‘Where the Green Ants Dream’ Review: Too Many Silly Questions
Before watching Where the Green Ants Dream, my only exposure to Werner Herzog had been through the tributes paid to him by the characters of the offbeat coming-of-age film, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (a heartwarming and uncommonly well-directed teen flick). Despite reading the synopsis of the movie, I didn’t know what to expect. All I’d heard outside that one film was that he was a “strange” director – but strange how? Did he make films concerning the other-worldly like the stories of Lovecraft? Was he neurotic in his directing tendencies like Kubrick? Was he always climbing to higher and higher levels of ridiculous artistic devotion in the pursuit of fictional validation such as “real cinematic authenticity?” Or did he just make some weird movies?
In all honesty, watching one film in a library as extensive and varied as Herzog’s won’t answer that question. Where the Green Ants Dream is a 1984 film partly based on a famous land-rights case in Australia involving the aborigines and an Australian mining company. Herzog’s first film in English, Where the Green Ants Dream is a mix of fact and fiction, though heavily based on the landmark case, many of the myths and native traditions are Herzog’s creations. In the film, the Ayers Mining Company comes into conflict with a local aboriginal tribe when they attempt to mine a plot of land searching for uranium. The Aboriginals protest the company and prevent them from surveying the underground with their explosives by interrupting their tests and standing in front of the heavy machinery. The Aborigines claim that they must not disturb the green ants who dream beneath the earth; if they’re woken from their slumber, all the universe will suffer their wrath. After unsuccessful attempts to solve the dispute via monetary compensation, the conflict reaches the Supreme Court and becomes more than just a land-rights case; it becomes a battle of ideas. Of fundamental beliefs, of theology, of conflict in all forms.
Where the Green Ants Dream is certainly not Herzog’s most notable work, nor is it popular in the faintest regard. Despite being his debut English film, this movie is quite an unremarkable entry into his filmography. To me, however – and to all those who’ve had a first Herzogian experience – this film was like anything I’d ever seen. Would I recommend it? No, it’s not an easily digestible film, and it certainly isn’t meant to be a purely enjoyable experience. Herzog, I believe, is in every sense of the word, an artist. He seeks to communicate his ideas and questions through his medium. Herzog has said that he thinks in images, not ideas; if he can find the correct images to convey his thoughts, he’s not concerned about its message.
Disregarding the fundamental concept that cinema in its most basic manifestation is a visual experience, it can be said that this film is intensely pictorial. It’s a collection of images more than a linear and traditional narrative. Sure, there are heated discussions touching on various themes and oral motifs such as the green ants. But in its entirety, Herzog asks his audience to see rather than hear, be internally motivated as opposed to being compelled by the film, to question rather than be answered. We see the Aboriginals dance in front of the bulldozers, we see them stand resolute and affirmed in their beliefs, we see a lonely old woman wait patiently and concernedly for her dog lost down the mine shafts. We see any number of images in those 100 minutes, and we see the majority of them on our own. Unaided by Herzog or his direction, uninterrupted by the voices of the characters and unimpeded by some moral message the writers would like us to believe. We are left utterly and truly alone in the cinematic cosmos of this film, asking so very familiarly, why we are here and what this all means.
Before reading the statement above I’d been pondering what was said by the film for days after watching it. Was Herzog indicting the state of Aboriginal affairs in Australia? Did he mean to reflect on the juvenile concept of the “ownership” of something as natural and fundamentally unconquerable as land? In this confusion I found exactly what Herzog stated so many years ago, the message of this film and all his others; the motivations that compelled him to make this movie in the first place, are of no concern to him and should not involve the audience either. This is not a high school English class where you get eight marks for finding the author’s message. At times, there simply isn’t a specific one – and in Herzog’s eyes, that’s exactly as it should be.