by Fabien Lemercier
- This total, hypnotic immersion into the jungle, hot on the trail of the elephant graveyard, comes courtesy of Spanish filmmaker Carlos Casas, and his new work unveiled in competition at FIDMarseille
"Since the beginning of time, countless stories have been told and legends heard on the subject of the mythical elephant graveyard. An impassable mountain and a jungle of almighty power was said to lead adventurers through caves to underground rivers, where elephants allegedly go to die. Fuelled by these fables, the poachers’ thirst for precious ivory proved insatiable and, among the many other disasters laid at their door, they finally succeeded in killing all the elephants, except for one. As their own world was now coming to an end, they set about following in the footsteps of the one remaining elephant who could lead them towards this secret place, seen only by men in their dreams." It is with these intriguing words, and a long and sumptuous still frame of an impressive v-shaped mountain range set against a blue sky, the light of the sun shining behind one of the foothills, that Spanish director Carlos Casas’ captivating movie Cemetery begins; a work unveiled in a world premiere, in the international competition section of the 30th Marseille International Documentary Festival (FID Marseille).
Attracted to environments of the most extreme kind, along the lines of those explored in his trilogy which includes the namesake sea of Aral, the Patagonian Tierra del Fuego in Solitude at the End of the World and the Bering Sea whale hunters in Hunters Since the Beginning of Time, the director has this time chosen to immerse himself in the depths of the Sri Lankan jungle, in his unique and hybrid trademark style falling somewhere between documentary, fiction and experimental film. It’s a sensory journey which brings us within touching distance of dense vegetation flooded with a deluge of animal sounds (monkeys, birds, amphibians, crickets, grasshoppers, cicadas, etc.), omnipresent and incessant, through the day and the night, which the famous British sound recordist Chris Watson reproduces and interweaves to fantastic effect to create a ceremonial blanket which envelops the entire film.
Divided into four chapters, Cemetery moves at the pace of its main character, an elephant, whom in the first instance, the camera scrutinises in minute detail, from his eye through to the ravine-deep folds of his skin. The mahout, meanwhile (an elephant driver who traditionally looks after one sole animal his whole life, an occupation passed down from one generation to the next), washes him and feeds him, living all alone in his hut in the middle of the jungle, where darkness falls on an abyssal scale, broken only by the light of a fire or a flashlight. It’s an end-of-the-world atmosphere, which resonates with our knowledge of the impending death of this elephant, as announced in the introduction, whose movements the camera also follows. But danger looms, as four men armed with guns and weighed down with walkie-talkies make their way towards them. They’re going to fan out and scour the surroundings, hot on the trail of the elephant graveyard. It’s a meticulous hunt which goes horribly wrong, with nature’s forces setting upon these human predators in an atmosphere worthy of a fantasy film, which takes an even more unreal (and deeply experimental, from a cinematographic standpoint) turn when the elephant passes over into the other world.
Torrential rains, spiders’ webs, old photos writhing in the fire, thunder and lightening, cascades and water curtains, rocky gorges, infrasound… Carlos Casas steadily digs down beneath the surface of everyday perceptions to offer up an extraordinary and almost mystical experience which is a feast for the eyes and the ears. Expertly directed, it moves from nigh-on nature documentary in the first instance, to become a strange, suspense-filled hunting film in the second, before venturing through the looking glass and into the land of shadows towards the end. A stunning immersion (a special mention should go to director of photography Benjamin Echazarreta), bolstered by a generous dose of finely honed, formal and conceptual audacity which is sure to seduce the initiated, and whose projection on the big screen will prove a wholly out-of-the-ordinary experience for everyone.
(Translated from French)
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