I’m so grateful for the trust The Roundhouse placed in me as a filmmaker and the freedom it gave me to explore topics of feminism, extraction, archive and patriarchy.”
Introducing Léna Lewis-King who is an artist filmmaker who began working in film at 16 when she entered a competition to participate in the program for young filmmakers Into Film hosted at the ICA London. The following year she was awarded a commission by Channel 4’s Random Acts series to produce and direct her first film ‘Untitled Sequence’ in 2017, which was screened in theatres across the United Kingdom. From 2018 onwards, Léna has given talks on her film projects at SPACE Studios, Screen 25 London and the Roundhouse and her work has been shown at the ICA London, Channel 4, South London Gallery, the BFI London, the Chisenhale Gallery London, the Armory Show New York and at numerous film festivals.
Her film ‘L’autroritratto’ was featured in the exhibition ‘Io Dico Io – I Say I’ at La Galleria Nazionale in Rome from March to June 2021. Léna studied BA Filmmaking at Kingston School of Art and graduated this July. She is currently selected as one of ArtConnect’s ‘Artists to Watch 2021’ and has most recently shown at The Lumen Prize, London as a part of their ‘Lumen Prize Student Award’ Shortlist. Keep reading for more details on Léna’s incredible film, The Copper Kings as well her blog which takes us through her filmmaker journey.
The Copper Kings by Léna Lewis King
How can we directly relate to the effects of extraction on our planet? The Copper Kings creates an animated world where the extraction of natural resources is inseparable from the dissection of our own bodies.
As someone who’s work falls in-between both art and film, and after graduating from my BA course in Filmmaking in July 2021, I found myself at the common post-graduation crossroads of not knowing where to take my work next, and riding out on the tail end of the pandemic added to the confusion. My last film was my graduation project, titled ‘Figure 1’, which explores how female biological processes were altered by tools created by patriarchal philosophies that used Fine Art (Illustration and Allegory), in order to visualise their approach to birth and the natural world. After ‘Figure 1’ finished, I was left with a lot of unresolved research surrounding the history of western medicine, ecology, and technology.
This unused backlog of research became catalytic for me after constantly seeing videos surface online where by-products of extractive processes had left the environment burnt, flooded, barren or toxic, and so I became motivated to begin ‘The Copper Kings’ as a way to digest and discuss the core idea that we are not separate entities from our environment, and what we do to the earth we also do to ourselves in equal measure. The Roundhouse fund came at the perfect time to turn these thoughts into a film, and to be able to share these ideas and research on a wider scale.
To introduce the project a bit, ‘The Copper Kings’ is a short animated film that uses the idea of the body as a landscape to connect various processes of extraction of natural resources (such as the mining of limestone, coal and oil) to the dissection and exploitation of the human body, specifically the biologically female body – a site of contestation, control and ever-shifting politic.
‘The Copper Kings’ title comes from the history of three powerful industrialists that fought over mining resources in Butte, Montana in the 1800s. To me they became symbolic of an archetype of the everyman industrialist; that The Copper Kings represented every mining company CEO or oil baron as an outdated and tarnished metal patriarch.
The research behind The Copper Kings began in 2020 after watching ‘Three (or more) Ecologies’, a film by Angela Olga Anderson. The film frames processes of oil extraction through a feminist lens, and Anderson worked with Silvia Federici to create and inform the film’s political approach. Afterwards I became interested in the work of Federici, an Italian activist, educator and philosopher whose work focuses on the labour of women within society and history. In her book ‘Caliban and the Witch’, she outlines how the core of Western Capitalism is rooted in gender based exploitation and class division.
These interests led me to the work of Cecilia Mangini, and her film ‘Essere Donne’ or ‘Being Women’; a socio-political documentary that unpacks the way women were treated within Italian industry in the 1960s. This film visually demonstrates how capitalism is fundamentally reliant on the silent labour of women both as mothers and as workers.
