Keynote by Jennifer Peterson: Love, Loss, & Climate Change

The theme of the 11th Orphan Film Symposium is Love. 

In her keynote talk, film historian Jennifer Peterson will take us in a direction surprising and wondrous. 

Jennifer Peterson
Love, Loss, and Climate Change: 
Watching the Historical Nature Film Today

As the scope and scale of climate change and ecological collapse become ever more apparent, old films about the environment take on new meaning. Nature films were prevalent in the classrooms of the twentieth century. Generations of children watched these simple films about ecosystems, seasons, animal and plant species. How do these films display (and attempt to foster) a love of nature? What is the cinematic form of a love for nature?  (And what do we mean by “nature” anyway?) Finally, what does it mean to love nature and watch its slow death? What happens to love when the object of our love goes away?

Nature films from the 1920s and 30s are particularly interesting today, for many of them depict natural landscapes, animals, and ecosystems that are now threatened or on the verge of obliteration. This presentation engages in a strategic ahistoricism to explore how we experience these historical images of nature today. What does it mean that historical nature films have preserved images of species or landforms that may soon no longer exist? How have these images been changed by the concept of the Anthropocene?

Anthropocene is a term for a new geological era in which human actions have altered the planet so drastically that we have exited the Holocene Era. Scientists debate whether the new era began with the advent of James Watt’s steam engine in 1784 (powered by coal), or if it began with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Whatever the case, it is undeniable that many of the forms of ecological collapse we are currently facing (the bleaching of coral reefs, catastrophic rates of mammalian and insect extinction, glaciers melting, temperatures rising, more frequent hurricanes, and so forth) are new since the mid-twentieth century. What does it mean to feel love of nature, or more generally a love for the earth, and face this accelerating catastrophe? For those of us who are not scientists but film historians and archivists, we turn to our cinephilia, and examine our current responses to historical nature films.

This talk will include screenings from the David Shepard Collection of educational films held by the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive at the University of Southern California. Thanks to archivist Dino Everett for digitizing numerous films for this project.

Jennifer Peterson is associate professor and interim chair in the Department of Communication, School of Media, Culture, and Design, Woodbury University in Los Angeles. Her research and teaching interests center on cinema and media history, experimental and educational films, aesthetics, and ecocriticism. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. She previously taught in the Film Studies Program at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she earned tenure in 2013. She has also taught at UCLA, UC Riverside, the California Institute of the Arts, and the University of Southern California.

In the early 2000s she worked as an Oral Historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and briefly at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She was a scholar in residence at the Getty Research Institute in fall 2012. She has served as the editor of Cinema Journal’s “Archival News” and as chair of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Media Archives Committee.

Peterson is the author of Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film (Duke University Press, 2013). Her new book project focuses on the visualization of nature in American film history before 1960.


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