The elevated sound of classic opera hushed by a hypnotic didgeridoo growl; washed out desert colors and dusted clothes mingled with the persistent murmur of the swirling sand: it all adds to the melancholic tone of Werner Herzog‘s Where the Green Ants Dream. Herzog has admitted the feeling of irreparable loss and sadness underpinning not just the 1984 film’s sights and sounds, but its plot and symbolism, is not a coincidence. His dear mother, Elizabeth Stipetić, passed away when he was shooting in Australia, and the film is dedicated to her memory. The sudden, irreversible absence seems to shape its overall mood.
This spiritual consistency provides an emotional link between multiple subplots and visual mysteries. The film paints a portrait of a philosophical disconnect between a technically advanced mining company digging in the desert and indigenous Australians, who claim the land is sacred because the green ants dream there. The film’s frame, first shown even before the first credit starts rolling, is Herzog’s longtime cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein’s grainy image of a tornado lazily sweeping the barren plains of Oklahoma to the sound of “Pie Jesu” from Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem in D minor, Op. 48. Its melancholic tone is a “direct translation of ‘my mother is gone,'” the author has said. The same visual motif will come back in the end, left only with the diegetic sound. From a distance it looks majestic and symbolic, elevated by the powerful soundtrack. But in a close-up this lazy beast reveals it is voracious, dark hearted eagerness to destroy anything it stumbles upon, much like the western desire to “civilize,” which moulds whatever it comes across into measurable, recognizable patterns, with no room for potentially risky, hence destructive, undefinedness. This recurring picture seems to be a visual interpretation of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” This phrase, stressing the advantage of the eternal spirit over the temporary nature of worldly existence, seems more than adequate in this particular cinematic context.
The plot is inspired by a factual court case that Herzog learned about while visiting Australia a couple of years earlier, Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd. It was a trial between the Yolngu people of Yirrkala, indigenous Australians from the Northern Territory of Australia, and a mining company, Nabalco, digging for bauxite. Yolngu were the longtime owners of the Gove Peninsula in Arnhem Land and in December, 1968 they obtained a warrant agains Nabalco, who had secured a long-term lease from the federal government allowing them to mine the territory. It was the first ever court case of its kind, and a true breakthrough that allowed many other tribes to later follow suit. Herzog, of course, had to change the name of the corporation (to Ayers) under the threat of a lawsuit, but in fact it was just a cosmetic procedure, as everybody in Australia could tell right away what situation he was referring to on screen. The finale of the lawsuit was the most interesting part: the Aboriginal people were unable to produce evidence that would be acceptable in an Anglo-Saxon court of law, so the judge Richard Blackburn ruled against the claimants. But he also expressed a deep dissatisfaction with the existing law, calling Aboriginal land rights “morally right and socially expedient.” This ability to emotionally respond to a subject otherwise completely foreign is also perceptible in Herzog’s film.
There are two crucial factors to Where the Green Ants Dream’s importance: Firstly, it shows a pivotal moment in history of these types of trials, a moment when hearsay is allowed as evidence for the first time. Secondly, thirty years ago it was still a long way to 2012, when Wayne Blaire’s The Sapphires, the first feature from an Aboriginal director, screened at the Cannes Film Festival to a ten-minute standing ovation. In 1984 Ants… (which also opened on the French Riviera) was among few films touching upon this subject, among mostly historical productions like Nicolas Roeg’ Walkabout or Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (featuring a black character played by Ray Barrett, who’s also featured in Ants…).
Before the first British settlement was introduced to the continent in the late 18th century, for at least 40,000 years Australia was shaped by its indigenous inhabitants. The confrontation with “civilization” turned catastrophic for them, in the same way such projects did on North American and African continents, Herzog points out.
The Rirratjingu people Herzog asked to participate in his film, like the Yolngu who sued Nabalco, came from the Yirrkala indigenous community, and their leader was Wandjuk Marika, a famous musician, didgeridoo master, artist and Aboriginal right activist. Herzog claimed that back in the 1984 this group’s traditional lifestyle and rituals were still pretty much intact, as much as they could be, since a mission was founded there only in 1935.
