In his creation of a nonhuman cinematic world that mines horror from its confrontation of human fear of irrelevance and inadaptability, Bouwer ultimately suggests that survival in the era following the Anthropocene – a near inevitability as the effects of climate change become more noticeable, severe, and irreversible by the day – is predicated on the ability of humans to accept a nondominant role in the new world.
* * *
In his feature film debut, director Jaco Bouwer, breaking form with the more traditional thrills offered by his previous two television projects, Die Spreeus (2019) and Dwaalster (2019), crafts a speculative vision of humankind’s downfall at the hands of an ancient and vengeful Mother Nature in 2021’s Gaia. Bouwer’s short-but-savage, 96-minute ecological body-horror hellscape chronicles the journey of Gabi, a park ranger played by Monique Rockman. Exiting the safety of her fellow ranger’s (Anthony Oseyemi) boat to recover her disabled drone in South African Tsitsikamma forest, she loses herself in the woods both literally and metaphysically. Her grip on reality as she knows it slowly unravels as two local survivalists, Barend (Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (Alex van Dyk), enlighten her to the existence of a malicious, maternal force of nature that they only ominously refer to as “God.” As Barend – a veritable disciple of this primordial being – prophesizes the beginning of the Anthropocene’s end, Gabi begins to serve as fertile soil for Gaia’s destructive viral seed, her body sprouting fungal spores and her mind beset by hallucinatory visions. A startling debut, Gaia received acclaim both on and off the festival circuit, garnering a Best Cinematography win at the SXSW Film Festival for the hallucinogenic touch of cinematographer Jorrie van der Walt, a Best International Science Fiction Film award at the Trieste Science+Fiction Festival, and universal critical praise for Bouwer’s direction and for the film’s grotesque makeup and special effects.
Distinct from its eco-horror kin (recent entries including Annihilation, In the Earth, and Snowpiercer), Bouwer’s film, which initially seems to follow generic expectations by intimately aligning itself with Gabi and the human world she represents, undermines this alignment through its jarring, decidedly inhuman visual formal choices. Though Gabi certainly serves as the film’s subject, the proximity and subjective relationship of the camera to Gabi begin to adopt a near-imperceptible sense of threat as the primordial force reveals itself, a threat derived from all other aspects of the directorial and cinematographic vision. Even as Bouwer closely – and often – tracks Gabi and her companions’ path through the woods in medium and standard close-ups, these intimate portraits are complicated with a constant, unnerving shallow focus. In the same way that Gabi is entering into a new, frightening, unclear vision of the nonhuman future, we are privy only to the characters and not their unfamiliar, looming surroundings. The forest that frames these portraits is blurred and dissolved into a dizzy kaleidoscope of chlorophyll and bokeh. As Savlov of the Austin Chronicle suggests, the environment thus becomes “an oppressively sultry and sentient green hell,” a hell that quickly scorches any thoughts of hope or escape from the mind like an act of cauterization.
This subversion of human subjectivity is furthered by Bouwer’s woozy use of racking focus throughout the film’s runtime, with the earliest and most detachedly inhuman example appearing roughly nine minutes in. His camera, following on an almost microscopic level the ethereal path of Gaia’s fungal spores through the forest air, shudders and racks as if it’s lost control of its own focus, a foreboding comment on the ancient power that is shaking the technological and civilizational foundation of humanity, even as humankind chooses to ignore it.
Even the more standard elements of the film, such as the romantic relationship that blooms between Gabi and the naïve yet intelligent Stefan, are imbued with a primordial menace: the feelings Gabi experiences for Stefan are punctuated by dream visions of Nature’s processes at work, taking the form of montages of the rapid growth of fungi, foliage, and flowers. As their feelings strengthen, Gabi further loses her grip on both her reality and her dreams, a suggestion that perhaps these feelings aren’t so humanly natural after all.
Established through Bouwer and der Walt’s subtle visual strokes, the suspicion creeping into the film that the world these characters inhabit is no longer for them is heightened and reinforced by an inhuman mise-en-scéne, revealing itself most notably in the film’s costume and makeup design. Gabi, Barend, and Stefan are necessarily cloaked in the most misshapen, unsensual apparel possible, with the most frequent color most accurately described as dirt brown. Though the costume design serves to lend its characters a sense of survivalist logic – of course two men living in the woods would prioritize function over aesthetic appeal – it also siphons the colors of humanity out of the already human-absent environment.
In contrast to the vivid color that defines the wooded nonhuman utopia that encases them, the human characters have no choice but to subsist on the dullest clothed protection available, a minute version of the cabin that serves as their shelter, itself an ugly monotone blot in a richly alive landscape. As a stark counterexample, Gaia’s makeup and creature design, a standout component of the film, erupts and blossoms in every frame, “otherworldly in biodiversity and texture while remaining, literally, grounded, seemingly composed of earthly organisms” (London).
The creatures themselves – horrifying and monstrous only in the way they threaten the human characters – are beautifully imagined, an amalgam of soft, floral colors and congruous growth that feels sprung directly from the trees that rise high above the now-defunct previous iteration of the human species. Though the attacks of the creatures on these characters are framed horrifically, the creatures’ very place in the environment feels more appropriate and natural than that of the three main cast members, so appropriate that when Gabi meets the same fate as her fellow park ranger, becoming human fertilizer for the growth of a spectacularly realized bed of colorful fungi, her loss doesn’t even register as mournful. Instead, it seems minor, a necessary sacrifice for a better, more ecologically stable world.
In his creation of a nonhuman cinematic world that mines horror from its confrontation of human fear of irrelevance and inadaptability, Bouwer ultimately suggests that survival in the era following the Anthropocene – a near inevitability as the effects of climate change become more noticeable, severe, and irreversible by the day – is predicated on the ability of humans to accept a nondominant role in the new world. The adaptability of nonhuman species, both flora and fauna – here envisioned as a threatening, primordial force – is certain. What isn’t is if humankind can relinquish their chokehold on the natural world and can withstand the lashing to their pride that would result from the destruction of civilization that looms ever large in the shadow of the climate crisis. In the words of Barend, “We’re about to witness the greatest reckoning of all time”; our only hope is to approach the end of the Anthropocene with adaptability in mind, accepting our new role as one species of many, a small component in a vast ecosystem that will soon no longer be in our control and never really was in the first place.
Bouwer, Jaco, director. Gaia. Performances by Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk, and Anthony Oseyemi, Film Initiative Africa, 2021.
London, Ross. “SXSW Online 2021: ‘Gaia’ is an Artful, Thrilling and Biblical Warning of nature’s Wrath.” University Wire, Mar 17, 2021. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/wire-feeds/sxsw-online-2021-gaia-is-artful-thrilling/docview/2502144547/se-2?accountid=7098.
Savlov, Marc. “Gaia.” Austin Chronicle, 18 Jun 2021, https://www.austinchronicle.com/events/film/2021-06-18/gaia/. Accessed 24 Feb 2022.