Film Reviews
Photo courtesy of Abramorama

Director Ian Cheney interrogates a captivating, complex issue in his documentary “The Arc of Oblivion.” What elements contribute to memory, how accurate are our recollections, and what drives historically extensive projects to archive sociocultural documents. At the heart of this inquiry rests the fear that nothing really ever lasts, it just changes shape, as the film convincingly contends.  

Cheney presents his far-ranging examination of memory and the pursuit of permanence in an entertaining, idiosyncratic way. He decides to build an ark in a field at parents’ rural Maine home. But as quirky as this sounds, and it is, complete with video monitors in the ark for interviews, Cheney also speaks with serious scientists and visits significant archival repositories. He examines the emotional and physical challenges of collecting, interpreting, and preserving nothing less than our personal and communal history.

In this engaging analysis, Cheney talks with geologists, writers, historians, journalists, archeologists, neuroscientists, exotoxicologists, and more. He acknowledges the transient nature of memory and the dream of using technology to beat oblivion, as he says. From exploration of tree rings to limestone sediment, diaries to music as a memory aid, ceramic tile storage to African-American cemeteries, Cheney recognizes the myriad ways individuals attempt to understand and cope with impermanence. Always a charming guide, Cheney visits a salt mine in Hallstatt, Austria where he’ll inspect 40,000 year-old footprints in the rock. He’ll learn more in bat caves in Majorca, Spain, and in libraries being destroyed by sand and animals in Chinguetti, Mauritania.

Every journey leads him back to the initial conundrum as Cheney struggles to answer his initial question, “Are we insane to imagine anything can last?” Executive producer Werner Herzog gets almost the last word, reading Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 poem “Ozymandias,” beautifully capturing the transience of our world. 

“The Arc of Oblivion” screens at Webster University’s Winifred Moore auditorium Friday, February 23, through Sunday, February 25, at 7:00 each of those evenings. For more information, you may visit the film series website.

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