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Film Spotlight

Living Lessons in the Museum of Order
directed by Malic Amalya, US, 20:00

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Living Lessons in the Museum of Order, directed by Malic Amalya, is a masterclass in juxtaposition. By bringing together the sights and sounds of SeaWorld and Alcatraz, the film creates complicated webs of spectacle, captivity, industry, racism, and neglect. Through sparingly-used but dramatic editing choices, it illustrates the artifice and unquestioned inhumanity of these spaces, giving voice to their subjects who are, for one reason or another, silenced.


The opening of the film, a kind of prelude, lasts for two minutes: the frame is divided in two, one panel always shows the rotting carcass of a beached whale. The other usually shows a frozen over or abandoned pool, but occasionally shows a live whale flipping its tail above the waves. All the while, a haunting whale song underscores the diptych. This is, first of all, incredibly unsettling. The fact we are hearing a whale’s calls while seeing a dead whale is downright ghostly, as if the beached whale’s spirit is calling out in lament or protest; the live whales seen could also be the source of the song, in which case it’s a song of grief. The abandoned pools visually resemble the tanks and cages to be shown later on; the footage focuses on the white support poles on a slide, the metal hardware, tubing and guardrails. In this moment before any of that is shown, they reciprocate the forlorn mood. As they collect ice and grime when not in use, they also underscore the theme of neglect. After the title comes up, we see a record player on the beach; a hand turns it off and the whale songs stop. The hand puts the vinyl away and places another record of whale songs on, and it starts again. This simply demonstrates the purposeful semblance or construction of nature that the spaces were about to be shown employ. The SeaWorld footage is more explicit about the victims and consequences of this construction, but the mere juxtaposition raises interesting questions about the way we think of prisons.


The bulk of Living Lessons in the Museum of Order juxtaposes footage of SeaWorld’s fantastical orca shows with an “immersive audio tour” of Alcatraz called Doing Time. Both are narrated, the SeaWorld show by a perky female voice listing facts about killer whales, while Doing Time has a gruff, older man telling you where to look and when to move as if you were a prisoner. The most arresting combination of sound and visuals is the Doing Time narration over the SeaWorld show, as it draws into sharp focus how the seemingly joyful, magical movements of the orcas are just as regimented as the procession of the prisoners. Later in the film, the narration becomes choppy and erratic and overlapping as the orcas “turn”, “move ahead” and even “stop” in midair on command, accompanied by distorted whale calls and flashes of orca x-rays. There’s a moment early in the film when, before we’ve heard any of the Doing Time tour, the SeaWorld show is juxtaposed with exterior shots of an abandoned Alcatraz and just as the perky young presenter described how the killer whale’s fluke helps it propel all the way into the air. The music swells, but the image the follows is simply a dull gray brick and the plants that have grown around it. The film denies us the spectacle of this moment, using the visuals to remind us that the performer lives in captivity. 


A third example of restrictive and dominating practices emerges, as the film points to the Native American Occupation of Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971. There is no news footage or interviews or any on-screen presence of those Native people, but their provocative graffiti marks Alcatraz in perpetuity; one reads “F**k Amerikkka... You Live on Stolen Land.” In a 2019 New York Times retrospective on the occupation, Ojibwe journalist David Treuer describes how American culture renders the people who were here first: “Native people are America’s most visible invisible minority. We occupy a lot of America’s head space — a fundamental part of the country’s self-regard and the stories it tells about itself — but most Americans will go their entire lives without having any kind of prolonged, sustained contact with us in person. Native people are met as myth in the mind or not at all.”* Pushed to the margins, invisible, much like the prisoners who are divested of their civil rights, privacy, and autonomy by institutions like Alcatraz. The film observes the uniquely American character of its three main subjects: dehumanizing prison industry, domination over nature, and forced removal of Indigenous peoples.  


The last four minutes of the film are more low-key, almost chilling. First, a schmaltzy commercial jingle for SeaWorld plays slowed and slurred, exalts the subject of the song (an orcas) as “a friend of ours”, as beautiful and beloved, black and white. The cheap sentiment is evident in the distortion of the song, as it plays from a vintage computer which sits on a cinderblock in front of a mirror. When the song ends, it is followed by shots of SeaWorld in the same style as the exteriors of Alcatraz— simple, handheld, looking through the bars at the glossy black whales; it even cuts back and forth between exteriors of Alcatraz to belabor the similarities. One shot is of two trainers in wetsuits at the tank’s edge, they point left and start walking while the orcas follow their lead; the gesture is not aggressive, but it’s far from the grandiose warmth of the song, it’s more reminiscent of a warden at a jail. The film ends with epitaphs for two SeaWorld Orcas named Amaya and Nakai (6 and 21 years old respectively; an orca’s lifespan is between 50-90), and a quote that reads: “I love you with a love of screams. I love you with a love of witness.” This film is a testament to that sort of love.


- Dexter Mosburg, BFA Film Production ‘24


* Treuer, David. ”How a Native American Resistance Held Alcatraz for 18 Months.” New York Times, Nov. 20, 2019.

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Living Lessons in the Museum of Order, directed by Malic Amalya, is a remarkable piece of art that examines the imprisonment of humans and animals on display. The film compares stories of orcas at SeaWorld and the prisoners of the former Alcatraz prison, both located in California. The film consists of 16mm footage, VHS footage, and analog video blended together to tell these stories, and both stories are presented as parallel, with the film going back and forth to show the imprisonment present in both locations. Isolation is presented, whether it be in a cell or in a tank.


The film opens with two shots side by side of totally abandoned environments. As the sound of killer whale calls play, the visuals, emphasizing emptiness, show in succession an old swimming pool, a dead orca washed up on shore, and an orca swimming in the ocean. Already, the film has introduced themes of life, death, and grief. The film also emphasizes the prisoners’ and orcas’ shared loneliness, isolation, and role as a display item: we see the prison cells through bars, we see water tanks through glass, both to hold the captive in and giving them no place to hide.


The film makes its comparison between the orcas and human prisoners more overt in a sequence that shows a discussion of the dorsal fin of the whales and their similar bone structure to the human hand. As the audio and visuals overlap and intercut, the significance and weight of these spaces is amplified. The dishonesty of how both spaces are presented to the public becomes very apparent, until the overlapping audio turns all of the spoken words incoherent. Soon, the audio from the Alcatraz tour is matched to images of SeaWorld, as an orca on-screen moves as if responding to commands from the prison. This editing technique illustrates the power dynamic of the controlling environment that SeaWorld has on its animals. We see the repetitiveness of the orcas’ actions, as they must do the same actions over and over until they satisfy their handlers.

- Destanii Morales, BFA Film Production '24

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