To Be With
South Africa 2021
Directed by Jaco Bouwer
Warning: Some largish set up spoilers
found growing from within this review.
Another movie that debuted in the UK at this year’s FrightFest is Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia... and it’s a really great little folk horror film, it has to be said. There was another film out a couple of months ago called In The Earth (which I reviewed here) and this film, which is another kind of folk horror fable (something which seems to be having a bit of a resurgence over the last couple of years), is cut from similar cloth and would make a very good old school Scala Cinema double bill with this movie, I reckon.
Gaia starts off very strongly with two rangers in a jungle-like forest in South Africa - Gabi (played by Monique Rockman) and Winston (played by Anthony Oseyemi) - rowing their small boat down a stream. The film has beautiful cinematography and some of the opening shots as they thread their way down the stream through undergrowth on either side has visual echoes of the opening of The Shining to it, while a modern droning kind of soundtrack plays out (the score by Pierre-Henri Wicomb is incredible and I wish it were available on CD).
When Gabi’s camera drone which is flying ahead of them is taken out by one of two men in the wilderness, who at first are presented to the audience as possibly some kind of indigenous natives, she foolishly splits up from Winston and goes off into the jungle to find it. She falls foul of a trap laid by the two men and gets a big pointy stick through her foot for her trouble. She takes shelter in a cabin which turns out to be the home of the two... Barend (played by Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (played by Alex van Dyk). They dress her wound but she keeps having dreams that she’s closer to the nature of the forest than she thinks and, indeed, it’s not long before flowers and fungi start growing out of her which she keeps removing from her legs.
Meanwhile, as Winston hides from one of several blind, plant people hybrids that seem to have grown in the forest, a spreading tendril of fungus stretches across the bark of a tree and pounces on him... growing him into the tree and effectively turning him into one of the plant men. As Gabi slowly pieces together what is happening in the forest, it becomes clear that a plant like Earth goddess is living under the earth and that it’s almost time for the reckoning of mankind... the polluters of the world.
So I’m not going to say much more about the story because I really don’t want to ruin it for you... suffice to say that Gaia is a really great looking film but it’s not just a triumph of style over substance. It has things to say and it does so with a certain amount of eerie beauty and suspense. At the start of the picture, the sense of uneasiness as Gabi is trying to find her video drone in the forest is almost completely generated by the foreboding and sinister score. By the mid-way mark, however, there is a clear and present danger as tensions and stakes get ratcheted up a notch.
The actors in this are all phenomenal, it has to be said, focusing most of the time on just Gabi, Barend, Stefan and a bunch of fungus faced plant people who are obviously the result of human tissue infected with various off-shoots of nature in this area of the forest. A special shout out has to go to Monique Rockman, who is absolutely amazing in this one... this lady needs to be in more things, for sure.
The special effects are simple but very effective, often creating an almost a psychedelic atmosphere to some of the movie, including in a few unfolding dream sequences which add an even more surrealistic edge to the proceedings. The whole idea that the very Earth itself could be your enemy seems like an idea which would be easy to push in current Covid times so, I could see this film being very popular if it ever gets a wider release in the UK (which, given its release pattern in other countries, I’m sadly not holding my breath for... damn, I would have liked to get a nice Blu Ray of this one).
The one curious stylistic trait which the director seems to be leaning on a few times is to start off shots with the picture framed upside down for a few seconds and then turning the camera back to a normal view. Now, I have to say, I’ve got no idea why he does this so often but he is consistent in using this style in many sequences and, indeed, the opening few shots of the movie also seem to do this. It’s probably alluding to something way more clever than I was able to pick up but at least it’s a consistent visual theme throughout so, no complaints from me.
The ending to the film is very cool too... it’s not totally unexpected but the little epilogue scene gives us an echo of something one of the characters says earlier in the film and it makes you think that the ‘Earth mother’ alluded to in the film’s title is only just getting started, as far as the blight of humanity is concerned. Gaia is one of those movies where science and ritual meet and cross pollinate to make a very trippy kind of horror movie which I absolutely adored... although I’m sure some people will possibly not see this one as a horror film at all, although it certainly uses more than just the tropes and language of the genre to push the story completely into that realm, as far as I’m concerned. I would absolutely love to see this one again but it would need to be released in a physical format for me to get around to it. It’s certainly a lovely looking movie though and I would recommend it to fantasy and horror fans alike.