At the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, director Alejandro González Iñárritu led critics away from the Palais to an airplane hangar to experience his virtual reality installation Carne y Arena. Participants were to be "virtually present, physically invisible" for the harrowing journey of crossing the US-Mexico border, so that they could, with real sand under their bare feet, "live a fragment of a refugee's personal journey." Iñárritu's dubious effort to immerse an audience in the borderlands is an extreme example of a broader trend in documentary filmmaking: the use of landscape cinematography to widen our perspective on mutually constitutive questions about migration and refuge, expansion of capital, and climate crisis.

These kinds of questions about the organization of human life on Earth cannot be grasped except at the global level. To address them, filmmakers developing this stylistic tendency use landscapes not for establishing shots but as principal content, holding a still gaze on scenery marked by border crossings of humans, seeking refuge; of transnational capital, as in sites of resource extraction. Nikolaus Geyrhalter deploys this technique in two recent films. Border Fence (2018) explores the controversy over the erection of a physical barrier against refugees at the border between Austria and Italy in the alpine region of the Brenner; Earth (2019) journeys around the world to take in the active, destructive reshaping of Earth's crust.

The frame above from Earth shows the construction of a tunnel to be blasted underneath the Brenner, the same region Geyrhalter investigated in Border Fence. The tunnel will permit the transport of goods and persons across a border that, on the surface, is policed by a fence built to deter people unwanted by both nation-states. Returning to the different layers of this region, Geyrhalter finds new angles to capture the political and ecological landscape. In the shot from Earth, the postcard-perfect Alps are obstructed by a belt conveyor at center screen, challenging viewers to forget their habituated response to landscapes.

The films we survey in this essay, different as they are, all rearrange received structures of perception. Addressing international audiences, the filmmakers find different answers to the question: can landscapes provoke us to see social realities inscribed locally by global forces but hidden from plain sight? The films don't belong to a single movement or tradition, but they all search for a new visual language to reveal local geographies as participating in global patterns of extraction, exploitation, and displacement.


In Dong (2006), Jia Zhangke profiles the artist Liu Xiaodong. Liu is at work on a pair of five-panel paintings: Hot Bed I, of a group of laborers in Fengjie; and Hot Bed II, of a group of sex workers in Bangkok. Hot Bed I shares the setting and Jia's main character from Still Life (2006), a film that represents, as Dai Jinhua argues, "the most prominent social landscape of globalization: a metaphor of flux."1 Capturing a late phase of the Three Gorges Dam project, Still Life situates itself at an extraordinary convergence point: more than a million people living in the surrounding cities and villages are being forcibly displaced from their land, soon to be flooded; migrant workers are demolishing the built environment in dangerous, sometimes fatal, working conditions; and tourists come gawking at the marvel of China's development and at the disappearing vestiges of an old world to be "submerged in the ceaselessly accelerating flow of time." Such intense flux lies "beyond human logic," Jia Zhangke says. It belongs to "the vast logic of global capitalism [that] destroys everything in its path," a logic captured by Jia's choice to make it, Dai argues, a "subjectless film," showing that "not only are people no longer in control of history and narrative, they once again become prisoners of or sacrifices to society or their environments."2

In Dong, Liu tries, through his paintings, to reinstall the worker as subject. He arranges card-playing migrant workers on a concrete balcony overlooking a scenic view of the Yangtze River. With its juxtaposition of background and foreground, the painting revises Mao-era socialist realism, which would have had the laborers in heroic poses rather than lounging. It also revises the long tradition of Chinese painting that took inspiration from such natural landscapes. But the demolition site below the balcony that would complete the equation between workers and the landscape remains out of the painting's frame. Jia's camera puzzles over the elision by panning repeatedly from the canvas to what it leaves out, until the irony of Liu's painting emerges: the natural landscape, which looks just as it might have in ancient scrolls, is being utterly transformed by these humble men with their simple tools. Not by their own agency, of course through them works the inhuman logic that makes them sacrifices to their environment, that turns their work on the land into alienation from it. The landscape appears solid in Liu's painting, eternal, but it's melting into air.


