Humans and Nature: reflection points from the films The Eight Mountains, EO, and Mavka – The Forest Song
There is a scene in The Eight Mountains where friends from the city join Pietro in visiting Bruno at his home high in the breath-taking Italian Alps. As neatly described in a review by Nick Hallissey in Livefortheoutdoors, a debate unfurls about the way city folk see the hills, as leisure playground or trendy conservation touchstone, rather than places that simply exist in their own right. Bruno is particularly riled when they talk about ‘being out here in nature’. “Only you city folks call it ‘nature’,” he retorts. “It’s so abstract in your mind that even the word is abstract. Here we say forest, mountain, river, rock, path. Things you can point at. Things you can interact with.”
This externalisation of nature, as something apart from ourselves, often justifies that we treat nature in a dominating and exploitative way, which is very different to when we recognise that nature is in fact an ecosystem that includes humans. It is one of the nature-related thinking points extrapolated from three films – The Eight Mountains, EO, and Mavka- The Forest Song – all currently screening as part of the European Film Festival in South Africa, until 22 October.
The Eight Mountains does not at all directly force on you any message about nature. As Bruno says, this thing that people call nature is just there. The utterly gorgeous setting amongst the imposing mountains quietly tells its own messages. Mountains have long been associated with holy sites and pilgrimages, as places for spiritual contemplation, a place where heaven and earth touch. Their majestic presence symbolises stability and perseverance, and the overcoming of obstacles as they offer calming transcendence. The film’s title is a reference to a concept in Buddhism and ancient Indian cosmology that the world is composed of eight concentric circular mountain ranges separated from one another by eight seas, with a ninth and tallest mountain, at the centre. At the centre of this film is the building of a mountain cabin which becomes a site of both reflection and reconciliation for Pietro and Bruno who have known each other since childhood. It’s a journey of friendship and self-discovery for two individuals travelling divergent paths on the vertiginous terrain of life, and their story plays out against the backdrop of nature, but also profoundly within it. Nature says nothing, it is not judgemental, but it is immensely powerful as we see in the film.
Nature does not judge, but it is indeed responsive. And even in our small and fleeting lifetimes we are seeing how nature reacts, to human-induced changes in particular.
Mavka – The Forest Song is an animation drawn from legendary Ukrainian mythology. Delving into the complexities of love, identity, environmentalism, and the clash between tradition and modernity, the narrative structure of Mavka pits humans in a conflict against forest creatures. Once they were in harmony, now they are not. How true is this in real life? Greenhouse gas emissions, industrial processes, industrialised agricultural practices, deforestation, extractive exploitation of finite resources, improper waste management are all human-led activities which have precipitated calamitous global warming, ecosystem collapse, and climate change impacts. Nature is amazingly resilient and adaptive, but also delicate and fragile, and Man’s drive to conquer nature threatens our very existence. There may have been a time when we didn’t know it but there is no doubt about it now, the science is clear, we are in the Anthropocene. And while very powerful and influential invested interests continue to resist necessary and inevitable change, at the individual level goodwill and empathy is not being turned into actions fast enough.
Animals too are an integral part of our natural world, and EO is a story seen almost entirely from the perspective of a donkey. Simple enough, on the face of it. But while animal welfare and the ethical treatment of animals are prominent themes, EO is in fact a scathing reflection on struggles, desires, and emotions that define the human experience. To further distil its relevance in this discussion it’s worth highlighting some observations from various film reviewers:
– An ode to nature that’s often hauntingly beautiful & diaphanous, leading us to contemplate how easily we disconnect from beings who, if not ensouled, are alive and worthy of kindness and dignity – Nadine Whitney, FILMINK
– A bold and mesmerising excavation of the nature of existence for all living creatures. And most remarkable is that the film never humanises its subject, instead celebrating its animal instincts – Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
– One of the greatest movies ever made about the spirit of animals, as much as we can know it – Stephanie Zacharek, TIME Magazine
– EO offers a disquieting and painful look at human arrogance, that feeling itself as the indisputable owner of the natural environment, subjects its capricious will towards the fragility and fate of other beings – Carlos Bonfil, La Jornada
– A truly terrifying image of our species – Paula Arantzazu Ruiz, Cinemanía
– EO points out our brutality, our intolerance, and our indolence – Erick Estrada, Cinegarage
– Makes a plea for peaceful coexistence – Dustin Chang, ScreenAnarchy
This film prompts us to question our relationships with animals, the choices we make, and their impacts. EO also opens up deeper reflection about the mass animal farms, about methane outputs, about water wastage, about food security challenges, about animal slaughter, about ethics, about vegetarianism and veganism, and about the need for compassion towards non-human beings – this and more; there is much to think about!
The foregoing is a thread that connects three ostensibly different films. Just one thread in a tapestry of many possible threads. It is a reading that connects us to one of the world’s greatest-ever challenges – the relationship between Humans and Nature. Sometimes it is the subtle rather than the confronting that can instill a message more meaningfully, and film has the magic to do that.
Mavka – The Forest Song highlights the delicate balance between humans and nature, emphasizing the need for environmental stewardship and the consequences of neglecting the natural world. In Mavka you always sense that reconciliation between humans and nature is possible, and that harmony will be restored – it’s a kind of fairy tale after all, but at least it’s one of hope.
In The Eight Mountains there is the gentle sense of an awakening, a peeling away of layers, the slow opening of a chrysalis, an acceptance of human frailty, a humble attunement to nature and to life.
After hope, acceptance and attunement, what next with EO? It is not nirvana; it is self-sacrifice, it is about taking up instead the mantle of service and responsibility, it’s about responding to the call to compassionate action. At no point in EO is there any overt call to action, but I promise you it’s there.
The European Film Festival runs until 22 October at Ster-Kinekor’s The Zone in Johannesburg, The Labia in Cape Town, and Ster-Kinekor Gateway in Durban. Some films are also available online for free. See www.eurofilmfest.co.za for film synopsis, trailers and festival info. DM/ML
Author: PETER RORVIK: Co-Director of the European Film Festival SA