Tuesday 12 July 2022

Holgut (Liesbeth De Ceulaer, 2021)

Belgian filmmaker Liesbeth De Ceulaer's Holgut is a film many years in the making, and it proves to be a tough one to classify: both the London Film Festival and the IMDb have it down as a documentary, but De Ceulaer has infused her film with enough dramatic elements to make this status questionable.  That said, in Holgut it's often hard to identify what has been staged for the camera and what is straight documentary—although you might want to spend some time doing so, as the film offers precious little else to engage with.  While there's a kernel of a good idea here, Holgut shows little to no interest in developing it, and the end result is an infuriatingly opaque experience.

In a frozen wilderness, brothers Roman and Kyym spend their days hunting a rare, near-mythical reindeer; parallel to this expedition is the story of scientist Semyon, who is searching the same icy landscape for mammoth remains, which he hopes can be used for cloning purposes.  Once these three have scoured vast swathes of this unforgiving region, which once formed part of the mammoth steppe, it seems that the only way is down, and a journey beneath the permafrost takes the story quite literally in a different direction.  As you might expect, a point does arrive when the two quests become linked in a way that goes beyond their shared setting, and these seemingly disparate storylines come together in a manner which is nothing if not surprising.      

While watching Holgut, it doesn't take long to latch onto the contrasting nature of the quests: while Roman and Kyym are hunting what is, at best, a highly-endangered animal, Semyon is aiming to bring a species back from the depths of extinction.  There's a lot riding on both of these expeditions, so why does the film give off a sense that there's so very little at stake?  Even at a scant 75 minutes, Holgut feels stretched to breaking point, and at no stage is there a sense of urgency—which is kind of remarkable, given the subject matter.  While the film has one or two interesting points to make regarding both extinction and climate change, these are delivered in such an oblique manner that it seems highly unlikely that anyone will consider Holgut to be a remotely useful work on these subjects—especially when there are other films available that cover these topics in a much more accessible way.

Holgut comes off especially badly when compared with Genesis 2.0, a 2018 documentary that covered similar ground, also via dual storylines: one concerning the science that may bring about the return of woolly mammoths, the other focusing on those hunting for the same creatures' tusks.  Genesis 2.0 is an absorbing, thought-provoking piece of cinema—in short, it's everything that Holgut isn't—and those seeking a mammoth fix would do well to seek it out, or even opt for a random instalment of the Ice Age franchise.  With pacing that might be best described as—ahem—glacial, Holgut is, unfortunately, something of an ordeal, one which feels like double its actual running time.  We can hope for better things to come from Liesbeth De Ceulaer, but Holgut delivers neither the insight nor the experience it promises. 

Darren Arnold

Images: Flanders Image