Ecological artist Laura Donkers shares Stormy Weather, a short film that conveys collective collusion in climate change through a combination of verbal message, moving film image, and soundscapes of storm, bird song and dance music that pulls the viewer into the personal and collective experience of Cyclone Gabrielle in Aotearoa New Zealand in February 2023.
Stormy Weather (MP4 4:07min) is a film poem conveying the domestic experience of an extreme weather event on 14th February 2023, as Cyclone Gabrielle tracked across North Island, New Zealand. A pause to reflect on human behaviour and our interactions with nature and weather at a time of climate change.
Laura Donkers is an ecological artist and researcher connecting people with ecology through community projects and outdoor art workshops to inform more creative and sustainable ways to live.
After enduring Cyclone Gabrielle in February 2023, which was classed as an extreme weather event in Aotearoa New Zealand, I wanted to create a short film that subtly conveys the theme of collective collusion on climate change. But rather than a climate-disaster thriller, my short film would offer a sensitive portrayal of the impact that an extreme weather event has on everyday lives by combining filming of the actual storm with recordings of public warnings by politicians and subsequent citizen testimony recounting the impact of landslides and flooding.
I created Stormy Weather to be a film [as] poem to express both my personal encounter with the cyclone and as collective experience via the harrowing public testimony that emerged in newsreels after the event. The film poem genre combines three main elements: a verbal message, the moving film image, and a soundscape of diegetic sounds, such as the storm, bird song and dance music, which pull the viewer into the world of the video. This approach presents a compelling illusion to trigger personal associations in the viewer towards their own thought processes and experiences. But rather than imagined, the imagery, sound and text relate to a real, recent happening that further resonates with the audience’s own lived experience.
In the opening scene we can hear the voice of the NZ Prime Minister responding to reporters’ questions about extreme weather events and climate change. A recording of the 1933 sentimental love song ‘Stormy Weather’ (written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler) begins to play. Reflected in the darkening windows via shadowy rhythmic movements and silhouetted figures, we witness a couple dancing. At first, their swaying movements are matched by the fern trees outside. As the storm activity builds the trees’ animation becomes more extreme and acoustic tension rises in the audio recording. The dance sequence ends, and the music continues but gets drowned out by the storm’s growing intensity.
At the start, the closed windows shut out the weather, nature and climate change. Yet, the illuminated darkness forces us to observe the wildness taking place outside while the shadows and reflections of the interior action show in some way the bizarre continuation of everyday lives in the face of such powerful forces: a subtle dig at our lack of willingness to face up to climate reality (dancing while the land is sliding).
The sound makes the drama and violence of the storm hit home, which helps us consider the noises we ‘drown out’ with the ones we create for ourselves. By decreasing the volume of the news reports the usual anthropocentric hierarchy is reordered with human voices assigned the ambient sound role to subtly shift the focus onto nature’s sounds.
Eventually, the storm ends, and morning arrives. The sound track transitions into a cacophony of cicada and bird calls. We see that the house is still standing, and the sun is shining. The windows are open, causing the fern trees to occupy the liminal space between house and environment. Peace has returned. Yet in the background we hear a report that others have not been so fortunate: the reporter states that 35,000 residents have been displaced as a result of unprecedented rainfall causing widespread flooding and landslips.
With the windows open a threshold is created that accommodates our appreciation and desire for nature but only in certain conditions. Here the sounds and images provide space for reflection in contrast to the earlier dramatic scenes. Yet the gentleness of these lies in stark contrast to the horror expressed in the selected texts that appear randomly across the screen. The final extract stays with the viewer as the film ends.
Stormy Weather brings a different perspective to discussions around climate change towards a more truthful and helpful direction through its use of a domestic setting and domestic actions which contrast with the world ‘outside’. It reflects back to us some of our behaviours and interactions with nature and climate in a way that makes us pause, think and create space for conversation.
This film poem presents Cyclone Gabrielle as a transformative phenomenon that changes how the climate crisis is viewed by the people directly affected, as well as those looking on. Its domestic proximity evokes a state of suspense that develops into an awesome (and for some) life-changing experience, revealing a world where climate change is acknowledged as present and real, thus concentrating our attention and altering our perceptions towards behaviour change. A pivotal ‘happening’ that will alter the destiny of our current situation.
You can find Laura’s film here on her website, with more of her work. Laura has written two posts for ClimateCultures about her work with the embodied knowledge of communities: Eco-social Art — Engaging Climate Literacy and ‘What You Need Will Come to You’.