Saturday, May 15, 2021

Cannes 1984: Herzog with the Abos

Daney reports on day 5 of the 1984 Cannes film festival. See our footnote about the title of the article. 

Herzog with the Abos*

It’s been a long time since a film by Werner Herzog, always on the road and never missing a thing, brought so much pleasure. This time, he has gone to Australia.

At the press conference that immediately followed the screening of Where the Green Ants Dream, Herzog was asked: “Is making films a mission for you?”; “No, just a duty,” Herzog replied with a smile. He was also asked if he believes in God. “I’ve had a very religious period. I’ve converted to Catholicism. But I no longer believe in God, I only believe in the Church” (surprised laughter in the audience). Herzog is one of those filmmakers who is asked these kinds of questions. He attracts them. With him, big words are called upon.

After the Fitzcarraldo disaster, one may have wondered what Herzog’s mission across the world would look like. Herzog, a great documentarist, had proved himself a poor narrator in heavy and overblown productions. Shooting the film was akin to the labours of Hercules, but in the end, there was no emotion. Those who thought that this man, because he was haunted by faraway countries, the strange unity of the human race and a taste for initiation rites, was – for this reason – well-equipped to thrill audiences with great adventure films got it clearly wrong. They confused – silly ones! – fiction and narration (two very different things). Herzog’s world is that of pure fiction and the only stories that interest him are of cosmogonic nature: they deal with the creation of the world. 

This is how Where the Green Ants Dream begins, a film that he had wanted to make for a long time and which he shot last year in Australia, in the centre of the country. A mauve sky, 16mm film grain, a dark tornado that seems to join the sky with the earth, and suddenly, in colour, a bit of desert, a yellow tractor, “Abos” (i.e. Aboriginals) lying prostrate, a young geologist, tall and naïve: all this is laid out so clearly that we are immediately reminded what we love in Herzog’s filmmaking in the first place: his capacity to make, if not films, at least shots, one by one, which have an impact on us. 

The story is both beautiful and ordinary. Beautiful for us, ordinary for the Australians. A mining company is running blast tests. Thousands of small gravel cones create an endless lunar landscape in broad daylight. A handful of Aboriginals, dignified and a little absent, calmly protest: this land is “where the green ants dream”, and in their mythology, these ants play a fundamental role. From there, the film unfolds like an unpredictable news story, since the Aboriginals are unpredictable. There are even some funny things. The case goes to the Supreme Court in Canberra where, despite all the tact deployed to avoid shocking the “Abos”, the final verdict goes against them. The young geologist, in the process of gaining ecological awareness, leaves the mining company. 

The story is all the more muddled, funny and calmly disconcerting since the two logics at play – that of the whites and of the Aboriginals – almost never cross. Here are two worlds with different geographies. There are collisions but no encounters. In a supermarket, a small group of Abos hog an aisle without buying anything, only because – and they are the only ones to know this – it was the location of the only tree in the region. 

In the serene modesty of the film lies the implicit observation that ours is the time after all the dreams of universal reconciliation, and that the world (the earth, in fact) is already made of several overlapping levels (some of them invisible) inhabited by different beings (some of them dead). Herzog has always wanted to film characters who only appear to be sharing the same space and who in fact coexist light years away from one another. That’s the cross he bears as a missionary and his reason to film. With real persistence, he manages to transform these images into proofs that it’s not men who share histories, but that it’s mythologies that share people. 

The “paradox” is that the image becomes clear as a result, a little dry, with no sentimental glue; as it happens every time a filmmaker settles for simply showing

* Translators' note: The French title of the article is “Herzog chez les Abos” (in La Maison cinema et le monde). Daney uses “Abos” another three times in the text, the first two times with inverted commas. We can’t pinpoint where the word comes from (the film, the French subtitles, Daney) and although Daney uses it with some caution, he doesn’t seem fully aware of how racist it actually is. We translated it literally to present an accurate record of the text. 

First published in Libération on 15 May 1984. Reprinted in La Maison cinéma et le monde, vol. 2, Paris, P.O.L, 2002. Translation by Laurent Kretzschmar and Srikanth Srinivasan.

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