Director: Hubert Neufeld
Writers: Ruben Hein & Hubert Neufeld
Running time: 60mins
When I was small, I used to spend hours of the day entranced by nature documentaries. David Attenborough was an ever-present on the small cathode-ray television in the living room. His narration of countless spectacular adventures helped bring the flickering images of far-flung nature to life – at least until I had played the VHS tapes they were recorded on to death. One particular encounter that stuck with me, and I suspect millions of other viewers, was his famous interaction with mountain gorillas in Rwanda.
Those magical images played out in my mind when visiting the GaiaZOO in Limburg a couple of years ago; but they were accompanied by an emotional response I didn’t expect, or entirely understand at the time.
Of course, I felt awe, even in the artificial setting, of being in the presence of this creature staring back at me from behind the glass. Of course, I also felt a pang of nostalgia, a happy hint of the wonder I had felt when I first saw those images of Attenborough sitting so calmly amid these gentle giants. But then, I found myself welling up. A sort of mournful guilt was putting a lump in my throat; and over the coming days I came to realise why.
The gorilla’s gaze did not mirror my fascinated stare. Instead, the young female slumped against the glass, disinterested in yet another bald, pasty biped come to gawk at her. In the wild, her species has been utterly failed by human economic policies that meant its life still carries a price-tag many consider worth any legal consequence. Meanwhile, our species has cashed in on her ‘preservation’ by sticking her on display, so that punters can pay to feel the ‘wonder’ and ‘awe’ of a sterile, artificial encounter. Experience consumerism at its most loathsome.
Dutch musician Ruben Hein seems to have a similar moment of mournful clarity in the closing moments of Sounds of the South: a moving documentary about his evolving relationship with nature. Initially, director Hubert Neufeld finds Hein musing on what nature does for him as ‘inspiration’, safe in the warm confines of his Amsterdam studio. By the climactic sequence of the film, however, Hein has moved beyond this perception of nature as providing him a service. A trip to Antarctica has changed all that.
Setting out on the voyage of a lifetime, Hein informs us that from his earliest years he has had an obsession with the natural world. His mother would take him birdwatching once a week, and hoping to rekindle a connection to that happy time seems to be one of the key factors underwriting his journey to South Georgia – while also fuelling his creativity as an artist. In particular, Hein notes he is desperate for a glimpse of a snow petrel – a rare, white bird which is noted in wildlife books he has read and re-read.
Upon his arrival, Hein is happy to find that the locale more than lives up to his expectations. Often, he is lost for words, overwhelmed by the icebergs and mountains towering above him (and having lived in his totally-flat homeland for the last five years, I can imagine exactly why that would have such an effect), or reduced to whispering reverence at the beauty of the ecosystem.
Neufeld’s camera, in collaboration with art director Geert Kroes, does an excellent job of encapsulating this epic landscape, and the sweeping grandeur of the life around Hein, too. It is a magical place that, in spite of everything humanity has thrown at it, is still teeming with life: king penguins fill the oceans as they catch fish for their fluffy brown chicks, shivering on the shore; dolphins and whales smash through the surface of the icy depths; and as they quarrel over territory, the guttural bellows of elephant seals echo across the hotly contested beaches.
Amid this all, the camera regularly returns to Hein’s side to gauge his feelings on what is unfolding before him. Arguably, the images ought to have been given a little more breathing room, and indeed, Hein might have also been allowed a little more time to gather his thoughts. After the second, or even third time he has had to remind the audience he is in awe of the situation, we could probably be trusted to know, empathetically, that more images of seals frolicking on the sand, or sea-birds feeding their young, are probably going to have a similar effect on him as those seen previously.
However, it is a minor, and forgivable, transgression. After all, it keeps us in-step with Hein’s central arc; the transformation of his understanding of nature, and his relationship to it. Similarly, the soundtrack might have had a little more space for natural ambience. The music is a little overbearing when it so regularly drowns out the natural sounds, which we are being told Hein is marvelling in. However, they are well-crafted, thoughtful and sweet melodies – and with Hein’s songs also serving as essay pieces to illustrate his changing perception, they can also easily be forgiven for being laid on a little thick.
As for his transformation, it is summed up most impactfully in two moments. First, in the moments after Hein finally captures a sighting of the bird which he had most hoped to witness. Before seeing the snow petrel, Hein has been waxing lyrical about the wondrous world that currently exists, and about the exhilaration of there always being new species to discover, new places to visit. But in the minutes after he finally sees that small white bird, he is caught in another frame of mind altogether.
Having first faltered on the brink of tears, wondering how he would tell people at home about his experiences, Hein wishes he can one day show the same things to his kids. Then, a thought occurs to him, what happens if the world is not this infinite garden of delights he is primed to experience at present? What if this unique world is shrinking, and with it, the creatures he has so delighted in are vanishing?
This is followed when our host recalls a brief encounter with a humpback whale on the expedition. When he saw it surface, Hein was close enough that if he wanted to, he felt he could touch it. But he didn’t. Instead, more poignantly, he caught a glimpse of the great creature’s eye. In it, he says he saw the same “curiosity” as he had felt – and in that moment he also understood this was a living being. It is a deceptively simple thing to learn; but these animals which we spend money to witness as a leisure activity have families, they feel excitement and fear, they think and they feel. This brings with it a sad realisation; one I think I encountered in the previously mentioned zoo outing, albeit having paid much less for the privilege.
As noted in my recent review of Project Antarctica, just seeing such amazing animals is not inherently profound in its own right. Journeying thousands of miles, not at small expense, simply to have checked a box that you have seen them – no matter how reverently you whisper about the experience – is a little bit of a vanity project. It still rests on what the experience can do for you, what memories it brings back, or inspirations it creates. Unless, that is, you take something away with you, beyond those memories of just having seen something.
As Hein notes himself earlier, as much as there is happiness in witnessing the life around him, there is a sadness here. Sadness that as much as his adventure brings back happy memories of his childhood with his mother, those days will not return. Sadness, too, that this land that has made him so happy may soon also fade from existence. As these realisations combine, he determines that he has to try and do what he can to enact change, and help preserve it.
Hein is no longer simply engaging with nature in the hope of tapping into some lost part of his childhood, or to glean some poetic pleasantries from the shapes and colours of the wilderness. This isn’t about his gratification anymore. The question that he faces, as we all do in this moment of revelation, is what’s to be done?
There are no easy answers. Hein and Neufeld don’t have them all, and neither do I, short of a global insurrection (easier said than done). The very least we can do, though, is try. Even as those with wealth and power continue to fail miserably, we can use the platforms we already enjoy to win hearts and change minds. We can educate, and try to mobilise, to protect our planet from the ground up. In Hein’s case, that begins with the writing of the film’s closing song.
With the central lyric “I’m the smallest wheel in this wild machine,” he encapsulates his journey of understanding. Not just of coming to terms with the fact nature is not just here to serve his ends; but the fact it is a mechanism in tune with itself, and that can be impacted for better or worse by even the most minor of its parts. As small wheels, if we each take action, and work together, we can ensure the greater machine stays in motion.
Hubert Neufeld does very well with his own balancing act here. He understands that Ruben Hein’s star-power is the factor that will draw audiences in (Hein is not only an accomplished musician in the Netherlands, but a winner of reality TV institution Wie is de Mol?), so he ensures he is regularly front and centre of the lens – but never in a way that is off-putting, or undermines the natural world he has entered. Hein meanwhile makes an excellent host – never too heavy-handed with his commentary, instead gently guiding us through his voyage in a way that makes it feel like our own journey too. For the impact this film is looking to have, that is ideal.