DVD Review Of Where The Green Ants Dream
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/5/07
There are three distinct styles of German director Werner Herzog’s films. There are his great, deep, and memorable fictive films- such as Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser, and Fitzcarraldo, there are his smaller evocative documentary-like films- such as Fata Morgana, Little Dieter Needs To Fly, and Grizzly Man, and then there are his unclassifiable films- such as Even Dwarfs Started Small, Heart Of Glass, and 1984’s Where The Green Ants Dream (Wo Die Grünen Ameisen Traümen). Whereas Even Dwarfs Started Small is an enigmatic study on Fascism that is beyond evaluation on a normal scale, and Heart Of Glass was filmed with its actors hypnotized, Where The Green Ants Dream is an odd concoction that mixes all three of Herzog’s styles, along with the excellent cinematography of Jorg Schmidt-Reitwein, in its 95 minute running time.
Like many of his films it involves Native Peoples- this time it’s not Africans (Cobra Verde) nor American Indians (Aguirre: The Wrath Of God and Fitzcarraldo) but Australian Aborigines. The film was based upon the then burgeoning Aboriginal Rights Movement and their initial lawsuit against a mining company that wanted to drill in lands the natives considered holy. After filming Fitzcarraldo, which drained Herzog emotionally, financially, and creatively, he stumbled upon the story while promoting the earlier film in Australia. To avoid a lawsuit by the real mining company, Nabalco, he changed the company’s name, the product they were drilling for, and added his own made up mythos of the green ants, for he felt it more suitable and poetic than the more standard issue and nebulous claims of the real Aborigines.
What sets this film apart from most is that it does not look nor feel like a major motion picture by a famed director. Instead, it feels like a first film by a young independent filmmaker, and I mean that in the best sense. Despite some wonderful scenery, Herzog is not fixated on natural splendor- such as rather brief shots of miles and miles of holes dug into the ground for opals and the resultant dirt and sand piled up and left to sit, something most filmmakers would ogle over, and spends far more time on the simple, unfolding tale. Yet, it does not focus on the human players as much as the issue of Native Rights vs. those accorded by old treaties.
The lead character is a tall, blond, bespectacled geologist called Lance Hackett (Bruce Spence), who works for the A.S. Mining Company- which is in the uranium mining business. The film opens with him in his office trailer on the outskirts of a small town, Coober Pedy, in the Australian Outback desert. An old lady, Miss Strehlow (Colleen Clifford), who has lost a pooch in their tunnels is asking him for help in locating the dog, named Ben Franklin. He tries to pacify the old lady when he is informed of an Aborigine protest on the land by his older lead worker, a bigot named Cole (Ray Barrett).
Hackett rushes out to see what is the matter and encounters two of the Aboriginal Elders, Miliritbi (Wandjuk Marika) and Dayipu (Roy Marika). Even though the site is not accorded reservation status by the Australian government, the two claim that their tribe views the site as a holy site, for it is where the green ants dream up all life, and if the company destroys it the world will end. They and their tribe are engaging in a sit down strike. Here is where Herzog deftly walks a tightrope. While not giving in to the PC and New Age wackiness of such beliefs, he does show the company trying to bend over backward to appease the Aborigines. They do not accept any such offers, and eventually the two parties- the tribe and the company, must go to court.
There are some funny scenes- such as when company officials fly the two Elders to Melbourne, to negotiate, and they get stuck in an elevator while riding up a skyscraper. Eventually they are freed, but Hackett suggests it is all a dream, and they are really still stuck in the elevator. Sure enough, on their way down the elevator conks out again, and the claim by Hackett seems to be fulfilled. There are a few moments where the film gets too preachy, such as when Hackett visits Arnold, a supposed local white expert on Aboriginal culture (Nicolas Lathouris)- who also is a bigot of the worst order, but against his own culture, and the man merely preens and screams at Hackett as some harbinger of evil white culture, but most of the film is a bit less preachy.
