The cinema is a marvellous apparatus for taking us outside ourselves and outside of the world in which we believe ourselves to live. 

– Jean Epstein1

What does ‘becoming nonhuman’ mean in relation to the cinema? As a nonhuman medium, the cinema produces images of life through mechanical means, ostensibly representing living entities and experiences as equal whether human, animal, plant, matter, atmosphere, or sensations. From its beginnings in the form of the short film, or actualities, the cinema has acknowledged the equality of bodies, human and nonhuman, and their unique forms, ways of being and different kinds of spaces they inhabit in the actual world. It is the utilisation of a point of view, almost always from the perspective of the human, that has––unconsciously or otherwise––undermined this equilibrium. The gradual insertion and dominance of the human perspective over decades of cinematic history has eroded the shared presence of human and nonhuman characteristic of much early cinema. The latter is nowhere more evident than in the Lumière brother’s remarkable 1895 film Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon, regarded as the first box office hit, although not the first film. Here we see and experience the flow of people, bicycles, dogs, and a horse-drawn carriage as they pour through the factory’s enormous gates, human and nonhuman, enacting the time-honoured ritual of leaving the factory for home. The Lumière brothers made three versions of the film, all of which interestingly capture images of dogs: one sleeps, another runs after a woman worker, another greets a man on a bicycle, one bounds in front of the crowd, while another appears as the gates begin to close. 

We also experience the beginnings of cinematic narrative created around the departing workers, mainly women, and the presence of the dogs either sleeping, or searching expectantly for their human companions. Although shot in one continuous take this remarkable film/s creates its own point of view particularly through the unrehearsed, spontaneous bounding of one large dog as it works its way through the crowd. The bustling human figures leaving work are relatively anonymous; it is the dog whose presence breaks down barriers between human and nonhuman. In this moment we see through the animal’s eyes, identify with its quest, as it scans the crowd searching for its human companion. Arguably, the first point of view sequence in cinema history originates with a nonhuman creature in Lumière brothers’ film. In recognizing the significance of this, we replace an anthropocentric perspective with nonhuman ways of looking. In all three versions of Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, each one of slightly different length, the dogs steal the show. Cinema’s first film begins and ends with a human/nonhuman entanglement. This allows us to move from the question of anthropomorphism to the possibility of becoming through the interconnected gaze of the camera and the spectator. Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory speaks to us now with renewed power as we explore the meaning of Haraway’s ‘we have never been human’ in relation to this historic film, which is free from the pressures imposed by an anthropocentric perspective. It is remarkable for its depiction of the many and varied figures––human and nonhuman––that so easily occupy a shared space. 

Cinematic techniques such as the close-up, the long shot and lighting, among others, aim to make perceptible the sensory quality of the filmed world. Here the material environment comes alive under the notion of photogénie popularised by Jean Epstein and Louis Delluc in the early 1920s. Photogénie describes the capacity of the mechanical medium to animate objects, animals, plants, people, and places in a manner that enhances the viewer’s sensorium. Cinema ––as in the Lumière brothers’ film––animates the world, bringing its nonhuman life into light. 

Richard Grusin’s edited collection The Nonhuman Turn (2015) argues that the concept of ‘nonhuman’ is central to new developments in critical theory, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. He sees a growing interest in the nonhuman as indicative of a widespread desire to decentre the human ‘in favour of a turn towards and concern for the nonhuman, understood variously in terms of animals, affectivity, bodies, organic and geophysical systems, materiality, or technologies’.2 Various theorists from a range of disciplines (feminist new materialism, queer theory, animal studies, philosophy) have offered similar but different perspectives: Jane Bennett emphasises the crucial importance of rethinking our relationship to the material world around us through the lens of ‘vibrant matter’; Karen Barad draws on her theory of ‘agential realism’ to explore the entanglement of matter and meaning; Donna Haraway argues ‘we have never been human’, as do Bruno Latour, Eduardo Mendieta and Brian Gareau. Haraway takes particular delight in dissecting the composition of the human body:

I love the fact that human genomes can be found in only about 10 percent of all the cells that occupy the mundane space I call my body; the other 90 percent of the cells are filled with the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists, and such . . .3   

While none of the above theorists work in screen studies, their approaches have begun to inspire writings on film and the nonhuman. In the cinema, science fiction and horror genres have always drawn on Haraway’s malleability of the human body, its alienness, the weakness of its borders, and its susceptibility to invasion by other species, artificial intelligence, organisms such as fungi (which shares 50 percent of its DNA with humans) and which is explored with abject affect in The Girl with all the Gifts and The Last of Us. These theorists emphasise the indistinction of the human from the nonhuman––a critical factor that anthropocentrism denies––explored in these relatively subversive genres. 

