Ant Music

in 74th Venice International Film Festival

by Neil Young

Destroy what humans have made, like a bulldozer?
Called a vandal, criminal.
Clear cut old growth trees?
Called a logger, a miner, a businessman.
Stand up and fight, don’t give in,
Stagnant hands can’t accomplish anything.
I value life over property,
Greedy hands stained in blood money.

Ignite, Hands On Stance (2000)

It begins with the shape of water: flowing into the widescreen frame from the left, bubbling across an even expanse of rust-brown soil. The scale is difficult to determine until, after some forty-five seconds, an old shovel enters quickly from the right, thrust down into the earth by a young boy’s trainer-shod foot. So begins Tierra Mojada, the remarkable new film by Colombian director Juan Sebastián Mesa. The Medellín-born 28-year-old’s gritty, monochrome debut feature Los Nadie (The Nobodies) won the audience prize when shown at Critics’ Week, a parallel section of the Venice Film Festival in 2016. Twelve months later he has graduated to the Official Selection, with one of twelve works selected for Orizzonti section’s shorts competition.

Shorts are often overlooked at Venice, an event which has been increasingly emphasising its function as an awards-season launch-pad for big-budget Hollywood fare. But this year’s Orizzonti cortometraggio slate featured some outstanding entries, including Sorayos Prapapan’s amusingly ironic Death of the Sound Man (Awasarn sound man), and a brace from Greece: Efthimis Kosemund Sanidis’s Astrometal, an oneiric hymn to hedonistic urban youth and, showing out of competition, Yorgos Zois’ wordless, poetic elegy for the Mediterranean’s migrant dead, 8th Continent.

Tierra Mojada, i.e. “Wet Land,” but (somewhat misleadingly) entitled Swamp in English, is a 16-minute meditation on displacement and resistance, a magical-realist fable in miniature inspired by real-life current events in the Antioquia province from which Mesa himself hails. The Hidroituango project is the largest hydro-electric enterprise in the history of Colombia, begun in 2010 and scheduled for completion next year. Campesinos from 12 different municipalities have been displaced by the construction work, which has involved the flooding of entire villages. But this isn’t the only dire peril facing the hapless, near-powerless country-folk…

Mesa’s film was shot near a bend of the Cauca River, in what he has called “the last clump of jungle that remains” because, he said, “practically the whole area is deforested.” He imagines one stoic family’s response to the drastic changes being visited upon them by colossal external forces they can barely comprehend: 13-year-old Oscar (Yeison García Tascón) digs grave-like cavities in which his elders half- bury themselves, the better to commune with the land and effect a spectacular alteration visualised by subtle, simple but gorgeously beautiful special effects. The deeply verdant jungle takes on the pale red of dried blood, as far as the eye can see.

The characters depicted here are from the indigenous Emberá community, dwelling in a remote canyon whose primal majesty—flora and fauna (the sound-mix makes evocative use of bird-cries)—is about to be devastated by the encroachment of 21st century technology. A politician is heard on the radio (via a 1970s-style set) denouncing “misfits” who would presume to “hinder progress”; big business is wasting no time in deforest vast swathes of the land, now that the country’s decades-long civil war has finally come to an end.

As Kata Karáth wrote in New Scientist only last month: In 2016, the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with the guerrilla group FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), ending the longest war in the Americas. During the 52-year- long conflict, as many as 220,000 people are reported to have died and millions were displaced. But the armed group may unexpectedly have helped protect the regions it occupied from deforestation. As the group disbands, conservationists fear the lush forests it occupied will be left vulnerable to illegal logging.

“Now, that FARC is gone, there is nobody controlling the deforestation – because actually when they were here, they had some rules about it,” says Pablo Negret Torres at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who has been studying the relationship between armed conflicts and conservation in Colombia. In areas under FARC control, the organisation often took on the role of a local government, even controlling ecological and cultural programmes. Logging rise? “Now there is no one to oversee the land,” says Negret Torres. “The government hasn’t come in yet, but everybody else has and they log.”

Time and again Mesa displays a genuine flair for an arresting image that encapsulates infinitely wider themes. At one point he shows us ants industriously making their way up and down a tree-trunk, skittering along paths trodden by the tiny feet of their ancestors for countless myrmecine generations. But then the buzzing of a chainsaw is heard: the trunk rapidly bisected. And the ants? They’ll just have to adapt.