highly subversive element enters the picture for environmental representation through which the larger ironies of the human capacity to modify the environment become discernible.” Going on to state, “these strategies make the film both informative about the history of the cane toad in Australia and a comment on the attitudes towards the toad expressed by Australian politicians and the media.” (Hughes, 2014, p.89)

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Another way in which the film is able to subvert and unsettle typical convention is to actively disrupt the boundaries of division between humans and animals. In Lewis’s film, the symbolic representation of the human as civilised is incomplete, and the ‘wildlife’ other normally represented by animals is disrupted by the fact that the cane toads are not exactly ‘wild’. Lewis uses the humans to make the toads seem less wild, while also using the cane toads to realise the humans as less civilised. Richards explains that, “Lewis uses the intermediary of the toad as a means of illuminating the modern social world and refracting the complexity of the cane toad problem” (Richards, 2014, p.150) This is visualised in the film by displaying the toads adapting perfectly well to such an unnatural suburban setting, while also highlighting certain human behaviors as strange or even barbaric. For example, the ‘civil’ nature of humans in the film comes into question after we witness many people committing to extremely disturbing mass toad exterminations. These so-called ‘civil’ humans appear largely unaware of the moral implications of their practises. On the other hand, the toads are only ever represented as wild, unpredictable animals in the film during the retelling of stories from a human perspective. Apart from this, the toads are victims of a selfish human system that brought them into Australia only to then eradicate them in large numbers.

The film uses its central premise to call into question not only the boundaries between humans and animals, but also the one between the native and the ‘immigrant’. As in many episodes throughout history, a war is started within the film between one group who consider themselves the true, native owners of territory (most of the humans), and an invading other (the cane toads) who are accused of wanting to destroy the civil society built by the ‘natives’. In many ways, Cane Toads: The Conquest is a film about immigration and the fears that surround the issue. As one interviewee from the film says about the toads, “they’ve got no place in society, they don’t belong here at all … send them back to Hawaii with Barack Obama”. In a way, the cane toads represent the same social identity as the human Australian population; as migrants who spread across an area previously inhabited by a ‘native’ population. Yet, many of the humans in the film fail to notice this. Instead, they view the toads as potentially dangerous or disruptive of the established social structure of their country. The cane toads are often representative of the social discrimination towards migrant groups; they are judged as ‘ugly’, ‘dirty’, ‘nasty’ and even ‘deadly’, creating a separation and distance not only between the humans and toads, but also between two socially different groups that are forced to live and adapt to complement one another.

Because of this established distance created by the humans to view the toads as ‘other’ or as ‘pests’, it becomes more morally acceptable by their judgment to kill and exterminate the toads; this leads to discrimination because of an intense focus on social differences, rather than a wider appreciation for natural similarities. In creating a reference towards human racism by the exclusion and death of certain groups based on their race, the film highlights the violence experienced by the toads from emanating as a result of ‘speciesism’, which is the exclusion of beings from the moral community based purely on their species. Indeed, Cary Wolfe describes a major effect of speciesism as “the ethical acceptability of the systematic “noncriminal putting to death” of animals based solely on their species.” (Wolfe, 2003, p.7) Most of the humans in the film exclude the toads from being morally considerable on the basis that they are not human; and so, when the decision is made to kill the toads in a variant of ways, the humans taking part in these activities believe they are morally justified because they view the toads’ sufferings as less valuable than human suffering would be. An interviewee expresses this moral position during the film; he states, “killing a toad; I can’t see how that’s cruel. The definition of cruel is when you see the bombing of people in another country, it’s shocking.” This man views one type of suffering as less morally considerable than another simply on the basis of the body experiencing the suffering and not the experience of suffering itself. On this, Peter Singer comments that, as living beings, humans “should not discount (non-human animal) interests in not suffering because they cannot talk or because they are incapable of reasoning; and we should not discount their interests in enjoying life, in having things that are fulfilling and rewarding for them, either. (Singer, 2009, p.575) In this, Singer is stating that suffering is suffering no matter what the moral or philosophical position of the sufferer. Therefore, speciesism plays an important part in Lewis’s film by portraying one group (the humans) believing to hold a moral privilege and greater sense of moral agency over another group (the cane toads).

