Director: Agnes Meng
Running time: 20mins
It might not be especially surprising to regular readers of my macabre musings on Indy Film Library that I have always been fascinated by the way that fear manifests itself in culture. Indeed, ever since I was small, I have been blessed with an unquenchable thirst for the weird, and fantastical ways people around the world have historically attempted to rationalise inexplicable experiences, or to warn others away from areas of real danger.
Despite what the monoculture of Hollywood canon might have you believe, there is no Universal standard of monster – even the core myths which seem to emerge again and again across different, distant regions. Vampires, for example, tap into the fear of having your energy mercilessly exploited by a powerful and corrupt elite – so they routinely crop up in class-based societies far and wide, but that does not mean they each behave in the same way. The elegant and mobile European vampire which has become the standard thanks to the hegemonic reach of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is distinct from the Chinese jiangshi which, due to the rigor mortis inflicting the limbs of its reanimated corpse, can only get around by a bizarre hopping movement.
Needless to say, in that case, Agnes Meng’s intriguing rumination on a distinctive variation on the mythology of werewolves piqued my curiosity immediately. Histórias de Lobos (which you won’t be surprised to learn translates to Histories of Wolves) examines a unique folklore which has evolved in Northern Portugal in correlation to a mountain village’s complex relationship with a neighbouring population of wolves.
Meng turns her lens on a cast of intriguing subjects – both young and old – who recount tales passed down to them from previous generations, ‘true stories’ from the days of their mothers and grandmothers, and even unexplained encounters they witnessed first-hand. What quickly becomes apparent is the werewolves which still provoke such strong emotions from the people on camera is that they are not the kind of creature we have long been acquainted with in the guise of Lon Chaney Jr or David Naughton. Their transformations do not seem to correlate to the fulness of the moon – with many encounters taking place on pitch-black nights – while, like more traditional shapeshifters, they seem able to take on other forms when convenient. When they need to blend in, they are human; when they need strength, they can be wolves; when they are looking to travel long distances, they become horses.
Most interestingly, their more complicated state of being from the standardised A-B nature of dominant Wolfman themes also seems to be a reflection of the ambivalent relationship the rural villagers have with real-life wolves. While of course many of the tales on display have a fearful element to them – as there is an understanding that a wild creature of any kind could just as easily see you as a co-habitant one moment and a meal the next – there is also a kind of reverence for the werewolves, and an understanding that they are in someway similar to the hardy men and women living among the mountains. At certain points in the tales, the human side of the beasts allows them to foster friendships with humans – to the extent that they either urge them to leave areas where they unleash their animalistic impulses, or consume other animals to keep their hunger under control.
Perhaps this complicated mythology is also an indicator of why the Iberian wolf of Northern Portugal and North Western Spain remains the largest wolf population of Western Europe. While there is a prominent fear of wolves in the region that has seen them hunted and killed for centuries – to the extent the population is still small compared to what it once was – the persecution has not hit the same heights as that seen elsewhere, particularly in the ecological wasteland of my own native England, where the largest natural predator is sadly now the badger. Perhaps, as we struggle to reckon with the legacy of having wiped out all our wildlife remotely inconvenient to farmers, and left ourselves prone to flooding and ecological collapse in the process, we might have recognised that as intimidating as we might find apex predators, our own survival is dependent on the environment which their predation helps to maintain. As Europe continues to struggle to rewild its now barren forests, it would do well to remember this, while its farmers attempt to hold back the process.
Returning to a historical mythology which is itself now struggling for survival is a neat way of prompting thought on these themes. So much of the world’s folklore has been lost to the cultural homogeny which has been gradually enforced by the juggernaut of industrialised entertainment. Everything that could in some way have kept us in touch with our history, and our natural world within mythology is routinely stripped from the sanitised output of Hollywood horror, just as so much wild land has been lost to the monotony of industrial farming.
The idea of harking back to these old ideas is underwritten technically by some gorgeous construction and cinematography – as well as the nostalgic flicker of having actually been recorded onto real film. Naturally lit, we often have to work hard to find the lone points of activity on the screen, which appear seemingly at random amid the darkness of the night – it leaves us to really concentrate, to extract every bit of meaning we can from what we are seeing.
Unfortunately, as cosmetically sumptuous and intricately planned as the visuals are, the film is rather heavy handed with some of the sound-tracking choices. One particular music sting – a music box melody which seems designed to add to the film’s fantastical vibe – bears a distracting resemblance to the opening chords of Teddy Bear’s Picnic. Considering the wonderful array of traditional Portuguese folk music which is also present in the film, it seems a little contradictory, as a film which has done so much to present a different world of mythology to the Hollywood staples veers ever so slightly into horror cliché.
Mercifully less liberal with the sprinkling of sound effects artificially inserted into the film – though when the low growls of wolves do echo through the streets, they do detract a little from the authentic feel of this living-dream of a documentary. With that being said, the emphasis there should be on little, because overall, this is an arresting and thought-provoking piece of cinema.
Is it perfect? Not quite – but it isn’t far off, and for a film which notes that it’s director was a first-time filmmaker at the time of its release, it is a startling indicator of what will surely be an incredible career to come. According to a recent message from the artist herself, she has returned to the mountains with the intent of telling a new story from Portugal’s past. Frankly, I can’t wait to see what she uncovers this time.
It is fitting that my final review of 2020 should be Histories of Wolves – a film about the fragile and fraught relationship between human and wolf in the mountains of Portugal. With a pandemic serving as a precursor of an ecological collapse that will likely get much worse before substantial action is taken to offset it, we need to remember how to respect nature – however much it might inconvenience or disturb us.