‘A Sense of Warmth’ by Sven Johne

Artist Sven Johne’s film A Sense of Warmth (2015) was reviewed by Dr Clara Dawson of the University of Manchester who spent the autumn in Budapest as a fellow of the Institute of Advanced Study at Central European University. 

The title of ‘A Sense of Warmth’ comes from the sensation that the narrator of the film experiences upon arriving on a small and remote island, about to begin work on a project to monitor bird migration from Africa to Scandinavia. This ‘sense of warmth’ is both physical (coming from the heat of the sun) and moral: the woman believes that she will be able to live a simple and good life working for the cause of environmental science.

What the film devastatingly reveals is that the purity of her moral quest is complicated by the events that unfold when humans intervene in the ecosystem by capturing the visiting birds in nets to collect data. ‘A Sense of Warmth’ is a gentle and mesmerising film that lures the viewer in with the narrator’s calm voice, the black and white, slightly hazy images, and the elegance and beauty of the cinematography, before creating a sinister turn that upends the idealism of the woman’s narrative. Rather than making explicit judgments, the ethical complexity of the film lies in the juxtaposition of the woman’s narrative voice and the images. This juxtaposition creates a layer of irony that runs throughout the film and works to unsettle our assumptions about the binaries between corporate evil and selfless charity and between human destruction and idealism.

A particularly charged sequence comes when the woman describes her previous job working in an ‘Amazon-style’ warehouse. The workers are monitored by GPS machines and her job is to ‘optimise’ their work, admonishing or sacking them if they fail to fulfil their tasks efficiently. However, the images that roll by as she tells us of her guilt at her complicity in corporate brutality suggest that she may not be so distant from that world as she would like. The viewer becomes increasingly uncomfortable as the camera lingers on a handful of cloth bags which show the birds struggling inside, then repeats the images of the birds being held as rings are clamped on their legs and thumbs smooth out their wings against a ruler to measure them. Is this process of data collection entirely without sinister connotations?

The sense of unease and dread that is created is fulfilled and the film’s dark twist comes when the birds that are caught in the nets and monitored start to settle on the island, rather than continuing their migratory journey. Since these settled birds are now using the resources for the migratory birds that still need to stop over on their long journey, they are creating a problem for the environmental organisation whose purpose is to help migratory birds. A strong note of irony emerges in the woman’s description of how these birds were using the resources of the so-called ‘real’ migratory birds. With this one word – real – the film demonstrates how quickly a group of birds can be designated as worthy of help in one moment and in the next, when they get in the way of the organisation’s aims, they become ‘invaders’ and have to be eradicated. It shows the destructive power of humans who play god, and disrupt the birds’ ecosystem even when supposedly helping them, who then take the decision to kill the birds who do not fit into the human framework.

The film exposes how the notions of moral quest that humans create around our relation to the environment are imposed upon other species, who have to answer for the consequences of those interventions. In that sense, it can operate as a warning about the dangers of our ideological narratives about environmental justice. Even the supposed neutrality of data monitoring is a moral act, requiring decisions and creating unintended consequences resulting in human brutality. At the end, the woman mentions that she collects the bodies of the dead birds with the man she has fallen in love with. The act of the birds’ massacre thus becomes an act of shared intimacy, a grotesque and unseemly juxtaposition of love and murder that contributes to the film’s brilliant moral and aesthetic complexity.