The Aborigines are shown to have their own silly customs, such as when- during the courtroom scene, the courtroom must be cleared of spectators due to Aboriginal belief that something bad will occur. Yet, the whites are no less silly, and midway through the film there’s a funny scene where Hackett is meeting with a white entomologist. Fletcher . (Ralph Cotterill), who explains the facts behind the magnetically attuned green ants- which are not really ants, although they look that way. Instead, they are a variety of termites and more closely related to roaches than ants. The glee that the insect expert seems to rub off on Hackett is both perverse and funny to watch. Yet, like most of the film, there is no musical accompaniment. This is probably the Herzog film least dependent upon his key musical ear, and most dependent upon the story alone. Thus, very little is made of Native music from the didgeridoo, which is heard only a few brief times. The film is also notable because it was one of the few times that- till that point, Herzog’s regular musical partner, Florian Fricke of Popul Vuh, did not work with him.
Eventually, the company appeases the Aborigines by loaning them a green airplane, but after the Aborigines lose in court, a drunken Aborigine, who was in the Australian military takes the plane off to fly and loses it up in the mountains. A search is launched, and the film ends as it started- with some enigmatic shots of tornadoes filmed in Oklahoma, a tale by Hackett, to the old lady- who is still waiting outside one of the tunnels with an opened can of dog food that has dried and become food for flies, and Hackett telling her of a dream he had where he is watched by Catholic School students and nuns as he pisses in his pants and causes a river to flow. The last scene of the film shows Hackett back at the white Aborigine expert, who now accepts him as a ‘good’ member of the white race, and Hackett seems to go off into the desert to live in the expert’s old home made of a larger steel water barrel.
Because of the rather trite nature of the confrontation, admixed with its odd presentation, Where The Green Ants Dream is a film that is difficult to classify. There are funny scenes of Aborigines in business suits when in court, and holding religious ceremonies in supermarkets where a holy tree once stood- a tree needed for the men in the tribe to dream up their children before they are conceived, and humorously sad scenes, such as when Cole explodes to Hackett that Aborigine children have drained his Caterpillar of oil so they can sniff it to get high. The film is not a character study, not a true fiction, but a quasi-documentary-like film. That it does not go overboard on the New Age nonsense nor the Noble Savage reverse racism is good, but a bit more development of Hackett- whose life outside work seems to consist of listening to cassette replays of Argentina’s first World Cup Soccer victory and getting turned down for dates by local women, would have been good, as would a bit more background on the town and some minor characters- such as a few company executives, like Baldwin Ferguson (Norman Kaye), and other Aborigines- such as the man they call a Mute because he is the last person on earth who can speak his native tribal tongue, would have made the film better. These minor flaws can be blamed on the too spare screenplay by Herzog and Bob Ellis, who also has a cameo role as the local supermarket manager. The acting in the film is also not the best in the Herzog canon. Like many films that try to use authentic ethnic actors, there is a small pool to choose from, so the film suffers for this. I am reminded of the poorly acted Eskimo film of a few years back, Atanarjuat. That said, even the white actors are not top notch, as Spence spends much of the film with his mouth agape and looking like Lurch from the old The Addams Family sitcom.
The DVD, put out by Infinity Arthouse, is well transferred- although it has a bit more of a made for television movie in its look, and shown in a 16:9 full frame aspect ratio. The extras are rather spare- a Herzog bio, German and English trailers, a trailer for a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film, and a commentary by Herzog, along with an interviewer, but done in German, with English subtitles. As usual, Herzog’s comments are among the best out in the DVD market, as he both explains what was on his mind with a particular scene or actor, as well as often digressing in a truly creative fashion, on the mythos behind said scenes and characters. The best example is when he describes the genesis of this film, from an earlier trip promoting Fitzcarraldo, and how the making of this film led into his eventual making of Cobra Verde, by meeting the author Bruce Chatwin while in the country.
Where The Green Ants Dream is not Herzog at his greatest, but it is an interesting and good little film that rises above the contemporary condescending approach to Natives, and compels anyone who starts watching it to finish watching it. Just compare it to the ongoing American obsessions with Noble Savage Native Americans and Mystical Negroes, and the difference is clear. In the commentary, Herzog even laments that this film is too preachy at times, in scenes with both the Elders and the small minded Arnold, and how his own personal disagreement with the Green parties around the world are due to their lack of empathy for humans, while praising nature at all costs. It is especially noteworthy to compare this film to the work of Native American director Chris Eyre, who made Smoke Signals and Skins, for one can see numerous areas where the younger director could learn much from a Master like Herzog, who, even when not in top form, can create compelling art that lasts, even if in ways as odd as his subject matter.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Laura Hird.com website.]
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