(1984) Directed by: Werner Herzog; Written by Werner Herzog and Bob Ellis; Starring: Bruce Spence, Wandjuk Marika, Roy Marika and Ray Barrett; Available on DVD
Rating: *** ½
“Dreams and dream time are very complex religious and cultural Aboriginal concepts that are hermetical and almost inconceivable to us.” – Werner Herzog (from DVD commentary for Where the Green Ants Dream)
Many thanks to lover of all films great and small, Todd of Forgotten Films, for hosting the 1984 A-Thon. Be sure to check out his week-long tribute to one of the finest years in film (at least in my lifetime), featuring reviews of 1984’s best and worst. For my part, I chose to re-visit one of the lesser-known offerings to come out that year, Where the Green Ants Dream.
Aside from submarine movies, another type of flick I’m powerless to resist is anything taking place in the Australian outback. If it’s set in the outback (Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake in Fright, Road Games, etc…), I’m there, at least from the safety of my living room. After the mental, physical and financial ordeal of shooting Fitzcarraldo in the Amazon jungle, director/co-writer Werner Herzog decided to set his follow-up project amidst this desolate, foreboding landscape. While Where the Green Ants Dream (aka: Wo die grünen Ameisen träumen) didn’t present the logistical challenges of its predecessor, it’s no less fascinating. Filmed in the northern South Australia* town of Coober Pedy, the story was based on a real-life trial between Aborigines and a mining company.
* The Aborigine actors featured in the film actually hailed from a town in Northern Australia.
It’s a clash of cultures when village elder Dayipu (Roy Marika) and his spokesperson Miliritbi (played by Roy’s real-life brother, Wandjuk Marika) bring a halt to a mining company’s exploitation* of their tribal land. They contend that any further action by the company will threaten the dreaming of the green ants that reside there. The Aborigines believe the ants are inextricably linked to their existence, and further disruption would result in their collective doom. Caught up in the middle of this conflict is company geologist Lance Hackett.
* Although not expressly stated in the film, Herzog confirmed that the mining company was likely surveying the ground for uranium deposits.
Bruce Spence, notable as the Gyro Captain in The Road Warrior, takes a rare turn in a leading role as the reflective, melancholy Hackett. With his tall, gangly frame, he towers over the other actors. By accident or design, his stature lends a certain degree of poignancy to the film, as he rises above the disputes of both parties to perceive the big picture. At first, he sees the Aborigines as a hindrance to his work, but does what he can to placate them. In the process, he begins to experience a change. He’s a lonely man with only his thoughts to keep him company, and doesn’t seem to belong in either world. In a futile attempt to bridge the cultural gap, he discusses non-Euclidean Geometry (don’t ask me) with Miliritbi, to illustrate his concept of the true shape of the universe. Miliritbi simply responds, “You white men are lost…” Looking back on the scene 20 years later, Herzog commented he didn’t like the scene or its “righteous tone,” but in this case I have to differ. Taken into the context of the film, the scene worked well to underscore the vast divide between the men’s respective philosophies.
Some have taken Herzog to task regarding the fabricated mythos of the green ants he constructed for this film, as if his artistic choice were somehow disingenuous. Because this is a work of fiction however, and not a documentary, Herzog was not obligated to rely on the facts alone to tell his story, but chose to create a focal point that distilled the conflict between the known and unknown worlds. The green ants are emblematic of a mystery, which so-called “civilized” society is incapable of comprehending. When Hackett meets an entomologist studying the life cycle of the green ants, he learns that some will take wing to establish a new colony. This links to the big green plane that figures prominently in the plot, which the Aborigines wish to appropriate for their tribe’s survival.
Where the Green Ants Dream features what could only be called Herzog touches. Cinematography by frequent Herzog collaborator Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein captures the feel of the remote, dust-choked locale. In a non-sequitur side story, an old lady (Colleen Clifford) enlists Hackett’s aid in searching for her lost dog. Although her scenes do nothing to advance the plot, it’s an interesting tangent. Her fruitless quest parallels Hackett’s peripatetic search for meaning. As he wanders off into the desert, surrounded by countless anthills, we’re left to form our own conclusions. The anthills in Herzog’s film are as enigmatic as the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We are reminded there are things outside our sphere of existence that we can scarcely understand.
The downbeat ending and esoteric flourishes probably ensured Where the Green Ants Dream would fail to resonate beyond the arthouse crowd. Aside from some quirky characters and a few humorous bits, it’s not the “feel good” sort of experience most people wanted to see. That’s unfortunate, since audiences missed out on an opportunity to see a well-crafted film with fine acting (especially Spence’s understated performance), and themes of cultural imperialism that are still as relevant as ever. While it may not be one of Herzog’s best films, it’s a solid effort that deserves to be re-discovered.