The Weird World of Slime Molds

The filmmakers behind The Creeping Garden bring a mysterious lifeform onscreen, using sound and image.

 

Tim Grabham is a filmmaker, visual artist, and animator based in the United Kingdom. He has been directing independent short films for over 20 years. His first feature film, KanZeOn (2011), a sensory exploration of sound in Japan has screened widely at prominent international festivals and events globally. He also co-authored the award-winning children’s book ouldovie Maker: The Ultimate Guide to Making Films (2010)

Jasper Sharp is an author, film critic, curator and film historian based in the UK, internationally regarded for his specialist interest in Japanese cinema. His book publications include Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema (2008). As a film programmer, he has curated numerous touring retrospectives and film seasons across the world.

 

The Creeping Garden screening took place at National Gallery of Art on Saturday, March 19th at 3:30pm.

 

DCEFF: How did you get involved in filmmaking?

TIM GRABHAM: I’ve been working with movie image since about 14, and at that time it was using super 8mm film. Mainly for stop motion animation and scraping away and bleaching the emulsion of the film to create unpredictable and hectic abstractions.

Often I discovered these effects and techniques by accident while trying to understand what this alchemic mechanical device did and what the image making possibilities were.

From that starting point I have slowly evolved my process and approach to try and find my own interpretation of the jelly like parameters of moving image making.

JASPER SHARP: I have been working as a film critic and curator, mainly dealing with Asian cinema, and also have an academic background in film, looking at how film aesthetics are contingent with film technology. Aside from making some fairly amateurish short films in the 90s, this is the first time I’ve been involved in an actual filmmaking project, although the day job means I think a lot about deconstructing films and how the style and subject feed off one another.

DCEFF: What drew you to this particular project?

TG: Jasper got me pretty much hooked on the idea of the project the moment he sat me down over a few beers and introduced the weird world of slime molds suggesting we make a film about them. This was not long after the previous feature I had co-directed, titled KanZeOn, which was made in Japan was presented at the Japanese film festival Zipangu Fest that Jasper ran. He really helped push our film and supported it a lot so we spent quite some time together. So the idea of working with him over what was destined to be quite a few years seemed exciting and indeed it was truly rewarding.

JS: It came about because I was aware of Tim’s earlier work and I knew he had a similar way of thinking about film as I did. My own background as a critic and curator made me very much aware that there are a lot of films out there released every year, so I also figured if I was to get involved in my own film work, it would have to be with a film that was a bit different.

I’m interested in nature, gardening etc., and through this developed an interest in mycology, which is how I found out about slime molds. I’m really drawn to subjects that are a bit mysterious, that no one really knows anything about, and slime molds totally fit the bill in this respect. There’s not a huge amount of literature published on them, but at the same time, over the past ten years there’s been a whole amount of research being done into them and ideas of their alleged intelligence and also what we might learn from them by investigating them further.

I think scientists are really not given their dues in today’s society, and I really wanted to celebrate the creativity, imagination and obsessiveness of the scientific process. In this respect the film is not so much about slime molds as the people who have stumbled into this strange world of slime mold research – whether they’re amateurs, artists or professionals – the nature of their obsession with it, and their process of scientific discovery.

DCEFF: What challenges did you face in the process of producing the project?

TG: The usual of course – finding someone to finance a loosely conceived experimental feature documentary that would find its shape as it went along on the subject of slime molds wasn’t easy. In fact it never happened. We found all the resources ourselves and from very generous friends, family and contributors. Pretty much the only money we got was £400 from licensing some stop-motion slime mold shots to Australian TV and that went a long way!

But perhaps a less obvious challenge was actually finding our subject. They are pretty small and elusive and the period in which they are active and moving in the wild in their throbbing plasmodial state is short. So you have to constantly trek to the woods daily in the hope you will catch that slim window.

Both challenges are part of the reason it took about 3 years to get all the footage we needed to complete the film.

JS: Yes, as Tim says, it was the usual problem of funding the project, because I guess slime molds are a pretty hard sell to potential producers, so we just went ahead and did it ourselves. It was a learning process, but I think we always considered ourselves while making the film as embedded in the same process of scientific discovery as many of our featured collaborators, so the interviews with the various scientists, artists and musicians are really complementary to the actual slime mold footage shot by Tim.

The challenge was to find away of articulating such a mysterious lifeform onscreen, using sound and image – this organism exists on a completely different timescale to us, and in a completely different perceptual world, so it was really a case of trying to meet it on its own terms. The other challenge was to try and pull back from confronting the viewer with a barrage of scientific information. We wanted to instil sense of wonder in the subject and encourage them to think deeper about it. The harder science behind all this I covered in the complementary book of the film The Creeping Garden: Irrational Encounters with Plasmodial Slime Molds.

