Sunday 30 September 2018

Look Closely at the Mountains (Ana Vaz, 2018)

Look Closely at the Mountains is an engaging slice of experimenta which features two areas inextricably linked with mining: Minas Gerais in Brazil, and France's Nord-Pas-de-Calais (actually now part of Hauts-de-France, a concept which I still can't get used to).  Apart from the obvious cultural differences between the two, each place's attitude to mining could hardly be more different.  The Nord-Pas-de-Calais, after three centuries of the type of heavy industry made famous by Zola, finally abandoned mining in the 1980s; the region subsequently looked to erase the activity from its collective memory, before eventually acknowledging it as an important part of its heritage.  Minas, on the other hand, is an area in which mining is still very much alive - despite the state being the location of the Bento Rodrigues dam catastrophe of 2015, which is widely considered to be the worst environmental disaster in Brazil's history.

The juxtaposition is extreme, to say the very least.  In Minas, we witness the mining-assisted erosion of history and culture, whereas the industry's legacy in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais includes genuinely surprising biodiversity; there's quite an array of flora and fauna among the many slag heaps which pepper the rich coal seam that runs just next to the Belgian border.  We barely get a glimpse of the ex-mining sites of France in daylight, but rather are treated to nocturnal footage of the resident wildlife being studied and measured by diligent workers.  Oh, and there are some seriously cute bats featured here - you have been warned.

There is much to admire here - the basic concept is quite brilliant in its simplicity - but there is one rather off-putting aspect to the film in the form of its overall look.  At any given time, the photography is either washed out or excessively murky; while this is no doubt a stylistic choice, the visual ugliness may well prove a barrier to some viewers.  Which is a pity because, in its own idiosyncratic way, the film really does have something important to say.  As experimenta goes, Look Closely at the Mountains is one of the more accessible examples, and makes for a good starting point for those yet to become acquainted with such fare.  It screens alongside The Sun Quartet and Optimism at the London Film Festival on the 14th of October.

Darren Arnold