Elsa Brès, Notes for Les Sanglières.

Dorothy Yamamoto

Elsa Brès’ Notes for les Sanglières imagines an alliance between wild boars and people grounded on concepts of boarcentrism, ecofeminism and forms of communal living. Shot in the area of the Cévennes, in the South of France, the video brings together ideas, experiments, field recordings and fiction tracks that sketch the common struggle of human and animal rights.

Dorothy Yamamoto: Elsa, can you tell me what drew you to wild boar in the first place? Was it a particular encounter, an insight, an intellectual challenge? And how far is your work rooted in the particular area where you live — the Cévennes — and what is the attitude of people there towards wild boar?

Elsa Brès: I first got interested in wild boar because of the place where I live, in the Cevennes, a rural region of southern France. I live in a house on the edge of an old chestnut grove, the land is not fenced and at nightfall, when I hear the boars passing by, the forest stirs. When I moved here in 2018, it was a year when there was a lot of discussion about wild boars. It was said that they were more and more numerous, bigger and bigger because they had been hybridized with pink pigs; that they did not respect the limits; the boars had a rather negative aura, when for example the roe deer was reintroduced here at about the same time, they had a rather positive aura. This immediately raised questions that interested me, and I began to research wild boar in greater depth, both ethologically and in the history of its representation. This drew the first tracks of this project on which I have been working ever since.

DY: Thank you, that’s really interesting. The fact that you heard the boar before you saw them highlights their mysteriousness, their resistance to categorization. In England, all the wild boar were originally bred on farms, and either escaped or were deliberately released. There are now several separate populations. People are fascinated by them, but they’re also nervous of them—their size and fierceness are often exaggerated in newspaper articles, etc. The argument about hybridization also crops up here: it’s said by some (including members of the government’s Forestry Commission!) that they are not true wild boar and therefore (by implication) not worth protecting. I find this “purity” argument quite disturbing.
Can you say some more about the ways in which the boar don’t ‘respect the limits’? I think in the film you link this to a wider argument about who sets boundaries and dictates where we may, or may not, go. Here, there is growing concern about the amount of land that is privately owned and closed to the public. Can the boar show us a way forward here, or is there a danger they will alienate people, so that further barriers are raised?

EB: Yes, it is true that this idea of purity often comes back with the wild boar, I also find it very disturbing, especially in its resonance with extreme right-wing thoughts. Here in the Cévennes, wild boars had almost disappeared in the 1980s, and then I heard that there were individual efforts to repopulate them, led in particular by hunters who went looking for wild boars in other regions, by mating them with pigs—until laws prohibited this. Wild boars have thus gone from rare to numerous, in an exponential increase; they are now classified as an “invasive species”. This rise in numbers exists, but I think its perception is increased by modifications in the landscape that have created a reduction in the territory of wild boars: the multiplication of fences, the artificialisation of the soil and the closure of paths limit access to areas where they can drink and feed, the consolidation of agricultural land, the urbanisation by private houses surrounded by barriers, the privatisation of space in general in fact. These changes in the structure of the territory are notably linked to the organization of the land around a property right as an exclusive right of use. And wild boars go beyond these boundaries that are closing in on them: they come out of the woods, they walk on roads, they break fences, they enter cities, they live in intensive corn fields, they bathe in private pools, they eat in garbage cans - internet is full of videos of wild boars exceeding these supposed boundaries between the wild and the human world.

What interests me with the wild boar is that their mode of habitation and organization brings together several aspects that do not respect a certain norm of habitat and lifestyle: the gang, led by females, the nocturnal life, opacity/invisibility (as you said), disrespect of private property. To answer your question, I think that wild boars open up both of these paths at the same time: some people who are faced with them will erect new barriers, others could rush into the paths that the boars open up. This is one of the questions that is asked in these Notes for les Sanglières and on which I am currently working on for the film that I am preparing to shoot, Les Sanglières. Who has an interest in making an alliance with the boars? My first answer is that of private property: those who do not have access to it. This brings us back to the time of the Enclosures, when the Commons disappeared and fences multiplied, where Silvia Federici sees the rise of a proto-capitalism. I am very interested in a long-term approach to the history of places. Here in the Cévennes, there were several revolt movements at that time, notably led by women. For me, the boar can be an ally in thinking about contemporary anti-capitalist/anti-patriarchal struggles if we put ourselves on its side, in its place. This idea of alliance then raises questions about what links human and animal, especially from this particular environment that is the forest…

DY: Elsa, that is all very interesting, and, although we live in different countries, much of what you say resonates with the historical experience here of Enclosure, and its devastating social impact. Even today, according to the campaign group Right to Roam, 92% of the countryside and 97% of rivers are off limits to the public. No wonder the boar arose such passions! And no wonder they are seen as a challenge to the status quo. Finally, I’m intrigued by your project of ‘asking the boar questions’. How do you think this could be done, and in what ways might we be able to ‘adopt their point of view’?

