Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Perhaps better understood as poetry than as science fiction."

When cinema wants to explore something truly exotic, it has always gone exploring in the jungle. A mixture of naturally lush visuals and primal, dangerous conditions makes this the perfect backdrop for probing human psyche, and though the colonially inspired narratives o the past may now have fallen out of favour, they have been replaced by a new set of themes tangled up with the Anthropocene extinction event, a desire for redemption through contact with nature and the deep seated fear that some deific expression of nature may desire revenge. All these themes and more are present in Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia, which sees two forest rangers come into contact with fugitives and the organism they worship.

Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) is laughing at Gabi (Monique Rockman) as they make their way along a river deep in the heart of South Africa’s Tsitsikamma forest. She has lost contact with one of their drones and wants to go and retrieve it. He chides her that she’s like the white tourists who discover danger and rush towards it. In this case, however, neither of them understands how much real danger they are in. After they become separated and Gabi gets a nasty foot injury from a trap, she throws herself upon the hospitality of Barend (Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (Alex van Dyk) who live a fugitive existence in a shack they have built among the trees. At night, inhuman things try to break into the fragile shelter – but the scariest thing may be Barend himself.

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A rich cacophony of visual ideas ensures that this film makes an impact. The story is tissue-thin and the understanding of mycology on which it relies has a great many holes in it (the film might have been still more dazzling and disturbing if the creative team had understood a little more), so the best way to enjoy it is to sit back and let the images wash over you. These are undoubtedly a lot of what appealed to the crowd at Frightfest, where it recently screened, combining beauty and body horror as they do. They stand in stark contrast to the less decorative yet more realistic horrors of Tin Can, which is also on the festival circuit this year, and yet their chaotic appearance accords quite well with the theme of madness and mental disintegration which also runs through the film.

Perhaps better understood as poetry than as science fiction, Gaia presents us with multiple colourful fungal life-forms sprouting on the same piece of skin, slender tendrils curling seductively around exposed throats or seeking to penetrate mouths and ears, and sparkling dust interfering with the mind. Barend and his boy, whose hungry, muscular entry into adulthood presents a complication in itself, use special mushrooms and potions cultivated through a mixture of applied scientific technique and prayer to keep their flesh looking wholesome, but it’s obvious that they’re carriers and that, as soon as they arrive, the others will become infected. There are protocols for dealing with this sort of thing but nobody discusses them. Why complicate a perfectly good doomsday scenario?

Underlying this is a vague notion about the manner in which fungus acts to connect different organisms in a healthy forest (if you want to know more about this, recent documentary Fantastic Fungi is a good place to start), but it’s not very well understood and is patched into the story in a slipshod manner which diminishes its impact. Barend engages in sudden religious rants as if to justify his woolly thinking. Nel can switch registers with impressive speed and convinces as a person one would not wish to share a house with, but it’s van Dyk who delivers the film’s mot impressive performance. Its most affecting scene simply involves him looking at mobile phone images of a wider world which he never previously imagined.

The superb visual design in this film is complemented by crisp, evocative sound work by Tim Pringle and Melani Robertson, and it’s this that will send real shivers down your the plot stumbles through the inevitable romance and heavy handed reworkings of Biblical tales which end up being more reminiscent of The Evil Dead. Like a fungus, it seems to lack a central point of intelligence or organisation, yet each individual part of the mass takes its proper shape regardless. For all its flaws, it’s easy to get absorbed by this bravura creative effort.

Watch GAIA on and other digital platforms from 27 September.

Reviewed on: 29 Aug 2021
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An injured forest ranger on a routine mission is saved by two off-the-grid survivalists. What is initially a welcome rescue grows more suspicious as the son and his renegade father reveal a cultish devotion to the forest.
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Director: Jaco Bouwer

Writer: Tertius Kapp

Starring: Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk, Anthony Oseyemi

Year: 2021

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: South Africa


Frightfest 2021

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