My own mother, Michelle Lewis-King, is an artist and practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and has brought me up to consider the body beyond the Western Medical perspective (which is fundamentally evidence-based so relies on what is considered visible or true). She has always highlighted the interconnected nature of the spirit, the emotions, and the body as a complex living being, rather than a being that you can explain only mechanically or logically. From this medical background I was visually and conceptually influenced by Clemente Susini’s Anatomical Venus, and I used Joanna Ebenstein’s book The Anatomical Venus as a reference guide for the women’s bodies within the film. Ana Mendieta is another artist whose work focused on gender, the material world and patriarchy and her series ‘Earth Body’ directly connects the human form to nature, and so all of these research topics led me to think of the human body as a natural resource, no different from the minerals and materials that we take from the earth.
This chemistry between the Earth and the body as ideas immediately made me think of visual and poetic metaphors to illustrate and connect the two. Limestone became bone and bone marrow, coal mines became mouths and throats (or could equally be linked to reproductive organs), oil channels became veins and blood. All of the interweaving processes of the body became connected to the factory production line, deconstructed and packaged for consumption. These metaphors helped me to understand the impact of what our extractive relationship to nature really feels like, and what lies at the root of our behaviour – a violent one-sided dynamic that leaves life depleted. The film was a method of calling into question and critiquing these extractive processes, and does not yet offer solutions because of this – which could be a starting point for another project or for larger conversation.
The process of making this film was as equally important to the film as the concept. As the film looks at topics of extraction, the body and production, I felt that I should make the film itself tactile and that the labour that went into making it should match factory production line work that’s defined by repetition and assembly. I decided to use the animation technique of rotoscoping, where you take a pre-made film, or edited sequence, and then draw over the frames and re-animate them. This allows the film to exist both as a moving image work and as a series of illustrations. I opted to keep the animation hand-drawn, as I’ve always been interested in the question of authorship and the hand itself within art. I’ve always felt that something of the ‘spirit’ comes through when an object is made by hand, and that it has a magic that technology cannot capture or reproduce.
Writing has always been crucial to my filmmaking practice, so I started this project by creating an outline for the structure of the film, using loose poetic writing. I began working with Luca Serventi, the sound designer on the film, from the original text onwards so he could get an idea of the textures and topics of the project to come. Having seen his previous works that focus on the many different atmospheres of industrial spaces and architectures, I knew he could bring out exactly the feeling and spirit I was looking for on this project.
Following on from the initial text, I began sourcing archive footage from the Prelinger Archives online database. After wading through many films to find the clips that fit my idea, I began editing a sequence together, readjusting and refining it with advice from Onyeka Igwe, Tereza Havadejová, Duncan Poultan and my family Nick Fudge and Michelle. Once I’d completed the draft sequence, or ‘animatic’, I began animating, always adjusting the sequence based on feedback along the way.
My personal setup was composed of a LED TV screen, a stool to prop it on, my laptop, stacks of recycled paper and coloured pencils. I would cram as many drawing sessions in as I could in order to get through the material before the deadline. After tracing each frame out I would then scan it and adjust every frame on Photoshop so that everything was lined up and would flow when played. The process was dizzying, intense and sometimes gruelling and took about two months of daily work to finish, so having completed the project I could not be more grateful and relieved to see it in its final form and to share it with you.
The Roundhouse provided crucial support that allowed me to dedicate enough time to produce this animation, and invest in my practice as a filmmaker. Being able to commission Luca Serventi to work on the soundtrack allowed me to focus on the visual aspects of the animation, freeing up the film itself for collaboration and interpretation. The mentorship the Roundhouse provided me with, and the support of Nia Childs within that process, has allowed me to gain confidence post-graduation and to make sense of a myriad of questions and concerns I had in relation to my project, and about the moving image world on a larger scale. I’m so grateful for the trust they placed in me as a filmmaker and the freedom it gave me to explore topics of feminism, extraction, archive and patriarchy.
The Film Fund is made made with the support of the Ex Animo and the Wiggin Charitable Foundation.
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