Where the Green Ants Dream

Where the Green Ants Dream, Werner Herzog's latest film, tries to be both a poetic tribute to aboriginal culture and a desperate warning signal to "wreckers" from the West, but ends up falling over its own romanticism. The aborigines end up looking quaint, while the Westerners look like thugs and fools. The story is simple. An Australian mining company is about to set up a uranium mining operation in lands long occupied by aboriginals. The geologist (Bruce Spence) is about to detonate the first charge when he discovers that a small group of elders, led by Wandjuk Marika (a formidable clan leader in real life), is blocking the site. Not even a menacing bulldozer forces them to move. The geologist, unlike his peers, wants to find out what's behind their resistance. It turns out that this land is sacred to their totem, the green ant. The life cycle of the green ants is also the cycle of life on earth. Mining will disrupt it and bring about an apocalypse.

The two sides seem irreconcilable. A visit to a disaffected anthropologist (Nicolas Lathouris), who lives in an abandoned company shack with an aboriginal woman and refuses to talk about the future, doesn't reassure the well-intended geologist. A visit by the aborigines to the city, where their spiritual force appears to screw up the megacorporation's elevators, is also futile. Only when the aborigines take a fancy to a large cargo plane, which looks like a lumbering, oversized green ant, does the company find a negotiating tool.

While the case goes to court, the aborigines take up residence in and around the plane. The upshot of the company's confrontation with the aborigines is enough to destroy the geologist's will to work within the system, but he's not left with much alternative either - the aborigines have flown away.

The conflict at the core of the film is rooted in fact. The incompatibility between aboriginal and Western settler culture is a tragic theme in Australia's history. When Europeans arrived in the late 18th century, there were perhaps 300,000 aborigines, living in a dazzling spectrum of cultures, all marked by a radically different conception of time and space than in Western culture. Europeans were baffled by aborigines' ability to cross the desert without directions or provisions, and by their unquestioning assumption that they could talk to spirits in nature and to the dead. They were puzzled as well as charmed by a magical painting style on rocks, bark and bodies.

The colonists were also irritated by the aborigines, however, because their heathen primitive thoughtways got results inexplicable to Western science. The colonists found it easy to see the aborigines as inhuman, and hunting them became a sport. The genocide of the Tasmanians is just one consequence.

Most of all, the colonists felt inconvenienced by the aborigines. By the late 19th century, Australian colonists had pushed back boundaries, to contain the aborigines on reservations and mission communities. By 1921, there were only 60,000 aborigines left to contain. In 1937 a more active assimilation policy was established to stamp out ancient languages and customs.

In the 1960s, new policies gave some aborigines an option for independence, but a development push, especially in uranium mining, newly jeopardized an embattled collection of cultures. Today's battles for land rights and programs such as bilingual education are small steps toward recovery of what has been lost. Of some 300 aboriginal languages at the time of contact, perhaps 75 remain. At least seven of them have only one surviving, native speaker.

Uranium mining has given long-standing conflicts new urgency. Indeed Where the Green Ants Dream is a light gloss on a case in which a mining company in Eastern Arnhemland threatened to destroy the ritual sites of the Gunwinggu group. The peculiar gifts of the aboriginal peoples, who appear to have an access to spiritual forces in daily life that in the West is reserved for the bizarre and the supernatural, ought to be a warning to those who believe that primitive culture is some kind of first rung on an evolutionary ladder of civilization.

Herzog plays on stereotypes of aborigines in Where The Green Ants Dream. He never peeks past the implacable faces, and cool obstinacy. We are never given a glimpse of the way they live. They might be visitors from another planet, even though the story takes place on their territory. Their function is to sit on judgment on us, as they squat in dust and rags on an airstrip or hunker down in front of bulldozers. Herzog grants Wandjuk Marika a stern, opaque dignity, but you would never know he has expertly manipulated the Australian political system for indigenous rights. Who the aboriginals are and what they want are explained by intermediaries. In a cheaply efficient bit of exposition, a foreign biologist lays out the myth of the green ant for the baffled geologist. The biologist even uses a visual aid-a glass box that contains some green ants - giving the whole thing the air of a high school science experiment.

The puzzled geologist, who portrays the well-intentioned liberal's point of view, is a bridge between two worlds. But he is a bridge across confusion, not understanding. In his trailer-office armed with oscillators and in his trailer-home connected to civilization by a telephone and stocked with snack food from the city, he is an inadvertent emissary of the worst in modern culture. He discovers this gradually, not by learning about aboriginal life but by encountering the thick headedness and smug attitudes of his foreman and his corporate bosses. The film comes to a head during the trial, which makes sardonic fun of the ethnographic rituals of English law and the pretensions of the temporarily powerful.

In one paragraph of a press statement about the film, Herzog does more to illuminate the aborigines' relationship to their world than the movie can. "Aborigines," he writes, "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?'"

The challenge of depicting a relationship to the world this different from ours is impressive, but moments from films such as Walkabout and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith tell us that it is not impossible. In Where the Green Ants Dream, however, aboriginal culture does not exist in itself. Herzog's hysterical raging at industrial obtuseness is the real subject, and the aborigines act as a foil for the Westerners' unperceived insanity. Perhaps the moment that brings Herzog's priorities into focus best is when the ex-anthropologist rants on to the geologist, expressing his frustration in a metaphor:

"You're like somebody on a train that's heading for an abyss. Up ahead a bridge is down and the train is racing towards it and only you know the bridge is down, and the communication cord is not working and this train is going so fast toward its doom that all you have time to do is run through the train to the rear compartment."

That's where Where the Green Ants Dream ends up - in the rear compartment of an emotional ride. Herzog pours his passion into powerless rage. In the process, he has almost made the aborigines of this movie into objects of pity, whose importance and tragedy are similar to rag-tag Cassandras in a society bulldozing its way to apocalypse.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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