Yorgos Zois's short film Eighth Continent (2017) opens with an unsettling act of care: three people in a motorboat calmly pick up a single orange life vest floating among the waves of the Mediterranean Sea. No rescue mission is launched; no attempt is made to trace who had been wearing it or what happened to them.

The camera follows more life vests on the bed of a truck, up a hill and along the shore, until a cut reveals their destination a vast dumping site on the Greek island of Lesvos. Here, in their uncountable numbers and few variations, they merge into the sparse landscape as its newest layer. Save for the worker who, in throwing more vests onto the pile, turns them from evidence into garbage this eighth continent is unpopulated. It is a reminder of catastrophe; on the same land imagined as the "cradle of European civilization" accumulates irreversible proof of its failure.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 20,300 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to the European Union since 2014. Many of those who arrive in search of asylum are forced into inhumane conditions, such as in the recently scorched camp in Moria, or in Kara Tepe. Eighth Continent calls upon, without needing to show, the repertoire of horrific scenes one witnesses in daily news coverage; its accusation lies in the fact that its images, without context, can be comprehensible at all. The "lifejacket graveyard," as it is labeled on Google Maps (17 reviews), has been declared a memorial by some activists and journalists. This understanding carries questionable implications: why are there no graves for the dead, and why relegate to the realm of memory an ongoing disaster that every day could be prevented?

Another way of paying attention that only diverts it has emerged. The 12,000 cubic meters of life jackets pose an "environmental threat," the mayor of West Lesvos said in 2019. Eighth Continent's images counter the replacement of a human catastrophe with an ecological one. Instead of showing a homogenous dump, close-ups reveal a single flipper, a water gun, a shiny gold rescue blanket resembling a human figure as it is lifted by the breeze. As night falls, Zois shines light on the transformed landscape, and the small reflective patches of life jackets stare back at the beholder as if they were eyes from the dark. 


In the summer of 2015, "an aerial perspective was the only way for one to fully and dramatically grasp...the massive influx of more than 500,000 refugees who arrived between March and October" to the Greek island of Lesvos, whose shore had "turned into a very bizarre, out of context, phosphorescent orange hue, covered by the discarded life jackets worn by the refugees."3 Ai Weiwei's Human Flow (2017) grants this perspective. In the film's finale, the camera begins close to a single jacket and flies higher and higher until the mounds look like massive land formations. Filmed in refugee camps, war zones, and along the borders of twenty-three countries in the Americas, Asia, East Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, Human Flow records the forced displacement, as of 2020, of eighty million people around the globe. It looks for meaning in the contrast between close-ups and aerial views, between moments shared with people talking about their experiences and overviews that try to grasp the scale, at least partially, of the structural cruelties responsible for their displacement and still haunting their escape.

In scenes on the ground, Ai, himself an exile, shares certain experiences with the people he encounters. But, as in a scene filmed from the other side of a fence, he shows the unbridgeable gulf between his and their freedom of movement. He shows also the omnipresence of documentation Ai and those he meets use their phones to film, record voice messages, take photos that reminds us that this human tragedy happens in plain global sight. Human Flow's drone shots widen the view; their "epistemological tool of zooming in and out," as Deniz Göktürk writes, "is key to a new kind of scalable global imagination."4 They reveal that the arbitrary, chaotic circumstances on the ground belong to a systematic pattern in which people fleeing for their lives become objects to be logistically managed. Children playing among overcrowded tents or adults waiting for hours to be given rationed food are seen from above as moving parts in a grid of facilities and lines of guarded transportation. The film's closing sequence edits together aerial views of different camps to emphasize their appalling sameness; but it shares this vision with military drones or police helicopters. This perspective obscures as much as it reveals, eliding the immediate, distinct historical forces responsible for displacement and suggesting in response a generic, impotent sympathy.


