Filmmaker Focus: Catherine Chalmers

We explore the controlled chaos world of Catherine Chalmers, whose film Safari stunned the 46th AAFF audience with its hyper close-up view of insects and other creatures.

"After working with the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) for a decade, (wow, is that a long time with roaches!) I have moved on to a new project with leaf-cutter ants. 

The cockroach project, of which Safari (AAFF 2008) is a part, includes five videos, twenty-seven photographs, twenty drawings, and three large sculptures.  The entire series, shown together for the first time, is at the Boise Art Museum until November 9th.  (Link to installation shots

I first saw leaf-cutter ants nine years ago while trekking through the rain forest in Costa Rica.  They cut bits and pieces of leaves and flowers, which they carry to an underground nest along immaculate superhighways that crisscross the forest floor like colorful, flickering line drawings.  I immediately knew I wanted to work with them, but at the time was knee-deep in roaches.  That trip initiated a wealth of research notes and ideas.  What did I want the project to be? How did I want to interact with them?  And why were they so intriguing? 

Beyond the conceptual quandary was a logistical problem.  They live in Central America and I live in New York City.   And I had never worked in the field before.  Up until this project, I raised all the animals I worked with and filmed them in my studio. 

An opportunity dropped in my lap that was beyond perfection.  A collector who saw Safari at the International Center of Photography in New York assumed I had shot it in the wild.  He owns a large island in Panama where he built a research lab for scientists ( and generously invited me to come and create an artwork.  After years of kicking ideas around in my head I had a month to switch gears into production. 

Ants have fascinating parallels with humans.  They have large complex societies and sophisticated communication; they wage war and take slaves; they tend and feed off of other animals and, in the case of leaf-cutters, they are agriculturalists.  “Ants have colonized almost every landmass on earth and they dominate most ecosystems.  Their success has been attributed to their social organization, ability to modify their habitats, tap resources and defend themselves.  They have an ability to solve complex problems.”* 

Sound like us?  These shared traits paved the way for our mutual ubiquity on earth.  The hubris it takes to colonize the planet inspired the heart of this project. 

Leaf-cutter ants, marching with their plunder from the forest, remind me of the soldiers in Mantegna’s paintings of Caesar’s procession through Rome displaying booty from the spoils of war.  (The Triumphs of Caesar, c. 1484-92)   Would it be so far fetched to allow ants to share our language of superiority?

The walls of the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria, built in the 9th century B.C., were lined with magnificent stone relief panels.  Across these large tablets are repeating passages of text describing the king as “the chosen one,” “the king of the world,” “the subjugator of the unsubmissive,” “who rules the total sum of all,” “who tramples his enemies” and “who crushes all adversaries.”  This type of sentiment can be found throughout history, but I had admired these sublime stone carvings for years not knowing the meaning of the cuneiform text.  The height of art from this empire was over-written with the words of supremacy and domination.

I have taken pieces of this text (from the standard translation), modified it and recomposed ten lines that interweave through the entire multimedia leaf-cutter ant project. 


After reading and consulting with entomologists, and working with an mature colony of Atta cephalotes in Panama, I figured out a way for the ants to parade with these words as they march through the endangered rain forest.  The first video, WE RULE, is finished and I have two more to go.  Stay tuned."

     *From Wikipedia

To learn more about Catherine Chalmers and her work, visit:

Posted on December 05th, 2008