The South African ecological horror thriller that has travelled and awed the world is finally coming home. Gaia, directed by Jaco Bouwer, premiered at the prestigious South by SouthWest festival in Austin, Texas, US and has shown in other countries, ranging from Portugal to South Korea.
The film takes place in the Tsitsikamma forest, where two game rangers, Gabi and Winston — played by Monique Rockman and Anthony Oseyemi — find themselves entangled with two off-the-grid survivalists, Barend and his son Stefan, played by Carel Nel and Alex van Dyk. However, the four main characters are not the only ones who are roaming the forest.
Barend and his son Stefan have forged a religious-like relationship with the nature of the forest, where they live. Having honed their hunting skills and relationship to the natural world, Barend is very critical of the greedy nature of modern civilisation and industrialisation, and rejects technology after destroying both Gabi’s smartphone and drone in an attempt to protect Stefan from the industrialised world beyond the forest.
However, just as savvy to the lay of the land, Barend and Stefan protect Gabi from blind human-like creatures covered in fungus who also live and hunt in the Tsitsikamma forest.
The film’s title stems from the Greek concept of Gaia, who is the personification of Earth, as well as the ancestral mother of all life.
After learning that Barend’s wife, and Stefan’s mother died of bone cancer, Stefan shows Gabi that his own mother has been transformed into one of the trees in the forest, with a tree branch that had grown with her wedding ring still attached.
The forest’s rapidly-spreading fungus is how humans transform into the creatures who roam the forest. This fungus becomes the subject of many of Gabi’s nightmares after she starts finding pieces of fungus growing on her arms and legs, and then spreading to her veins.
Different types of fungus and mushrooms are a constant visual, paying homage to the ancient, two-way dialogue that is the mycelium network beneath the Earth’s surface and all living things.
This is especially evident when Barend tells Gabi that, “The largest organism on the planet is right here, it’s underneath us, older than human history. It’s been growing, waiting, right beneath us. It’s ready to spread.”
The use of spores that spread the infection turning humans into forest-lurking creatures is an apt analogy of how Earth’s mycelium network and the human nervous system — which strikingly look very similar — carry out similar functions to support life.
Barend explains the process of infection in humans through spores as “Fungus prefers homo sapiens, which feeds on the eyes, the lungs; as it grows down it saves the muscles for later […] connects to the fungal network filling up with spores until it’s ready to repeat itself.”
The use of fungus as an indicator of the force that is Gaia comes off as slightly ominous, perhaps to show the perspective of modern humans, who typically aren’t familiar with fungus. Fungus that brings life to the forest is what brings about the end of life as a human from the industrial anthropocene; the spirit of Gaia that takes over when infected.
Gaia is an adrenaline rush with strikingly beautiful visuals, which comments on modern civilisation, industrialisation, and technology.
Bouwer’s film is a visually stunning criticism of our anthropocene age, and an appreciation for all things fungus. Trance-like closeups, sped-up time lapses, and squishy sounds and textures bring the natural beauty of the forest to the forefront of the film. The characters and costuming lack any sort of embellishments — the fungal infection does that for them.
The film will open in cinemas across the country on 22 April.