DCEFF: What made you decide to submit to DCEFF, this year?

TG: We were invited by the festival to submit the film and it seemed like a fascinating opportunity to be part of it.

JS: We are very excited to be selected. This film is not strictly about environmental issues, but I hope it does encourage people to think more broadly about humans’ roles in the wider scheme of things, and in fact how little most of us are aware of what is going on around in the world around us. We don’t know it all as some people thing. Quite the opposite in fact.

DCEFF: Why do you think DCEFF is important? Why should people attend?

TG: In all honesty I am learning about the festival as we go but the more I understand its objectives and goals I am more and more behind it. It appears to be a powerful environment for audiences to make their own minds up about why we should all do more to protect and understand the natural world.

JS: Festivals are really important for getting together a critical mass of people watching and talking about films that otherwise get ignored by the mainstream, and personally I think there needs to be a lot more environmental awareness out there.

DCEFF: How does your film relate to this year’s theme: “Parks: Protecting Wild?”

TG: The humble slime mold is likely to be found in your local park, and especially if it has older or wooded areas, you are likely to find it living on a rotting log.

JS: We tend to think of parks as managed and controlled public spaces, but they are subject to very natural processes, much of which we are unaware of. This was one of the reasons behind the title The Creeping Garden. I think the artist Heather, one of our contributors, puts it really well when she says “It is a material that I can work with but I can’t control entirely.” I think of gardening or park management in a similar way. You can coax your plants to grow in a certain way or in certain places, and this in turn effects the kind of wildlife and microhabitats you encourage over time, but it’s never a process you are never entirely in control of. The main difference between a plant and a slime mold is of course slime molds move.

DCEFF: Why do you feel that it’s important to preserve parks and/or protect wildlife?

TG: It’s insane to think that anyone wouldn’t. You cannot put a value high enough on the natural world; it is where we all come from, and it provides everything needed for the greatest alchemy there is which is life. Only an imbecile would not instinctively want to look after it.

JS: One of the great things about London, dirty old city though it is, is the large number of green spaces within it, acting as lungs for the city and providing a space where city-dwellers can come closer to nature and realize there is a lot more going on in the world than that created and controlled by humans. I’m really excited by the potential of food production within urban spaces and making cities more self-sustaining. I think it’s really encouraging that, for example, in London, there’s a bigger bee population than in rural areas, which are now blighted by pesticides and monocultures, just because people’s gardens and untamed areas such as railway sidings provide more natural flowers for them.

DCEFF: How do you hope audiences will receive your film?

TG: My hope is that after watching our film they will take a walk into the woods or forest and take a closer look at the wonderful natural world that is just underfoot, and that a spark of curiosity might be ignited to explore further what is so often overlooked.

JS: We play a lot with the idea of non-human time and space in the film, so I hope people can enjoy it for an immersive piece of time out of mind and realise that human reality is not the only reality.

DCEFF: What’s the one takeaway that you want potential viewers to walk away with?

TG: Slime molds are amazing.

JS: A lot of the research currently underway on these seemingly simple organisms is at quite a rudimentary level, and sometimes we find “amateur” scientists with a greater, or at least different, body of knowledge than professionals, so I think really anyone can get out there and contribute their own valuable research. After all, 5 years ago we knew next to nothing about slime molds.

DCEFF: What’s the next project in your pipeline? Does it address the same or another environmental issue that matters to you?

TG: There are a few ideas in development, but currently I’m mainly focused on a film about cryonics and more specifically where cryonics needs to deal with preservation of the mind.

As a film it will have a strong vein of scientific inquiry but the material will be presented in a very weird skin, approaching its subject with a style more akin to fiction cinema rather than documentary.

I feel the nature of what a documentary can be is creatively very flexible, and using the language of all forms of moving image offers a palette that is remarkably expressive, versatile and hopefully rewarding for an audience who seek out less familiar forms of absorbing ideas and information.

In terms of environmental aspects something that has struck me is the decidedly un-environmental aspect of cryonics that demands the stable upkeep of a body for an unforeseeable period of extended time, requiring numerous resources indefinitely. And that has led to me learning more about how the processes of burial or cremation have decidedly negative issues environmentally. More eco-sound options to burial and cremation are however being researched and developed – but here we are treading into the fascinating world of Jasper’s Earth Alchemy project.

JS: I’ve become really interested in soil – what is it, what is the difference between living, clean and healthy soil and barren dead desert soil. What are the physical, chemical and biological processes underway in this hidden world beneath our feet, and how can one convey this on film? How do different soil systems support different ecosystems, and how can humans manage this beneficially and sustainable, in terms of food production and waste recycling. And what is it about earth that is unique to “Earth” – going into more abstract ideas about desert reclamation and terraforming other planets.

 

Register for the The Creeping Garden screening here.

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