Director: Ruben Swart
Writer: Ruben Swart
Cast: Roos Groenen, Nini Pronk, Tommy Zonneveld, Muhammed Emin Çaglar, Martijm Scherff
Running time: 42mins
Scoring reviews is difficult at the best of times. At the end of the day, any number of ‘goodness’ attached to an artistic endeavour is arbitrary to the point of being meaningless. But producers value the opportunity to put stars on posters, and readers often want you to simply tell them if a film is worth seeing.
I’m not sure if the eventual outcome of this review will be helpful to either camp – but honestly I sometimes think a 3-star rating is more of a badge of honour than the 4-star minimum filmmakers crave. It often shows that a film had ambition; ideas which were out of the box enough to unsettle people, and to annoy those who crave the obvious. I have heard Jordan Peele branded The King of 3-star cinema – and I don’t think that should be regarded as a slur by any stretch.
With Moerasdraak, Ruben Swart has prioritised doing something interesting, over something which gives people the expected – and while the end result is not always a cohesive success, that much is worth celebrating. The film is an ungodly chimera: a satire of student cinema, also serving partially as a legitimate documentary on historic folklore, and blended briefly with a Blair Witch-style found-footage horror.
At times, this makes it an ungainly, hurried endeavour, which seems to sense it is running out of runway without getting off the ground. But at other moments, it brings with it an infectious, frenetic energy which you cannot help but be swept up in.
Framed as a making-of-documentary, the movie supposedly captures the drama behind the scenes between a group of student-journalists who accidentally stumble on something big during an innocuous assignment. The investigation seems simple enough at the start: to shed light on the nickname of Noord-Brabant’s capital city, ’s-Hertogenbosch.
During the Eighty Years War, the city became a key strategic outpost, as its surrounding marshes made a siege of the conventional type impossible, while its fortress was deemed impregnable. This earned it the nickname Moerasdraak – or Dragon of the Marsh. After some comedically half-arsed research, host and head-researcher Sarah (Roos Groenen) attempts to follow a series of disastrous leads. First, one gentleman in an old people’s home starts bellowing the name of a famous warrior from the Eighty Years War – and lintworm (both a modern term for a tapeworm, and a name for a species of dragon), leading the gang to seek out a historian at a local museum.
Due to the fact these are students, our main characters are more than a little green. Apparently their attitude to every encounter is immediately to put someone on camera, without trying to make them feel comfortable, lobbing questions at them and seeing what happens. Most journalism courses will tell you this is a good way to create car-crash television – especially with civilian witnesses who are not media trained. So when, after several moments of looking for direction, one talking head grows tired of the scenario and asks them to leave, it is hard to work out whether she is hiding something, or whether she is justifiably fed up with her unprofessional handling by a group of students suddenly asking her whether she believes in giant worms.
From there, the trail leads the plucky youngsters to a local archive. It’s here that it becomes clear they’re actually on to something. They look through ‘unsolved documents’ relating to disappearances in the marshes around ’s-Hertogenbosch, including allusions to a ‘snake’ or ‘crocodile’ being loose in the Dutch marshes. Suddenly, the Moerasdraak seems like it might simply be more than an old nickname for a city. One article even implies the famously hellish artist Hieronymus Bosch frequented the area – and since his work included some violent dragon imagery, this builds to an enjoyable Pickman’s Model-esque suggestion that some of his inspirations might have been from life!
Adding to these suspicions, mysterious suited agents arrive and destroy the evidence. While the students escape with their footage, their inexperience again manifests in amusingly unhelpful ways.
For example, most practising journalists try not to film the faces of sources leaking evidence of explosive state secrets. You would expect they would probably have the sense not to film crew members handing said source a cash-bribe (of a princely €50) to gain access to those documents either. And you would really hope that journalists wouldn’t store all of that in ‘the cloud’ either. The team manage to do all of the above – and are shocked to find that the security state seems to have gained access and begun to delete the material.
All of this is pointing us in one innevitable direction. If the team are going to revive their project, then they will need to go into the swamp and drum up their own encounter with a wyvern. Unfortunately, a climactic sequence which should be filled with flames runs out of puff quite dramatically. Perhaps it is a matter of where the film’s backing came from – with support including local youth organisation City Boost – but the film seems reluctant to place any of its characters in any peril.
While the film’s premise might mirror Troll Hunter or Blair Witch, where underqualified journalists bite off more than they can chew, and not all of them get to live to regret it, Moerasdraak pulls its punches. There is not a lot of time dedicated to building suspense, and the way our heroes stumble upon the creature they are searching is almost laughable, diffusing any sense of danger even as it supposedly emerges. And documentary journalism is dangerous – especially when pitting yourself against the state, and / or a volatile wild beast – so manifesting some kind of threat here would have been really smart. But there seems to be no price for underestimating any of the story’s apparent risks – no hefty price that our characters pay, which suggests they will handle future projects more wisely (and they really would need to).
This means we don’t get much of a learning curve for our main character in particular. The increasingly obsessive Sarah puts her friends in danger, apparently acting on an impulse she picked up from her conspiracy-theorist father. And having barrelled into the situation without considering how she will disseminate any of her discoveries, or how she and her team may even survive the day, she comes away unscathed and with everyone else more or less in one piece – making a situation we seemingly should take to be life-or-death as just a bit of a gad-about.
And while the CGI of the dragon itself is surprisingly effective, it is used a little too bluntly. Initial moments show some great, hulking shape charging through the undergrowth, without showing us too much. But that urge to show off some shiny effects seems to get the better of the filmmakers, with an extended shot of it galloping along a bridge coming before a close-up shows it has kind of a goofy face. The puppet has more of Toothless about it than of Smaug and a decision to be more restrained with showing it off (however great its scales might look) would have been smart if it is being presented as a threat.
Similarly, decisions in the editing to lay on a hefty musical score make this all feel a little over-produced for what it is supposed to be. An amateur crew of journalists, struggling to learn their craft, as a difficult story requires them to grow faster than they were ready to. There is room for comedy, for drama and for horror in the midst of all that – but those elements are less developed than they ought to be, while the idea that they somehow scrambled out a highly polished documentary in the end seems at odds with the premise.
I should clarify that I do like Moerasdraak. But I wanted to like it a hell of a lot more than I ended up doing. Since moving to the Netherlands, I’ve encountered the bristling unease many Dutch residents exhibit when you ask them about their folklore. Perhaps it’s out of concern that a nation which characterises itself as ‘straight-forward and rational’ can’t be seen to indulge in fairy tales. Perhaps it is some residual Christian resentment for such stories. Or perhaps there is something else going on… Moerasdraak has identified a very interesting grey area of Dutch discourse in that respect. In its own right, that is something to commend, and in some ways it does well to capitalise on it. But in order to make more effective use of that space, it needs to work out what it really wants from its project; is it asking us to buy into its titular creature as a legitimate threat, or a vessel for light entertainment? Both of those are valid answers – but together they make awkward bedfellows.