Hence there are many mostly silent close ups of the Aboriginal protagonist with impenetrable expressions. There’s no common language, common mythology between the viewer and the viewed. Their faces do not serve as recognizable surfaces through which we communicate, much like in the West. The stoic, peaceful presence of the Aborigines in the film seems timeless and eternal, perhaps naively so. When Marika and his fellow Aborigines are acting in the court scene, wearing suits, they are comfortable and elegant, but the disconnect is obvious. They don’t need to say much to make the whole situation look ridiculous: the wigs, the speeches, the whole pompous spectacle is debunked as a fake, an excess, far removed from the core of true being as presented here.
Schmidt-Reitwein’s camerawork intentionally gives weight to such an interpretation: always still, fixed on a tripod or a crane, except for literally one scene, it dignifies the images presented, infusing them with certain symbolic, mythic meaning. The way desolate landscape is portrayed here seems to be strongly influenced by Herzog’s earlier film, Fata Morgana. In his review of Ants..., late Roger Ebert pointed out that “Werner Herzog believes in the voodoo of locations, in the possibility that if he shoots a movie in the right place and at the right time, the reality of the location itself will seep into the film and make it more real.”
Herzog is of course polarizing the reality here: Indigenous people are calm, majestic, dignified while Westerners are mostly bad, or at least cynical. If they are breaking up with civilization and its domination, they are doomed to exile, becoming outsiders or weirdos. When the main character, and the mediator between two worlds, Bruce Spence (Lance Hackett) finally leaves the job with Ayers that was morally burdening him, there’s nowhere he can go. Freed of earthly possessions, with only a backpack and a sleeping mat, he is, in the film’s final scene, disappearing behind the tall heaps of sand, marking the endless abyss of the desert. These are signs of an abandoned opal mine, scattered along about 50km from where Herzog was shooting. Herzog calls such spaces “embarrassed,” “insulted” landscapes. So there’s no reward for Bruce either, only ashes and dust.
In the film’s press materials Herzog explains that Aborigines “understand themselves as part of the earth. It is as if there is a universal body, and they are only part of that body. That’s why a man like Sam Woolagoocha said to me one day, ‘Look here…you see these ditches and this mine here…they have ravaged the earth; and don’t you see they have ravaged my body?'”
What is surprising and pops out more with a second or third screening, is the humor underpinning this otherwise quite serious film. Even in the darkest abyss of present-day apocalypse Herzog is still able to appreciate situational funniness and leave room for certain comedic touches, especially in ontologically absurd moments when the world of business and spirit confront one another. But however funny the misunderstandings between Aborigines and the Capitalists were, this laughter is never mocking the seemingly weaker party.
It’s hard to believe it’s been exactly thirty years since Where the Green Ants Dream had its premiere. There is a narrative and aesthetic timelessness to that project that protects it from wearing off. It sometimes assumes a non-intentionally didactic tone, becoming slightly too literal, as Herzog himself points out in the DVD commentary. Especially the disaffected anthropologist (Nicolas Lathouris) character and his speeches about “progress into nothingness” seem a little pompous and overwhelming compared to the restrained, quiet meaningfulness of Aboriginal people.
Herzog has been accused by many of simplifying the relationship between natives and westerners. Indeed it’s hard to disagree that he sometimes, maybe unconsciously, draws on the “noble savage” cliché. But there’s no patronizing in his penetrating directorial gaze, only respect and deep fascination. Herzog, it must be said, was also accused of demonizing the Australians, even called a liar in Phillip Adams article “Dammit Herzog, you are a Liar!”
I myself am convinced the film never aimed to be ethnographic or factual or even fair, but rather to create its own dreamy presence. None of the beliefs portrayed are actually real, but loosely inspired by eclectic facts and elevated by the director’s imagination. Like most of his films, it exemplifies how feature and documentary borders blur. In fact the very story Herzog is telling here, despite its specificity, is a universal one—a couple of years ago it was made into a worldwide box-office hit called Avatar.
While some of Herzog’s narrative choices might look more questionable with time, what endures is, sadly, its subject. What the West calls “civilization” is losing but it’s also not retreating.