Reviews Short Documentary

Corona Lockdown Wildernis (2020) – 2.5 stars

Director: Sanne Vermaas

Running time: 11mins

In the earlier days of my previous life as a film festival organiser, the idealistic younger me had the slightly naïve idea that I should host a programme which did not charge any fee for submission. One of the first and last films I accepted on this basis was Ant.mov – an unedited 15 second clip of the titular ant walking across a grey slab of concrete. It was shot flat from about a metre above the ant, on a ropy phone camera that made the ant almost undistinguishable, and was unaccompanied with any score or commentary. Sometimes less is more – but on this occasion less was definitively less.

With that said, there were plenty of lessons to take away from the incident – not just that I should charge at least a token fee in future to deter piss-takers. One of the more obvious points was that nature, especially nature as commonly spotted as an ant, needs a lot of help if its going to make for compelling viewing – both visually and in terms of storytelling.

Sanne Vermaas gets at least half of the equation right with Corona Lockdown Wildernis, having spent lockdown collecting some truly gorgeous footage of minibeasts residing in her garden, near Den Haag. The €3,700 budget seems to have been spent largely on the equipment, as everything is shot in stunning 4K, and I have to admit it is money well-spent. For many other films I would probably scoff at that expenditure – usually I find being able to pick out the individual hairs on a character’s eye-brow about as immersive as the thankfully deceased fad of 3D – but I think nature documentaries are the one area which really calls for such intricate and vibrant visuals, especially when depicting life in the undergrowth!

With that being said, the film lacks narrative thrust that tends to be the hallmark of the most accomplished wildlife photography. There are, of course, ideological questions to address when transplanting human themes onto oblivious subjects from the natural world – but the fact of the matter is that without doing this at all nature photography struggles to permeate mainstream consciousness. Viewers who can identify even the smallest aspects of their own lived experience in an ant or a snail are infinitely more likely to come away fostering a new compassion for these apparent pests, and while it might be too much to ask to tell extensive stories of individual creatures in this short film, simply having a narration of what we are seeing could have really helped us understand and invest in this strange, tiny world we have entered.

Unfortunately Vermaas doesn’t make much of an attempt to do that, and it is left to an emotionally removed newscast to deliver much of the film’s information. In this dispassionate manner we are told that the Netherlands has entered lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus, we are told that the reduced human activity outside has boosted numbers of many species of insects, and we are told that the pandemic has begun to recede. It is valid information, but it is not geared towards anything. We haven’t built much of any kind of relationship with the animals we are being shown – or an understanding of the crucial ecological role they actually play – so the fact there are apparently more of them now does not make much of an impact.

Certainly, there is some scientific merit to presenting un-doctored footage of a snail or a caterpillar in high definition – however, this hands-off approach is a rather clinical mode of presentation, which will do little to move all but the most dedicated nature enthusiasts. There is nothing to tie us to the bug’s-eye-view of the world we could have been presented with – no call to action, or plea to modify our behaviour beyond the global pandemic in order to ensure these changes are not short-lived.

There is a reason that David Attenborough’s sprawling Life anthology is widely regarded as the high-watermark of wildlife documentary making. Even without the moments of drama which the filmmakers spend months chasing; even without the innovative, stunning photography allowing us to see nature up close and personal; Attenborough leads us by the hand through strange and sometimes alien worlds, and helps them to feel familiar and relatable to us. Viewers having that kind of relationship with someone who clearly wants to impart his knowledge and passion for nature on the audience is crucial to the success of such a project.

Looking at Vermaas’ appeal for crowdfunding for this project, it strikes me that she would have been exactly the person to do just this in Corona Lockdown Wilernis. She comes across as having both the knowledge and the passion to have been the documentary’s voice, in a much more engaging way than the joyless newsreader who is used as a framing device for the footage – and in future projects I think that would make all the difference.

I implore the director not to be disheartened by my write-up, or be too hung up on the score here, which is lower than any filmmaker might like to see attached to their work. What is clear to me is that Sanne Vermaas has the capabilities, the technology and the heart to make a truly wonderful nature documentary, if she ever wants to return to the genre. In this case, Corona Lockdown Wildernis is just lacking that emotional engine that can drive engagement in an incredibly important topic.

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