Thursday, November 11, 2021

Where the Green Ants Dream, Clearcut, and the "white saved"

(Edited slightly in the wake of revisiting the film!)

For those who haven't seen it, Where the Green Ants Dream, playing Nov. 11th at the Cinematheque, is a terrific, very interesting early English-language film of Werner Herzog's, shot in Australia in the  1980's. It's the sort of film you will remember and want to share and discuss with friends. The Cinematheque guide, linked above, rightly describes it in terms of its aboriginal involvement, and captures the film's content well, if briefly. If you want more information, there is no shortage of interesting writing online about the land claims case that inspired the narrative and provided two central cast members, or the limitations of Herzog's "use" of/ interest in the Aborigines

I do have a comment or two to add, but first, let me briefly wax lowbrow (and reveal my white suburban working class heritage) and give you a more familiar, more trivial reason to see it: Bruce Spence stars - the whirlybird guy from The Road Warrior! And he's great - playing a well-meaning but slightly clueless liberal geologist who is ultimately (spoiler!) inspired to reject Western Civilization and go back to the land (or the desert) to live in a saner way,. Some of the rants in the film about the west - "your civilization destroys everything, including itself," as one angry recluse declaims at Spence - are potent enough they could be coming from (so-called "anti-civilization advocate") Derrick Jensen. Have you ever contemplated whether western civilization was in fact a deeply destructive mistake, a disaster for the planet? Have you ever thought we should abandon ship and go back to being hunter-gatherers? This film will very much appeal to you, if so.

Apologies to Bruce Spence, but it's fun to point out two very similar expressions (the "gap-mouthed imbecile" look) between the two films, which just landed in my lap in a Google images search. He's great in both movies - I mean no disrespect! - and nowhere near as daft as the expression on his face here makes him seem:

But as the Cinematheque guide also notes, there are some reasons to be troubled by Where the Green Ants Dream - not reasons not to see it, but, say, some controversial things to discuss afterwards. On the one hand, it has some moments of remarkable sympathy, respect, and fondness for the Australian Aborigines cast in the film, and a considerable distaste for the white authority figures and racist workers on the other side of the film's central conflict. It stands in solidarity with aboriginal land claims, and, you sense, was made with the active creative involvement of the Aboriginal cast - they weren't just Navajo hired to play Cheyenne in some John Ford film, but participants in creating a very strange, funny, striking, and politically- and culturally-charged film (though to what extent Herzog was treating them as equals, I cannot say; some of their English line-readings are curiously flat, and I'd love to have subtitles for the things they say in their own language). I would hope that Herzog actively tried to make a film that his largely Aboriginal cast could enjoy and have fun with. There are various hints in the film, mostly in the performances of the Aboriginal actors, especially with Gary Williams in the role of Watson, the drunken former pilot, given to singing "My baby does the Hanky Panky" - where you get the feeling that might just be the case... but I have no idea... 

That said, speaking as a white liberal myself, it is impossible not to be disturbed that Herzog presumes to craft "new" mythology for his Aborigines. He creates beliefs for them, central to the film's plot, that are fabrications. The film has a semi-documentary feel, but even in his docs, Herzog has been known to "fictionalize" elements, as a form of artistic license. That alone might sit ill with some people, especially when the fictionalizations are imposed from above, by a white person, on peoples with far less power or cultural voice - even if he is intending to stand in solidarity with them. And there are quite possibly some stereotypes at work here - Watson is almost a stereotypical drunk, for instance, and there's an element of childish naivete to some of the things the Aboriginal characters do (their desire for the plane, and the silly, unworkable runway they construct, reminds me of the whole Cargo Cult phenomenon, which may well have been in Herzog's mind). 

Worse yet, you might not make the assumption - trusting in the respected authority of cinema and that documentary "feel" - that Herzog is just making shit up sometimes, that the whole plot device about dreaming green ants is an act of creative license (perhaps arrived at with the participation of his cast, which might make a difference - but perhaps not, and even if so, it still feels a bit weird, and presumptuous, and a cheat: "You mean none of that was true? The filmmaker just made it up?!"). I was certainly taken aback to discover this; for years, in VHS days, before the advent of commentary tracks, I actually did believe that dreaming green ants played a part in the belief system of Australian Aborigines! I just assumed that no one would make this stuff up. I was shocked to learn otherwise - mildly impressed by Herzog's chutzpah, but also pissed off that I'd believed him. To put it a slightly different way: if he had been able to fashion a story using the ACTUAL beliefs and ideas of Aborigines, can you imagine how much more powerful the film would be...? Instead, you're left not really understanding anything much about the actual people the film represents at all; they're almost like the comical "outsiders" Herzog favours, a tribal analogue to Bruno S. in Stroszek and Every Man for Himself and God Against All (AKA The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser). 

I am sure Werner Herzog might respond that he would also falsify elements of western culture to tell a story, to get at an intended meaning - that that is part of what fiction DOES...  and that he depicts the whites as being almost as ridiculous, for instance, with Spence musings about far-fetched scientific ideas ("How many ropes would we need to fix the earth in space, and what would we tie them to?") being every bit as weird as anything Bruno S. says...