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Towards the end of the film, one interviewee calls a northern river, “a major battleground between humans and toads”. The concept of war is supported in the film by frequent maps of Australia; within which, as the film progresses, large stains of dark brown grow and expand across the Australian territories on the maps, echoing the style of strategic army maps designed to highlight areas of battle territory. With these references, as well as the title of the film, “The Conquest”, a strong indication of war is created. These techniques in the film echo the concerns of Dinesh Joseph Wadiwel, who describes the real world relationship between humans and animals as holding attributes similar to a literal war; stating that, “animals are subject to torment and death in order to satisfy human recreational pursuits … it would be fair to say that we are at war with animals. This is a protracted war, a war that arguably grows in intensity, a war that has no foreseeable end” (Wadiwel, 2015, p.284-285) The film depicts anthropocentric opinions, ideas and behaviors within its human characters; however, it uses this central conflict to show that the two animal groups in question (humans and toads) are more morally similar than they are physically different. Michael Taussig highlights that, in Lewis’s films, “the humans become somewhat like animals, and the toads become somewhat like humans.” (Taussig, 1990, p.1110-1111) This is made possible by the aforementioned toad-point-of-view shots present in the film, but is also achieved by using these shots and other filmic techniques to apply methods of zoomorphism to the humans, allowing them to be presented as strange, unknowable, awkward, and even brutal. Richards argues that, “by inviting viewers to focus (on) the shared animality of humans and cane toads, Lewis attempts to show us the vulnerability of the toad, not as a creature that has reached plague proportions, but as an animal that was introduced by humans and is (now) killed by them.” (Richards, 2014, p.159) Rather than depicting the toads as aimless pests ready to disrupt the human way of life, the film subverts the opinions of most of its human characters, reducing their moral capability, and extending the moral awareness of the toads, thus allowing the two groups to remain separated intellectually, yet connected emotionally.

As the toads do what is necessary to survive, the humans become morally corrupt and disturbed; each owning vastly contrasting and strong opinions on the toads, yet none able to comprehend a sustainable method of living within and around the toads as fellow living beings in the same geographical environment. The film highlights the ways in which human nature has resulted in the incompatibility of humans to live side-by-side with other animals; thus resulting in a message much more focused on the humans of the film through a nonhuman point-of-view. Through subverting the traditions of the wildlife film, Lewis creates a portrait of human social issues via way of an outside point-of-view, in this case, from the perspective of the suppressed cane toads. Resulting in a film much more focused on a war of contrasting human ideology and moral consideration than one between humans and animals. Indeed, the toads are the victims of the film, yet their deaths seem to be the result of human corruption rather than a resistance to any active issue created by the toads themselves. Because of its innovations, the film is able to focus intensely on the difficult relationship between humans, animals and the spaces in which they share. Thus creating, not a scientific document of an event for educational purposes, but a social depiction of the moral obligations we as human beings hold within this world.

 

Bouse, D. (2000) ‘The Problem of Images’, in Wildlife Films, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hughes, H. (2014) Green Documentary: Environmental Documentary in the Twenty-First Century, Bristol: Intellect.

Richards, M. (2014) ‘Cane Toads: Animality and Ecology in Mark Lewis’s Documentary Films’, in Rethinking Invasion Ecologies from the Environmental Humanities, London: Routledge.

Singer, P. (2009) ‘Speciesism and Moral Status’, PDF, available online at: http://www.oswego.edu/~delancey/Singer.pdf (accessed, 9/12/2015).

Taussig, M. (1990) ‘Review of Cane Toads: An Unnatural History’, American Anthropologist, Volume 92, Issue 4, December 1990.

Wadiwel, D, J. (2015) The War Against Animals, Boston: Brill Rodopi.

Wolfe, C. (2003) Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species and Posthumanist Theory, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Very in depth informative. 😀 Oldschool analysis.

  2. beetleypete says:

    A worthy and academic piece, Darrell. I watched this film, and was left feeling sorry for the toads, who after all, didn’t ask to be imported there to begin with. Their capacity for destruction cannot be ignored however, and the conflict with the local people seemed inevitable. I suspect that the toads will be victorious though,
    Best wishes, Pete.

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