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Gaia is a South African horror film. Unusual enough. An eco-horror, a survivalist horror, a myco-horror and a Freudian horror too. And somehow, in among all that, it even manages a bit of old-fashioned girl-in-a-T-shirt horror titillation, a demonstration of its limber ability to play to and against horror expectations.

The supreme example of this comes early on, right after we’ve met Gabi (Monique Rothman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi), a pair of forestry workers far from base, punting up river in a canoe, on a mission to collect data. Having lost the drone they’re using as a tech wayfinder, they separate.

Expectation one – this is a bad idea. This turns out to be true. Expectation two – that the feral creatures scurrying about in the forest, beneath Gabi and Winston’s radar, are going to pull some Deliverance-style intervention and will soon be giving the rangers a very bad time. This turns out to be false. And also true.

The two stick-thin, mud-daubed, loincloth-wearing guys are not savages, but a father and son pair of survivalists – Barend (Carel Nel) is a former plant scientist, son Stefan (Alex van Dyk) was born out there in the forest, to a mother who has since died.

Barend and Stefan rescue Gabi, who has injured herself by straying into one of their animal traps, while Winston… well, Winston is communing with the forest and, for those who actually want to watch this quietly excellent film, no more need be said about him right now.

According to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, the source of this film’s title and most of its philosophical grounding, planet Earth is a self-regulating system, which humans dick about with at their peril (pumping excess carbon into the atmosphere, for example). Building on this notion, eco-catastrophists tend to view humanity as a species that has outstayed its welcome on the planet, as a blight whose rapid breeding and endless consuming of natural resources is taking the entire “system” (but most of all humans) towards an eco-armageddon. Conservationists, the portion of the Left who favour the hair shirt and population Malthusians often sing a version of this hymn too.

And then there’s Barend and son Stefan, living in harmony with nature, rail-thin but in obvious good shape, offering prayers when they kill an animal, a hunter-gatherer existence (and paleo diet!) of the sort that the Kalahari (aka San) bushmen or Native American would recognise. “Nature is scripture,” says Barend at one point. The industrial revolution was “a declaration of war on nature”.

So these are obviously the good guys, right?

Barend, Gabi and Stefan
Barend, Gabi and Stefan

There are shocks in this film but mostly it works on the level of atmosphere. It has an intimate feel, which starts with the aspect ratio, less widescreen, narrower, and extends into every area of the film – the close-up camera, a sound design with voices high in the mix, a soundtrack inviting us in. Intimacy eventually gives way to claustrophobia, particularly as Barend’s philosophical musings become less scientific and more theological, and teenage Stefan, who has probably never seen a woman before, notices that there’s a fine example of one right in front of him. A fact director Jaco Bouwer reinforces with a fair few “rack shots” of Rockman.

You could enjoy this film just at the level of craft detail. It is very strong in every aspect, and feels like a group effort by a talented team who could go into factory-style production and start knocking out one decent film like this after another, given the right material.

This is most obvious in the fungus make-up, by Sulani Saayman. In this humid environment, mushrooms, yeasts, moulds and lichens grow everywhere, even on a human body, and in this forest are the most obvious manifestation of Gaia’s restless spirit, ready to colonise anything that has died, is sick or simply isn’t moving about very much. Gabi wakes one morning to find lichen-like outcrops growing on her thigh. Winston… well, he’s out communing with the forest. A propos of which… Saayman’s work is exceptional, and beautifully realised.

Bizarrely, Ben Wheatley’s recent release, In the Earth, also ventured into the same eco-fungal territory, though Gaia has waded further in. And on top of the shrooms, director Jaco Bouwer and writer Tertius Kapp add a layer of biblical apocalyptic prophesy and an unhealthy wallop of Dr Freud’s Oedipal observations about a son’s need to dominate his father. The fact that everyone involved frequently shifts out of English into Afrikaans just adds an extra rasp. A superbly conceived, made and played horror of real distinction.

Gaia – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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