Axolotls are salamanders that, by some quirk of nature, maintain adolescent traits into adulthood–a condition called neoteny; they never mature to the point that they leave the water, like other salamander species do. As their natural habitat in Lake Xochimilco, Mexico degrades, axolotls find themselves living more and more in research labs, trapped between panes of glass and studied for their much sought after ability: staying forever young. Alice dos Reis explores these quasi-mythical pink, little aliens (whose visages have inspired Pokemon characters and memes) in her short documentary MOOD KEEP, which is at once informative and transcendental. The extended, mostly silent, scenes leave ample time for thought and insight into the ways axolotls and humans co-exist.
Axolotls have striking, humanoid features and eerie, unwavering stares. Dos Reis probes their gaze by positioning her phone and other screens to reflect off the axolotl’s aquarium glass. They watch the screens, transfixed as we are. Moreover, dos Reis interjects herself into the film in various scenes, making evident her role as filmmaker. She explains the choice in an interview on Vdrome: “there’s a tentative back-and-forth between the mirroring effects of the camera lens, the phone screen and the aquarium glass. It becomes less about looking and more about the human-made materials and devices that mediate these observing moments.”
When one axolotl develops eyelids, a bizarre mutation considering it lives in a quarantined and climate controlled aquarium, Alice dos Reis invites a fantastical imagining in which the creatures jointly decide to grow eyelids and shut their eyes forever, blocking out a world that has shut them in. Dos Reis encourages us to see axolotl, who the International Union for Conservation of Nature has deemed critically endangered, as fictitious. “Fictioning,” she says in the same Vdrome interview, “without attempting at distracting or working as a scapegoat from reality, has the empowering potential of allowing one to speculate on alternative ways of conceiving and resisting narratives that may seem unstoppable…” Through this process, she says, human and non-human animals can “play a role in avoiding further extinction by imagining spaces of radical conviviality.” Perhaps axolotls and humans can overcome institutionalized power structures and become companions.
For the month of November, watch MOOD KEEP exclusively on Sloan Science & Film.