One criterion that strongly attracted me to the University of Edinburgh’s Environment, Culture and Society MSc programme is its commitment to interdisciplinary studies. Studying the environment crosses multiple academic disciplines, including the social sciences, the natural sciences and the humanities. This is the very spirit of the Framing Interdisciplinarity film festival, which highlights the connections between the environment and the arts, including a screening last week of Wolf Totem in the Institute of Geosciences, followed by a short panel discussion led by programme director Prof. Emily Brady.
Wolf Totem is a Chinese language film (with subtitles) directed by Jean-Jacques Arnaud and is generally based on the book of the same name. It is a story of human intervention in the environment set in Outer Mongolia during China’s Cultural Revolution. In short, it demonstrates the tensions caused in the environment when human beings interfere with nature, including driving species to (near-)extinction.
This film is difficult to watch for several reasons, not the least of which are the frequent scenes of human cruelty toward animals. Whilst the cinematography of this film is fantastic, the story and the script both drew criticisms from the academic panel. First, the film diverts from the orignal book in that it softens the book’s even harsher depictions of cruelty toward animals, and the film’s ending shows the main characters making peace with the wolves at the end; the book’s ending maintained the harsh, bloody tone. Also, the panel took issue with the way that it depicted Mongolians’ views of the wolf versus the way the culture actually does and historically has. The film showed the wolf as a revered creature in their cultural identity, with the post-screening panel suggesting that the Mongolians actually viewed the wolf as a predator which needed to be eliminated at all costs as a threat to their sheep.
These criticisms notwithstanding, this film still provides powerful examples of the dominance that Homo sapiens has over the natural environment and how our behaviour makes a very strong impact with long-lasting effects. Despite its flaws, Wolf Totem sends a strong message that others ought to heed.