From a dark blur the scene resolves into the disheveled arrangement of a late-night bus trip. We overhear intimacies that should be private, callers reaching through radio static to extend banalities of life outside to loved ones inside prisons. The opening of Brett Story's The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (2016) echoes the prologue to Ruth Wilson Gilmore's Golden Gulag, which follows dream riders driving past "nine hundred miles of prisons: an archipelago of concrete and steel cages" to advocate at the California capitol against one punitive law in a state with "the most ambitious prison-building project in the history of the world."5 Both buses travel through "carceral geographies," the phrase Gilmore uses to describe the processes of hierarchy, dispossession, and exclusion that incarceration sustains, to enforce the spatial and temporal forms of human life that in turn sustain capital accumulation.

Story's film takes up the challenge of portraying the interconnected logic of a prison system whose influence is felt subtly everywhere by never showing the prison itself until the closing scene: another bus ride that arrives at the imposing front wall of the Attica Correctional Facility. If Story's unfocused montage style born of a confidence that wherever one points a camera, it will find a trace of the carceral system does not deliver the formal rigor the title implies, it's because the "twelve landscapes" are not conceived photographically. Instead, landscape denotes the spaces constituted by dominant social relations that constrain human life. The Marin County section of the film, for example, uses traditional landscape photography, albeit in extraordinary circumstances, only to show what it cannot capture. Its footage of consuming wildfires is taken from an anonymous distance; the shots might be shared interchangeably with those of the Amazon rainforest or Australian bush burning as sensational sights of global catastrophe. But the film restores locality with the dramatic reading of a prisoner firefighter's narrative: she describes being closed in by high walls of fire in otherwise pitch dark with mice fleeing underfoot and bugs everywhere.

The film suggests an analogy between its visual representation of the fires as generic natural disaster and the exploitation of unacknowledged labor. In the occlusion from view of the prison firefighters, who risk their lives for pathetic compensation with no chance of a later firefighting career, hides a plausible strategy for managing climate crisis: prisons and policing will work to divide the landscape, to draw the lines, inevitably racialized, between those to be protected and those to be sacrificed.


The relationship between the two visual elements of John Akomfrah's The Nine Muses (2010) archival footage documenting migration to Britain and limpid winter landscapes in which one or two lone figures stand with their backs to the camera is enigmatic. The major audio element, excerpts from authors ranging from Homer to Samuel Beckett, does not clarify. At moments the three elements come into harmony: archival interviews with racists who claim Britain is not big enough for black immigrants cuts to two black people walking past the graffiti threat, keep britain white. When the next shot, pictured above, returns to Alaska, its empty winter is not only a metaphor for exile's harsh loneliness but a confrontation with hostile whiteness. In this light, an excerpt from a Beckett novel ("I am in my mother's room. It's I who live there now. I don't know how I got there") unexpectedly becomes a description of postcolonial identity.

But the film resists too-easy comprehension, and the crystal clarity of the nature photography cut against the grainy archive works to preserve a certain opacity. This method is usefully contrasted with that of Akomfrah's video installation, Vertigo Sea (2015). On three screens, Vertigo Sea assembles images of the ocean's sublime beauty and terror. The transatlantic slave trade, melting icebergs, colonial expedition, whale hunting, and refugees left to die at sea are all references in the installation's "syncretic problem-space of cinema," as T. J. Demos writes, demonstrating an ethic he calls "ecology-as-intersectionality": to think climate crisis together with the cultural memory of atrocity.6

If the installation is defined by vertiginous combination, the montage of Nine Muses works instead by stark separation. In an interview, Akomfrah remarks that in his long career of studying and using archival material he has never seen a person from one film reappear in another. To make "discrete fragments cohere into some whole" without leaving them "with lacunae, gaps," then, would create false continuity. The lives of people who came to Britain from Africa or the West Indies, glimpsed in those fragments, have been too often absorbed into a pat narrative, Akomfrah says. The wanderers of Nine Muses, in yellow or blue jackets, gazing into remote landscapes, stand for disidentification with that narrative, to "unburden images of the past" from clichéd associations. For the film is "a narrative about how the hyphen, Black-Britishness, was created" and how the people who made the journey were completely transformed. "They left one space and literally it was like going to the moon because they were never the same again."7


