I came across a lovely film today that has been making the rounds since it was completed in 2011. It is a German, Chilean, Argentinian and Dutch co-production, directed by Viktor Kossakovsky, who had the strange idea of matching points on the globe that are exact antipodes. The film is called Vivan Las Antipodas! (Long Live the Antipodes), and it is at once a geography lesson and wonderfully inspiring testament of faith in people and their societies.
This sounds portentous, but the film is not like that. The solemn-sounding idea is worked out with charming humour and modesty to such a pont that although there is no plot or even much of a storyline, one’s interest was caught in the first frames, and continued for the whole 108 minutes.
The eight locations chosen, matched four against four, are a small settlement called Entre Rios in Patagonia and Lake Baikal in Russia; another small place in Chile matched against the hustle and bustle of Shanghai, one of the world’s biggest cities; the Big Island of Hawaii, notable for its persistent lava flows, against Botswana, notable for its huge herds of elephants, the largest land animal; and a small beach in the North Island of New Zealand on which has washed the largest sea animal, against the coastal town of Miraflores, Spain.
Because so much of the Earth is covered with water, Kossakovsky figured that only four per cent of the earth’s surface has a direct antipode, a spot anyone would arrive at if they drilled a hole right through the centre of the Earth. When he explained his idea to a Patagonian shepherd, asking him to think of a woman asleep in Russia directly opposite him, the man said immediaely, “so we are kind of sleeping together.” Which, I suppose one could say, joined together as they are by their common attachment to the Earth.
Praised for the skill with which he illustrated his unusual theme, the film-maker said it made him think of the statement that is so often attributed to artists, “it’s not me, it’s my hand.”
He added: “It’s such a privilege to be a film-maker, to see such things, to meet such people” as he met in the making of his unusual film.
Although the camera does catch the great beauty of this remarkable world in many sequences, the people and their rich characers are every bit as much of a focus as the different landscapes. The film opens with a couple of people in South America who have built a small bridge over a tiny stream, and who talk to each vehicle that comes through with the bject of getting them to pay their toll fee. Mostly, however, they find some way of either postponing the payment or forgiving it. And it is at about this point that the film-maker pulls his major stylistic trick, rotating his shot, placing it first sideways, matching it with the location he is moving to on the exact other side of the world, and then showing us them together one on top, one beneath. Then the location he is moving to has the screen to itself, but at first, everything is upside down. The people, dogs, and animals walk upside down, and only gradually are we allowed to think this isn’t actually how it happens: like us up here, they, too, are right side up.
(I thought that was how I would come out, because I was born down there, and never had the feeling I was upside down.)
The most startling images in the film, apart from the purely scenic, of which there were a few, but certainly not too many, were in the last two episodes. On the Big Island of Hawaii, a man wanders over the landscape most of which is covered in huge lava rocks, and sinewy strings of lava that have simply cooled down when in their natural state as they flow down the hill. A man picks his way across the rocks, looking for his dog. Suddenly, like a slow-moving river, we see a sream of lava, headed by a big pile of it, still glowing with its natural fires as it finds its place among the rocks deposited in previous flows. It was a scary image, but not quite so scary as a few moments later when the man stands close by as a huge lava flow, towering above all the rocks previously deposited, agonizingly makes its way downhill. Eventually, this image too is turned upside down, the film-maker managing to show in one memorable shot how similar the texture of an elephant’s skin looks to the lava bed the man has been walking over. The elephant is in Hawaii’s antipode, Botswana. And the final pairing is a coastal point on the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand, where a huge whale has washed up on the shore and is just breathing its last as local people come with their earth-moving equament, tractors and big mechanical shovels in the hope of movng the carcass to a place where it can be safey buried. No hope, however: the animal is far too heavy for our machines, so after standing around a lot, they decide to cut the carcass into manageable lengths and then bury it further up the beach. A final image that is memorable in the film comes when the shot of the immense carcass is paired, upside down, against a volcanic landscape that looks almost exactly like the whale.
I thought this was one of the best-achieved “art” films I had seen in a long time. It is easy to get an idea for a film that should attract attention and hold interest; but it is fiendishy difficult to actually turn that idea into a film. Kossakovsky has managed it with small human touches throughout, like the Latin American shepherd, living alone in a tiny house in which he is baking bread while he tries his best to keep his seven huge cats from burning themselves on the oven, as they march in and out, round and about the little room.
You keep smiling to yourself at the infinite variety, resourcefulness, and careless decency of people everywhere. And that puts you in the mood to wonder at the splendour of the landscape around Lake Baikal, the mountains of New Zealand, the power of Hawaii’s lava landscape.
At the end of this film one wants to shout, “Hurrah for the human race! Hurrah for this beautiful Earth.!”