SXSW 2023 Review: “The Arc of Oblivion” Navigates a Flood of Ideas About Cultural Preservation

“Why are you building this?” Ian Cheney’s mother can be heard saying off-camera in “The Arc of Oblivion” as her son starts work on a boat in the backyard of their home in rural Maine. Surely he explained that he would be building a full-sized ark on their property to gain permission to do so, but when he brings in the carpenter David Benner to actually start constructing the hull of the ship, no amount of preparation it seems would’ve allowed Merilyn Cheney to completely comprehend the foundation for Ian’s latest doc, an amusing contradiction among many that the director contends with as he aims to quantify the human need to keep records of their history.

For Cheney, this is a greater existential question than most as someone whose chosen vocation has meant carrying around voluminous archives from various shoots throughout the years, all now stored on hard drives that seem to hold less and less importance to him over time when he’s always onto the next. However, in an era when human memory is being replaced by technology all over for better or worse, it’s a concern that opens up a fascinating dialogue for the filmmaker, who invites a number of scientists of varying specialties to the ark in Maine to consider how collective memory is constructed while venturing everywhere from Majorca, Spain to Gmunden, Austria to observe those intent on preserving it through what means are available to them organically.

It may seem as if pessimism is driving “The Arc of Oblivion” when it originates from the idea that we all turn to dust and so does our history, at least eventually, yet even if a cloud of resignation looms over the proceedings, Cheney brushes it back with an infectious enthusiasm as people actively speak of how legacies are built and maintained, with nature offering its own memory when footprints of goats can remain in the sand for centuries and the rings of trees can tell stories while humans’ natural compulsion to collect and preserve items of meaning continues to evolve with the times, though the habit itself presses on unabated. Well before Cheney enlists his brother Colin to attempt to compose the film’s scores from the sounds made by ephemera from their parents’ attic, the director is able to articulate the tactility of people’s relationships to their past and a desire to bring it into the world when it only seems available to them psychologically.

Bringing these ideas out into the open along with the ark, a set piece that simply cannot be ignored, proves to be the engaging conversation starter that Cheney would hope for, not only on screen, but spilling off of it when the film tackles how personal inventories can create holes or patch them up in a larger historical sweep as a reflection of what’s important at the time and what individual responsibility there is to the whole. Yasmin Glinton Poitier may want the record to show how she’s become focused squarely on the here and now after surviving a hurricane and losing much of her family archive in the process, no longer having much interesting in preserving time gone by and not wanting to be reminded, yet you wonder what that might mean in the long term when contrasted with the dogged work of journalists Erin and Brian Palmer, who excavate cemeteries with the goal of giving shape to the lives of African-Americans in the pre-Antebellum South, only having unidentified corpses to go by rather than keepsakes that could paint a more vivid picture.

Still, Cheney is careful to identify the highly subjective nature of anything related to human memory, not only in what is chosen to keep or discard but how it is shaped unconsciously by experience and accepting that there’s no easy answer to whether or not anything we do can leave a mark on the earth in our time here, “The Arc of Oblivion” is at least memorable enough to make one of its own on us.

“The Arc of Oblivion” will next screen at CPH:DOX on March 20th at 10:30 am at the Cinemateket, March 23rd at 9:30 pm at Cinemateket and March 26th at 4:15 pm at the Aveny-T.

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