Ian James states that all living beings must be treated equally in a new kind of relationship that he calls ‘the nonhuman demand’.4 He concludes that ‘we do not know what we or they really mean or are’.5 We must return to the nonhuman world of animals, plants and things and ‘start again’.6  What might this mean for the viewer? In the turn to the nonhuman in film, this means we need to rethink forms of representation, and the centrality of the anthropocentric gaze.  It has become important to focus more on life-forms apart from the human and unlearn the assumptions we have made about other creatures. If we aim to construct a common we, with our similarities and differences considered, it becomes necessary to embrace nonhuman images as bodies that matter. 

What we are arguing for is a need for the spectator to approach a film text from the perspective of ‘becoming nonhuman’. What does this involve? As the collection of essays in this Dossier emphasise, directly and through their analyses, it is crucial to re-think anthropocentrism whose values are ubiquitous and particularly evident in the way the film is shot, point of view, and narrative form. How are nonhuman entities, including animals, landscapes, bodies, matter, technologies, the material world, and robotics filmed? How does the film address the human spectator? Are identificatory positions relatively fixed or does the film create a space for the spectator to experience a sense of becoming –– of becoming nonhuman, of recognizing the nonhuman demand. What is the nature of the human and nonhuman sensorium?  What might they share in common and how might they differ? 

We support the thesis that it is humankind’s invention of the myth of human superiority based on the exclusion of other species, and their needs, from our discourses that have led to the seemingly insurmountable problems of the twenty-first century such as global warming, climate change, the explosion of the human population and species extinction. In order to address these issues, it is crucial to re-think all forms of cultural, social and political representation from film to the arts and new media.

A further unique characteristic of the cinema, relevant to this discussion, is that it brings all forms of life into being through the interaction of human and nonhuman. The human subject, whether a professional actor or member of the public, adult or child, performs for the camera, the eye of the camera, a mechanical device that faithfully records everything it sees. It is this meeting between human and nonhuman––person and camera–– that adds an important dimension to how we think about the entanglement of these two entities. If as Grusin argues ‘the human has always coevolved, coexisted, or collaborated with the nonhuman’,7 this is particularly evident in the interrelationship between human performer and camera. This nexus undercuts an anthropocentric view of the cinema which overvalues the importance of the human in a film’s creation and meaning, which are produced through both the human and mechanical lens. In what sense might the ‘mechanical eye’ have a life of its own? Why do we endow it with an ‘eye’ usually reserved for ‘living’ matter? Do the camera’s atoms and particles ‘live’?   

Directors from a range of stylistic traditions, from documentary to avant-garde and surrealist cinema, have engaged with the meaning of the human and nonhuman and the problems arising from anthropocentrism, human narcissism, cruelty, and the oppression of the other. These themes are central to films such as Blood of the Beasts (Franju, 1945), Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson, 1966), The Cove (Psihoyos, 2009), Under the Skin (Glazer, 2013) Border (Abassi, 2018), Cow (Arnold, 2021), and It’s Night in America (Vaz, 2022). A different but related group of texts explore the meaning of the human and nonhuman in relation to nature and landscape as evident in Grass (Schoedsack & Cooper, 1925), Woman in the Dunes (Teshigahara, 1964), The Turin Horse (Tarr & Hranitzky, 2011), Leviathan (Taylor and Paravel, 2012), and The River (Peedom & Nizeti, 2021). The essays and interviews in this Dossier investigate this new and confronting approach to film and to the way in which we understand ‘the human’. We believe these essays offer an important discussion of what it means for cinematic representation, ethics, voice, narrative and the senses when we talk about the human becoming nonhuman.

This Dossier emerged from a program of screenings and lectures held at The University of Melbourne in 2022 on the topic of ‘Film and the Nonhuman’. The series was organised jointly by the ‘Human Rights and Animal Ethics Research Network’ (HRAE) and ‘Screening Ideas’ co-ordinated by Barbara Creed and Cristóbal Escobar respectively.


  1. Jean Epstein, ‘Alcool et cinéma’, Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations, eds Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul, trans Thao Nguyen (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012), p. 395.
  2. Richard Grusin (ed.), The Nonhuman Turn (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), p. viii.
  3. Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008) pp. 3-4.
  4. Ian James, 2019, ‘The Nonhuman Demand’, Paragraph 42.1: 6-21.
  5. James, 2019, p. 21.
  6. James, 2019, p. 21.
  7. Grusin, 2015, pp. ix-x

About The Author

Cristóbal Escobar is Lecturer in Screen Studies at The University of Melbourne and Film Programmer at the Santiago International Documentary Film Festival. Cristóbal co-edited with Barbara Creed the ‘Film and Nonhuman’ Dossier at Senses of Cinema (Issue 109) and he is the author of The Intensive-Image in Deleuze’s Film-Philosophy (Edinburgh University Press, 2023). His current research project investigates the aesthetics of mestizaje in contemporary Latin American cinema. Barbara Creed is Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of eight books, including The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (1993); Darwin’s Screens: Evolutionary Aesthetics, Time & Sexual Display In The Cinema (2009); Stray: Human-Animal Ethics in The Anthropocene (2017); and Return of the Monstrous-Feminine: Feminist New Wave Cinema (2022). Her writings have been translated into eleven languages for publication in academic journals and anthologies.

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