Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Where the Green Ants Dream, a film

I have a rather long queue on Netflix, so it takes some time for a film to work its way to the top. Frequently, therefore, I'm not exactly sure why I added a particular film to my queue. In this case, I had no doubts about why I added it. Surely, a title such as Where the Green Ants Dream would be sufficient reason alone to take at least a look at it. And, then, when I discovered the director was Werner Herzog, how could I resist? The director and the title seem made for each other.

The film is loosely based on a real event that took place in Australia several years before the film came out in 1985. Even before filming began, Herzog was threatened with a lawsuit if he used the name of the mining company in the film. As Herzog pointed out in his commentary, it really made no difference what name he used because Australians knew the details of the incident.

To be brief, a mining company has sent out a exploratory crew to an area that is considered sacred by the Australian Aborigines who live in the area. It is the place where the green ants dream. First, the mining company was going to conduct tests that would involve numerous explosions in order to get a seismic map of the subsoil. If the tests proved positive, it would then go in and begin digging.

The Aborigines believe that if the green ants' dreaming is disrupted, and the explosions alone would do this, there would disastrous consequences for the land and for the Aborigines who live there. I've read some comments that it wasn't just the land but the entire universe that would be disrupted if the green ants were disturbed during their dreaming. I know very little about the Australian Aborigine beliefs so I can't comment other than to say that it was obvious that they believed it would be catastrophic to awaken the ants and interfere with their dreaming. I think it's a bit ironic that the mining company was searching for uranium, an absolute necessity for the development of nuclear weapons.

It is the classic conflict between native peoples and their sacred lands on the one hand and a corporation that wants to profit by engaging in some activity on those lands, activity that will conflict with the beliefs of native peoples and disrupt or change the land for a long time afterwards, if not permanently.

The POV character is Lance Hackett, a geologist who works for the company. When the Aborigines begin to interfere with the tests, he informs the company of the problem. As the presumed leader of the exploratory crew, he becomes the point man for the negotiations between the company and the Aborigines. As the negotiations continue, he becomes, as one might expect, more sympathetic to the Aborigines.

Those who have seen the recent SF film, Avatar, might see some similarities between the two films. They are there, but one of the major differences is in the portrayal of the two companies. In Avatar, the company is a law unto itself. It uses military force in an attempt to drive out or exterminate the native peoples. This does not happen in Where the Green Ants Dream. The company has obtained the appropriate permits to search for uranium deposits and then begin mining operations if the uranium is there in sufficient quantity. The company does its best to recompense the Aborigines, including getting them a military aircraft that looks somewhat like a large green flying insect.

Unable to dissuade the mining company, the Aborigines go to court and eventually reach the highest court in Australia. According to the commentary, this was the first time the Aborigines had gone to the courts for protection. In the end, the Aborigines lose because, as the judge stated in his decision, the Aborigines were unable to produce evidence that would be acceptable in an Anglo-Saxon court of law.

This is a Herzog film. Those who have seen Fata Morgana (a film I commented on in April 2010) will recognize this immediately. There are scenes of vast wastelands with bizarre rock formations and a burned out bus. Occasionally the viewer will spot an abandoned pickup truck in the middle of nowhere, with a piece of earth moving equipment nearby. Why they are there is never clear. Interspersed is a little subplot, one that seemingly has nothing to do with the main plot: an old woman has lost her dog. It has run into one of several caves and apparently can't find its way out.

In Fata Morgana, the viewer meets a biologist who has spent years of his life studying a lizard that lives in the vast deserts of Northern Africa. We meet another biologist who has spent years of his life studying the green ants of this part of Australia. The green ants do exist, and they are partially a bright green. Only, they really aren't ants; they are in the termite family. The dreaming green ants is not part of the Aborigine beliefs; that is Herzog's creation. However, it is based partially on fact: a type of lizard in another part of Australia is believed to dream and therefore plays an important role in preserving the planet.

Some of the most interesting scenes are those of the negotiations between the Aborigines and the company. The camera focuses on the faces of the Aborigines (Herzog somehow managed to get Aborigines to play the appropriate roles in the film), and I could almost hear the Aborigines thinking. The actions of the white men were completely incomprehensible to them. The mining company's activities were going to be catastrophic, including the destruction of the Aborigines themselves, and the company thought that offering money or a share of the profits would be satisfactory.

The camera would then shift to the company representatives, and I could see the same bewilderment. What did the Aborigines want? They were offered a large cash settlement and a share of the profits which would take them out of poverty, as the company saw it anyway. The company would even build a small museum that would focus on the Aborigine culture. It's as if the company and the Aborigines lived on separate planets.

To be simplistic, the conflict is between profit-making activities and the beliefs of native peoples--between the material and the spiritual worlds--and it seems not to be slackening in any way either.

Which should take priority?


P. S.

Steven Riddle of A Momentary Taste of Being, (see his blog listed on the sidebar) made a comment that started me thinking (which he so often does) . He mentioned the images from the film that stayed with him. That struck a chord and provided an answer to something that was bothering me about this post. There was something I hadn't said yet: it had to do with what images have stayed with me after watching the film. The following is the comment I made on Steven's blog and I decided to post it here also.

"What stays with me are the faces of the Aborigines. Herzog has the camera linger on them much longer than on the white faces. It's almost as though they are a force of nature and not ephemeral beings such as we "civilized people" are. They are rooted solidly while we are transients, if that makes any sense."

I am reminded of the Zen dictum by Yun-Men:

In walking, just walk
In sitting, just sit
Above all, don't wobble

In the film, the Aborigines walked and sat, while the whites wobbled.


  1. Hi

    The movie struck me for many reasons but some things have only started becoming clearer now. I only realised about a whole 'dreaming world' of australian aborogines (where different tribes have different creatures' dreaming and songs) when I started reading Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines (which was just a few days ago, and I have yet to finish it.)An interesting thing about the movie was that they were attracted to the airplane ( a 'white man''s invention) too, attracted enough to strike deals (though for different reasons). Thus it WOULD be too simplistic to draw a line between material and spiritual world.

    For the aborogines all the creations of the universe (including 'white man's goods' came out tearing the crust from the core of earth, and they were sung to existence by different ancestors. For the particular tribe in question, the ancestor would be a green ant.

  2. Shiba,

    Howdy! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I had read Chatwin's _Songlines_ many years ago and found it fascinating. That may also have been another reason why I choose to watch the film.

    I wonder if the green color of the airplane could explain at least part of the attraction to the Aborigines.