Doctor Dolittle in the flesh: South African-born Anna Breytenbach explores the phenomenon of talking to animals in The Animal Communicator.
The Q&A session following the premiere of the documentary The Animal Communicator is well under way. An audience member describes how she addresses hungry mosquitoes. She understands that they just need a little blood to breed, she says. She tells them to help themselves – but please not leave an itch. The audience doesn't laugh much. It awaits Anna Breytenbach's response.
Breytenbach's ability to talk to animals – from tiny fish to more charismatic species – had just been explored in the film, commissioned by the Natural History Unit of Africa. Producers Craig and Damon Foster (who made the tracker film The Great Dance: A Hunter's Story) have Breytenbach interact with monkeys, baboons, birds, and a grumpy black panther.
She is trailed by environmental journalist Swati Thiyagarajan, who finds animals with histories that Breytenbach could not possibly know about – "tests" to see what she can get the creatures to tell her.
As Breytenbach's "psychic interspecies communication" does not involve direct speech, there are many scenes of her and the featured animal communing silently. And she invariably does, convincing Thiyagarajan of her abilities after some moving interactions with the panther. Interviews with the amazed animals' owners or carers fill the gaps.
Overall, the film's concern is about reforging forgotten links with nature. The Natural History Unit of Africa was interested in "alternative ways of dealing with the management of the human-wildlife conflict". It also acknowledged a desire for more spiritual or "intuition-orientated stories", which offset the decision to tackle an unproven topic.
Sceptics will find plenty to query: the quasi-mystical air brought to a tracking exercise and claims of picking up the vivid image of a specific animal being tracked, for example. But the majority of the audience was sold, rapturously. South African-born Breytenbach was speaking to a Cape Town audience, and some may have known her personally or completed one of her courses (such as swimming with dolphins in Mozambique – if the dolphins are okay with it, of course). Besides the mosquito whisperer, there was a woman whose pet was about to have an operation, but she didn't want to saddle the dog with her own anxieties.
All questions were answered fluidly by Breytenbach, who seems an intense and eloquent person, immune from doubt. She recommended that the dog owner send her pet mental images of what was to happen to prepare the animal – the needle and anaesthetic, the slumber.
And the mosquito woman's experiences "emulated" Breytenbach's own – as long as the request was made consciously, positively and with attention (it didn't work if there were too many mozzies to focus on). Which proved, she said, that it's possible to negotiate with wildlife.
What The Animal Communicator does prove is the extent to which some people lust after a special, indefinable communion with the natural world. Not just the desire to talk to animals, but a way of regaining something lost. What that says about us as a species and our relationship with this beleaguered planet is where things get interesting.
The Animal Communicator runs at the Labia Theatre, Cape Town, from February 21 to 27