Experiments in Nature – Four Short Films

Time for a change of pace (in many ways) – four short films about nature (ranging from 16-39 minutes in length) which use various techniques to play with the viewer’s experience of time, expanding beyond their boundaries to occupy a greater subjective duration. In this selection, filmmakers from Thailand, Vietnam, Iceland and England bring their perspectives to the Mekong River, the shores of Antarctica and the jungles of Costa Rica.

Ashes [Năng-sân jàak] (2012) came about when Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Cemetery of Splendor, reviewed here) was commissioned to make a short film using a LomoKino, a hand-cranked film camera which turns reality into a juddery sequence of still images. Beginning in a rural locality with a girl on a bike, Weerasethakul’s film gradually shifts from a straighforward representation of reality into more abstract takes through the use of different varieties of film stock. He jumps back to concrete reality with some urban scenes before mixing the settings, running parallel tracks of footage out of synch with other and layering multiple images to create a stained glass window effect. Halfway through he cycles back to a repetition of the opening footage before introducing a narration by fellow filmmaker Chaisiri Jirawangsan, talking about a dream town he feels compelled to dedicating the rest of his life recreating in drawings and paintings. This section is accompanied by out-of-focus shots of various unidentified people, including a brief glimpse of Tilda Swinton. The film ends with a fireworks display, switching partway through back to smoother digital camera footage in a move intended to highlight the death of old ways of creating film. Oh, and apparently King Kong is in there somewhere… not that I spotted him. I can’t really say that the various components came together in a unified whole, but I did enjoy some of the experimental techniques on display.

Vietnamese multimedia artist Thao Nguyen Phan took inspiration from Ashes in the creation of her own short film Becoming Alluvium (2019), which was “inspired by the beauty and suffering of the Mekong” (a river which is also featured, if less prominently, in Weerasethakul’s film). The opening captions reproduce a poem by Marguerite Duras lamenting the ways in which human attempts to control nature result in its destruction before revealing the film’s title, associating this gradual degradation with the river’s natural process of eating away at the land. Each section highlights different aspects of the river, including cultural aspects drawn from Lao and Khmer folktales. The story of a dam breaking and killing many villagers becomes a tale of reincarnation, in which two boys continue their friendship as an Irrawaddy dolphin and a water hyacinth. We switch from the more intimate waterways of the river to wide open spaces and accompany a ferry as it transports commuters in cars and on motorcycles from one side to the other. The next section showcases a stunning exhibition of dragon-based sculpture constructed from natural plants, fibres and textiles while captions appropriated from Calvino critique the wasteful nature of urban life. The scene moves from plastic-strewn rubbish heaps to children playing on the river inside an inflatable plastic ball, tarnishing the otherwise innocent scene by associating it with thoughtless pollution. The final sequence is a beautifully rendered animation of watercolour illustrations telling the story of a selfish princess who demands the impossible, a necklace made of dewdrops. The ecological theme of the film is once again served when the princess is finally made to realise the unreasonable nature of her request (although I’m not sure why none of the humans in the story possesses a head – it’s neck stumps all the way). The framing conceit of three reincarnations gives the final film a greater sense of cohesion compared to its inspiration, making it more of an anthology on a single theme than Weerasethakul’s piece.

Celebrated Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson sadly passed away in 2018 at the age of 49. Towards the end of his life he made two films, in which his skill at matching images to music was very much to the fore. I’ve previously reviewed his final film Last and First Men (2020), a feature-length adaptation of early 20th century SF author Olaf Stapledon’s novel, which recontextualised Yugoslavian sculptures as relics of future human civilisation. End of Summer (2014) lacks any such narrative and is more of an abstract mood piece populated by penguins – and hopefully the viewer is a fan of penguins, because there are a lot of them on display here! After opening on an Antarctic seascape, we quickly transition to land and meet the penguins. Over the next 20 minutes the penguins begin to populate more and more of the screen, alternately still or busily moving about in footage which has been slowed down sufficiently to make their progress appear portentous, purposeful, and almost painfully prolonged. I’d love to say something more about the progression of these images or the development of the score as it slowly introduces a wordless vocal component, but I spaced out several times during this section, my visual field filled with penguins as strings layered over field recordings washed over me. The final 10 minutes of the film shift away from the penguins to depict wider expanses of the Antarctic seas and the land masses peppering them. A majestic shot from above gazing back towards the shore reveals the tiny heads of penguins dipping in and out of the water as they swim away from shore, our last glimpse of the penguins before the shadows of the dark outcroppings become more and more dominant with the gradual setting of the sun, a starkly beautiful but melancholy farewell to a landscape now absent of life. Although I found Last and First Men to be a more satisfying experience, the final third of End of Summer carries a charge of its own which (for me) elevated the effect of the preceding material.

Winding down to an even more glacial pace is English experimental filmmaker Ben Rivers’ Now, at Last! (2018), filmed over five days in the Costa Rican jungle. The star of this film is Cherry, a sloth, who we observe for a single protracted shot lasting over 10 minutes as she slowly climbs a tree before falling asleep. Suddenly the Everly Brothers break burst forth from the soundtrack singing “Unchained Melody” while a super-imposed RGB video effect of Cherry wriggles around over the still footage. Then it’s back to another sustained 5 minutes of Cherry climbing another tree, before switching to extended close-up shots such as her upside-down face, or her claws as seen from above the branch. Eventually it’s back to “Unchained Melody” and an outbreak of livelier colourised movement, leaving just over 10 minutes remaining to watch Cherry dangling from a branch, sleeping again. Watching a sloth for 40 minutes straight is a tough ask for most audiences, and I have to admit to cheating a bit – I split my attention between the film and playing a game on my phone for most of its length – but when I finally put the phone down and just watched Cherry in inaction, I did find it quite a restful experience. I haven’t got a clue what exactly Rivers was trying to achieve with his musical interludes, but it was a relaxing (if puzzling) way to while away the late afternoon.

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