EB: During my research, I was also interested in the Enclosures, the English peasant resistances and their historiography — I think in particular of Edward P. Thompson’s book Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act (1975) that I had found fascinating on the writing of a real class war in the forest. The numbers you give are impressive!
Thanks for your questions which address a central point of what interests me in this project. From the beginning, I asked myself how to approach wild boars in a more precise way, how to literally get near them, how to be in contact with them, in order to understand them better, also in a physical, sensory approach. And how to make cinema with them (and not about them). To turn them into companions and not into objects of study. As you so rightly say, and because this project takes the form of a film, this meant asking myself the question of point of view: mine, theirs, their encounter. I then had in mind passages from the book Ce à quoi nous tenons (2011) by the philosopher Émilie Hache where she defends a certain interpretation of anthropomorphism (as opposed to anthropocentrism), which would mean putting oneself in the place of, but only if it means making room for. I thus consider the idea of putting oneself in the place of as a moral and political obligation of learning. This is the path I have chosen in this project. By tracking in the forest, observation, research, I began to understand and imagine the boars’ movements, their habits, their bodies and desires, their reactions. It was a first step to try to adopt a point of view. This led me to think about what a boarcentrism could be and to investigate more experimental tools I have a background in architecture and I am very interested in cartography and its stakes. The habitat suitability maps that appear in Notes for les Sanglières are an attempt to interact with wild boars as a species: to understand how their habitat is constructed and to slip into their apprehension of the territory of the film. They were made with Gherardo Chirici, professor of forest inventory and remote sensing. These habitat suitability maps allow to create an image of the territory through the spectrum of the wild boar species: on the final map, each pixel (25 meters on a side) is noted from zero to one—one means it is the best habitat for a wild boar, and zero the worst. This tool appeared to me as a fictional tool, because you can vary the elements based on spatialized fictional assumptions…and so the map changes: we record a reaction of the wild boar species to the spatial proposal. Is this the beginning of a dialogue? It is a hypothesis! I use these maps in the writing of Les Sanglières because they allow me to diffract fictional hypotheses on the territory. The environment in which the film takes place is no longer the flat support of an anthropocentric projection­­—the big white sheet on which the story is inscribed­—but it becomes a full-fledged interlocutor in the process of writing the film and an ally in the dissemination of the narrative. These maps are also a medium for moments of collective writing with the participants in the coming film.
This idea of questions and point of view was also very vivid in the long discussions I had with philosopher and activist Paul Guillibert—from which excerpts appear in the film Notes for les Sanglières. His recent work questions the possibility of a communisme du vivant, a communism of the living, which interests me very much. These discussions led us to explore different relationships or alliances between humans and more-than-humans, notably around the question of alliances of struggle. For example, domestication would be a low level of intensity, a totemic, a diplomatic alliance could exist, or it can be shamanic (keeping in mind the naturalistic context from which we work, and therefore in an ontological hybridization), like when a boar swallows a surveillance camera and so incorporates its vision capacity.
I have been working on the translation of some types of human and more-than-human relationships into a cinematographic language - asking myself for each one: what form of script would make sense? What kind of shooting device? What image quality?

The upcoming film follows the tracks already set out in the film-essay Notes for les Sanglières while exploring these questions in a much more cinematographic form. Les Sanglières will meander through various registers of narratives, mixed qualities of images, in a movement combining documentary present, speculative narratives and historical reactivation. Against the backdrop of the history of property and of this specific socio-natural landscape, the narrative hypothesis of Les Sanglières is that an alliance existed in pre-modern times between wild boars and humans. And that somewhere, in the landscapes, in the stories, elements and traces remain to be unearthed, assembled, borrowed and reclaimed. In a non-linear temporal perception, the reassembling of these signs into a narrative will open, collectively, tracks for a coming interspecific world — a call for an approach to the land from a shared point of view.

DY: Thank you again, Elsa. I think people are becoming more willing to learn from nature in all sorts of ways, but the instinct to erect walls and protect one’s private property is still very strong (as can be seen in the debate about refugees entering the country). Like you, I look forward to a more communitarian future. I’ll just add that the humans/wild boar relationship is, of course, not fixed, but continually evolving. The boar are learning how to make good use of human-created habitats—for example, they have re-populated the exclusion zone around Fukushima in Japan, where bushes have grown back over previously cleared ground (and where they are safe from hunters, as their meat is thought to be irradiated, following the nuclear disaster of 2011). They have also been used in ecological projects, such as one in the Scottish Highlands, where they rooted out an overgrowth of bracken, allowing more young trees to flourish (boar are unusual in being able to eat bracken, which is poisonous to many animals). They were hailed as ‘ecological engineers’ (like beavers, another introduced species which is modifying our landscape), but they then began to strip the bark from mature trees—an equally natural way of feeding, but one that was far less welcome. This underlines the pervasive ‘human-centric’ way of thinking—first of all, we consider the ways in which animals can benefit us by their activities. This will take a lot of shifting, but we can be encouraged by the movements which have succeeded the resistance to Enclosure and advocate a ‘greener’, less human-dominated way of thinking. In hope for the future… !

Interview publiée sur le site Vdrome