NYFF 2021 review: Nature (Artavazd Peleshian)

“With Nature, Peleshian sounds the alarm of a possible future without human life, and it should be watched by everyone concerned by climate change and man’s connection with Earth’s physical environment.”

When Nature, the newest film from ‘legendary’ director Artavazd Peleshian, was announced to have its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, I knew I had to do some research as I had never heard of Peleshian or any of his prior works. Little did I know, Peleshian had been a quasi avant-garde and experimental director, primarily working during the Soviet era in Armenia. His last film, Life, was released in 1993, and along with the more experimental nature of his body of work, the time since his last project helped to explain my lack of knowledge. Nature marks Peleshian’s return to filmmaking after 28 years and advances his use of archival footage to create a grand view of humanity’s powerlessness against nature’s power and endurance.

Peleshian opens the film with aerial black-and-white shots of mountain peaks and summits surrounded by clouds. Classical music by Mozart and Beethoven accompanies the images, portraying Earth’s physical beauty as godly and majestic. The snowcapped giants are complemented by the powerful score, creating a meditative and tranquil state of a world without humans, but they are illusions of what is to come: an epoch filled with humans who determine and affect Earth’s physical condition.

This calming first portion of the film comes to a crescendo with stunning shots of volcanic eruptions, and Peleshian quickly moves to showcase various disasters. He displays raw and powerful images of lava flows, mudslides, lightning strikes, and tornadoes to create a feeling of unease and tension. Peleshian pulls these moving images from home videos through various sources, on- and offline. He held off on editing and creating the film as he assembled footage through the years, in which he was assisted by the rise of digital online mediums such as YouTube.

The centerpiece of the film is footage of a tsunami that causes widespread flooding and destruction. The raging waters are shot from the top of a towering building, and the footage shows vehicles pushed by the water into buildings as they disintegrate. As the camera turns to look at a river created by the tsunami which has already eliminated a portion of the town, it twists back to buildings that had just been seen standing but are now completely disappearing as they get ripped apart by the currents. During this time the aural power of the film is fully demonstrated, as there are sounds of crushed vehicles and buildings paired with the screams of people getting hurt and shrieks of those watching the destruction unfold. The footage is surreal to an extent and completely gripping as Peleshian focuses on nature’s power to wipe out a city in the blink of an eye.

Peleshian focuses on mankind’s helplessness to fight major disasters. As humans consistently punish the Earth, through overuse and pollution, he makes a case that the Earth is fighting back. He uses video of glaciers and icebergs melting to demonstrate man’s negative effect on the climate.

The structure of the film also helps deliver his argument of a world existing without humanity. The movie opens and closes with mountaintops and clouds. At the start of the film the music is heavier, with dramatic strings signifying the creation of Earth. The middle part is comprised of disasters, and at the end it returns to the peaks. But in this final segment the music is more joyous and upbeat, as if the evil of humankind no longer exists. Nature begins and ends in a world without humans, and only at the heart of the film do humans fight against Mother Nature, a clear warning of human-controlled climate change. Peleshian’s thematic pursuit is paradoxical, as while he’s waited for years to make the film in order to have more accessible footage, the Earth’s climate has continued to change and evolve at a rapid and destructive speed.

Likewise, the structure of the film very clearly shows man’s temporality. With an ever-changing environment and world that will continue to exist after mankind, the focus of the film contrasts geological time with human time. While humans may only live each for a hundred years or less, Earth will continue on without us or our descendants. When disasters come the planet won’t stop for humanity, nor will it wait; nature can easily erase humanity’s mark, as shown in his videos of mudslides, tornadoes, and the tsunami.

At a brief 63 minutes, Nature flies by at a quick pace and with never a dull moment. The film can be difficult to sit through, as there are images of devastation caused by nature and mankind’s powerlessness in the face of it. With Nature, Peleshian sounds the alarm of a possible future without human life, and it should be watched by everyone concerned by climate change and man’s connection with Earth’s physical environment.