Directed by Werner Herzog
Your white men are lost. You don't understand the land. Too many silly questions. Your presence on this earth will come to an end. You have no sense, no purpose, no direction.
The cinema has had quite a longstanding love affair with the native Aborigines of Australia. There is something about them that holds a certain mystique over filmmakers. Many directors have tried to brave the depths of Aboriginal culture with various levels of success. Films such as Peter Weir's The Last Wave (1977) and Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (1971) are great examples of Aboriginal culture being transferred to film. But there is one film concerning Aborigines that I believe gets regularly overlooked by film lovers. That film is Werner Herzog's Wo Die Grünen Ameisen Träumen, or Where the Green Ants Dream.
Now, Herzog himself is quite a film-making legend. No other director on earth has been so consistently willing to put themselves (and their film crews) into so much danger all for the sake of art. In his Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, he and an eight man crew braved the Peruvian rain forest for five weeks, spending much of the time on rafts in the river. In Fitzcarraldo (1982) he endangered the lives of many of his cast and crew by literally pulling a steamship up over an isthmus. We are talking about a man who hypnotized almost all of his actors for the film Heart of Glass (1976). We are talking about a man who is revered by some as a genius and reviled by some who call him a madman.
So what was it that drew him to the Aborigines? After all, he wrote the story to Where the Green Ants Dream. Although it was undoubtedly modeled after many other such clashes between the Aborigines and Australians, the story is his. What would compel him to do so?
My guess is that it has to do with his obsession with images. He has this undying thirst to create images that the world has never seen before. Whether it be a boat going up a mountain, a raft full of monkeys, or even a tear-drop shaped balloon floating over the rain forest, Werner has to create it and then document it. This is the man who filled the closing shots of Stroszek (1977) with dancing chickens and a ski lift going up a snow-less mountain. Why? Well, ask yourself: have you ever seen a dancing chicken? Me neither.
So once again I ask, why the Aborigines? My guess is that the image that Herzog was pursuing was that of the Aborigines themselves. And what images they are. More than any kind of people that I can think of, they seem to blend into their surroundings. Everything, from how they walk to how they sit to how they stand still is unique. And what's more, these images are quickly dying out as foreign influences keep encroaching into their lands.
And that is what the film is about: a clash between ancient culture and modern culture. It starts with a mining company who is attempting to do tests in an area for minerals. They prepare to set charges so they can scout the area for resources, but the Aborigines won't let them. They cut cables and sit in front of bulldozers so they cannot move. The mining company sends out a lawyer to try and negotiate with them. The Aborigines refuse all of their offers. They try and remind them that the land isn't part of a reservation. They answer, “You tell me what is the Land Rights Act because we have been here for 40,000 years, longer than when you came. If you begin mining in this land, you going to destroy the land of the green ants, and green ants will come out and destroy the whole universe world.”
There lies the trouble. It isn't a matter of land holdings or tribal land, they believe that if the area is disturbed the world will be destroyed. Despite this belief, the Aborigines are no fools. When they are asked again why they won't leave, they ask one of the representatives if he is a Christian. He responds that he was raised that way. The Aborigine responds, “What would you do if I bring bulldozer and dig up your church?”
The matter is eventually taken to court where it is ruled that the company has the rights to the land. During the judicial process, the company takes two of the tribal leaders into the city to show them around. They come across a military plane which they immediately want. Bemused, the company buys it for them in an act of goodwill. The film ends with the Aborigines flying the plane away from the mining site. But you don't want to know the plot. You want to know what makes this film “Ein Film von Werner Herzog.” So, we must look at this film's images. While they may not be as entrancing or majestic as the jungles in Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes or as quirky as the characters in Stroszek, there are some amazing images in Where the Green Ants Dream.
Some are beautiful, like the opening shots of giant dust storms and tornadoes twisting to the sounds of classical music. Some are ironic, like the site of sacred dances being done by participants wearing khakis and t-shirts. Some are sad, like a group of Aborigines huddled together around a huge box of Winfield 25 cigarettes. And some are wistful, like an Aborigine playing the didgeridoo in the shadow of a gigantic bulldozer.
But some of the images are of things that only Werner Herzog would think important enough to film. Take one scene inside a supermarket. A member of the mining company is going around trying to learn more about the local Aborigine tribe. He enters a supermarket, calls over an attendant, and points towards a group of Aborigines sitting in a circle in the middle of one of the aisles. The attendant explains that it is a sacred site. He says that the only tree for miles used to grow there. When the supermarket was built the tree was cut down. This presented a problem because the tree used to be where the Aborigines' children were dreamed. Their teachings said that first a father must dream their children, and only afterwards can they be born. As the man from the mining company looks on at this incredible site, the attendant smiles and says that they are actually good for business. “More children equals more buyers,” he cheerfully quips.
So what makes Where the Green Ants Dream so special among films about the Australian Aborigines? I would say that it is how Herzog beholds them as images to be savored and saved. The Aborigines are the center of attention, not their mystique or their culture. Take, for instance, one last scene during the trial. During an impassioned speech by a scientist who is speaking in defense of the Aborigines, one of them gets up, goes up to the bar, and starts to talk. He speaks and then stops, completely quiet. When asked what he said, the other Aborigines say that they don't know. He is the last member of his tribe, and therefore the only man left on earth who can understand his language. So why did Herzog put him in the film? My guess is that he couldn't resist the opportunity to include the last member of an entire people in his film. The need to possess him, to save him and his culture from the uncaring ages was enough motivation for Herzog to include him. After all, if he didn't film him, the world would never have another opportunity to see him.