While working on Nostalgia for the Light (2010), Patricio Guzmán only gradually realized what connected his protagonists: "The archaeologists, geologists, women, astronomers, were all investigating the past."8 They conduct these investigations in the Atacama Desert, the driest nonpolar surface on earth, visible from space as a dark orange strip. It is a giant archive of natural and human history. Its preserving dryness allows archeologists to find traces of the first people who crossed it 10,000 years ago and its absolute nocturnal darkness presents ideal conditions for astronomers to investigate the origins of the universe. This desert is where the Pinochet regime used the remains of Chacabuco, a constellation of abandoned barracks formerly housing nitrate miners, as its largest concentration camp, and where the regime's executioners tried to "disappear" forever the dissidents they murdered.

As with the two films that follow in his trilogy of desert, sea, mountains, Guzmán investigates a major feature of the Chilean landscape to discover the sedimented, repressed history it holds. Ancient rock carvings sit beside state-of-the-art telescopes; "like geological layers, layers of miners and of Indians are swept by a relentless wind"; for decades a group of women has been searching the Atacama for bodily remains of their disappeared relatives. The desert landscape filmed by Guzmán, himself exiled from Chile by the military coup, does not only represent the material ground on which this history occurred. The violence of Pinochet's regime did not merely happen here, but the landscape is itself made out of it, consists of those who were killed, of the ruins of internment camps. But the meaning of this actuality has to be made visible; to realize it, one needs to search, to see, to listen. Vicky Saavedra González, whose brother José Saavedra González's body had been found in a mass grave two decades after he had been murdered, picks up tiny white pieces from the soil and explains how she can tell the difference between the outer and inner parts of bones. Luís Henríquez, who was interned in Chacabuco, completes by memory the names of prisoners once written on a crumbling wall in one of the camp's barracks. Guzmán draws an uneasy parallel between these acts of memory and the massive scientific efforts investigating the cosmos. "I wish the telescopes didn't just look into the sky, but could also see through the earth so that we could find them," says Violeta Berriós, whose husband Mario Arguellez was disappeared. "We would sweep the desert with a telescope. Downwards. And give thanks to the stars for helping us find them. I'm just dreaming."


Landscapes bear ideological structures of perception: contemplative attitudes, postures of looking. The effect is sometimes to hypostatize one point of view as the permanent, natural background against which human history happens. We have tried to identify how these films create new ways of seeing landscapes to reveal the social conditions that structure life from the global to the local level. These social landscapes, through moving images in which human and physical geography come together, propose methods of thinking about the contemporary world.

Caleb Fridell is a PhD candidate in English literature at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Queens College. He is the author of "River and Mountain, Land and Sea: The Political Topography of Finnegans Wake" (forthcoming, Modernism/modernity).

Katharina Menschick received an MA in history and literature from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2019. After working in the archives of the Leo Baeck Institute New York she now is a research associate at the Arolsen Archives - International Center on Nazi Persecution.


  1. Dai Jinhua, After the Post-Cold War: The Future of Chinese History, edited by Lisa Rofel (Duke University Press, 2018), 74.[]
  2. Ibid., 77, 87.[]
  3. George Tyrikos-Ergas, "Orange Life Jackets: Materiality and Narration in Lesvos, One Year after the Eruption of the 'Refugee Crisis'," Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 3, no. 2 (2016), 227.[]
  4. Deniz Göktürk, "Modeling a World City," TRANSIT 12, no. 1 (2019), 83.[]
  5. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (University of California Press, 2007), 4, 14.[]
  6. T. J. Demos, Beyond World's End: Arts of Living at the Crossing (Duke University Press, 2020), 40-41.[]
  7. Nathan Budzinski, "John Akomfrah: The Nine Muses," Wire Magazine (February 2012).[]
  8. Haden Guest, Eduardo Ledesma and Patricio Guzmán, "Ad Astra per Aspera: An Interview with Patricio Guzmán," Cinéaste 36, no. 3 (2011), 21.[]