...But the other thing the film does is use its fictive Aboriginal mythos in the service of the story of saving a white main character, the aforesaid Bruce Spence, who is by no means a white saviour, but is very much the hero and moral centre, our representative and identification point. The plot may revolve around a land claims case, but it's his character arc - what happens to the white person - that is at the heart of the story; the Aborigines, however vividly drawn they may be, are still figures in his redemption, not their own, and remain a mysterious outside force in the film, an alternative to western culture, but not one we really can grasp (especially with Herzog lying freely about their beliefs). 

This resonates against my recent experiences with Dune, actually - a film which I have already mostly forgotten, but see my cranky review here, if you want. While some "white saviour" films - and especially ones set in fantastic/ otherworldly environments, like Dune and Avatar - end with the white person "saving" the aboriginal people, just as often - especially in more reality-based narratives - it's the aboriginal people who save the white people, in films that are still pegged as white saviour movies. I was actually struck by that in regard to Dances With Wolves, when Erika and I sat down to it a few months ago. I enjoyed it more than I expected, but - even though I poked at it a bit by calling my Dune review "Dances with Sandworms" - the thing that surprised me in watching it was that in fact, the white saviour, Kevin Costner, doesn't save the Lakota at all. He can't, and no film that even approaches the reality of settler/ Indigenous relations can, because SALVATION WAS NOT WHAT WE BROUGHT; any salvation offered in all but the most ahistorical film has to be temporary and tentative, because in the long run, we all know it didn't work out that way. You just can't credibly "save" a people, onscreen, whose culture and traditions were ultimately ransacked, subdued, or driven to total extinction by your people's encroachment, unless you detach from reality completely (Last of the Dogmen, anyone? Now there's a white fantasy for you). But Dances With Wolves doesn't, in fact, have Costner saving his new red friends; the film - the cut I saw, anyhow - ends with the Lakota fleeing soldiers, and taking the poor white guy with them. 

Costner is not a white saviour; he is the white saved.

And that got me thinking about my favourite Indigenous-themed film, Clearcut - which is, like Where the Green Ants Dream, remarkably potent at times, and maybe even a stronger attempt on the part of white authors to make a gesture in solidarity with Indigenous culture, and to show the failings of the legal system and of white liberals and maybe western civilization as a whole. Both films, while allowing some potent speechifying and powerful (and at times very darkly funny) commentary by their Indigenous actors, are really stories of a white liberal - Ron Lea in Clearcut, Bruce Spence in Where the Green Ants Dream - being saved (in kinda different ways, mind you) by the intercession of Indigenous people. Ron is saved from his hypocrisy and ineffectuality, Bruce is - it's implied, anyhow - saved from white civilization as a whole. Given that their mood - especially Clearcut's - is extremely different, with Clearcut being much angrier, much uglier, much harder on its protagonist than the Herzog film - it's interesting to note that they do have something in common, under the surface...

And I mean, how better for a white liberal, really, to prove that you are ultimately the Right Kind of White Liberal, than to be deemed worthy of salvation and respect by Indigenous people, even given what your people have done to them...? Just ask Justin Trudeau: it's a badge of status, not totally unrelated to the gesture of respect afforded Jeremiah Johnson or the drummed "salute" to the Brits at the end of Zulu. The approval of a romanticized, heroized Other feels good, even if maybe we're moving towards a world where it cannot but be politically problematic, especially depending on who that Other is, and what we've done to them in the past...

I actually think Clearcut - which is coming out soon on blu-ray for the first time as part of the Severin Folk Horror box set, All the Haunts Be Ours, and which WILL have my interview with director Ryszard Bugajski as a commentary track - is the better film, compared to Where the Green Ants Dream, and certainly the less presumptuous, but just like you have to accord Kevin Costner a little respect for the amount of care and good faith he put into the portrayal of the Lakota in Dances With Wolves - a film that is spoken of mostly in fond terms in Reel Injun, even though it is acknowledged that it's still a movie about a white guy - you also do have to give Werner Herzog credit here. And even if the motive force of the film is the salvation of a wrong-thinking white liberal from the deathwish of his civilization - there are some suckerpunch moments in the film that you will remember for as long as you live, and which spill out well beyond the confines of the plot and its functions. The most striking of these - distinctly Herzogian, and like nothing else you will see in cinema - is where a lone Aborigine, in court for a land claims trial, stands up and gives a passionate speech in his mother tongue. The judge asks the other Aborigines to explain what the man is saying, and is told that the man speaking is the last member of his tribe and the last one to speak their language, so no one actually understands him. He's classified as mute in the court records, because there is no one he can talk to. However much this is still a white man's movie - and however much a scene like that might be Herzog's own fictitious invention - it's still a helluva moment. 

There are several of them in the film, in fact, also including a great telling of a dream that has deep resonance for the Spence character ("Where's your lunchbox?" - it would make a helluva ringtone, actually, repeated over and over; it even feels like a dream I might have had). And there are some really resonant images - like the old woman camped at the mouth of a mine where her dog is lost, or many shots of the Australian landscape (Villeneuve, actually, probably inherited some of his love of landscape shots from Herzog, though Herzog had less technology to work with, which somehow makes his landscapes more impressive, to me, even though Villeneuve's are vastly more spectacular).  It's probably my second favourite Herzog fictional feature after Stroszek, actually. It may not be as authentic to the lives of its characters as a movie like Ten Canoes, say, but for a movie made by a German outsider to Australia, way back in 1984, it's pretty amazing. And like I say, to the extent that there are problems with what it does - they can lend to very fruitful discussion afterwards. Check it out...!

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