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Geographies of Solitude ★★★★



Directed: Jacquelyn Mills

Cast: Zoe Lucas

Release: Berlinale 2022

Geographies of Solitude is a beautiful hybrid between documentary and visual essay, oscillating between nature conservation/degradation, intimate snapshots of Sable Island’s sole resident, Zoe Lucas, and the melding of nature and celluloid film for sumptuously spectacular visuals that are paired with a sound design that is engrossing in its sonic depth and accuracy. Shot entirely on 16mm, the film is an experiential exercise in eco-filmmaking that stresses the large impact humans have even on small islands, disrupting even the most isolated of self-preserved ecosystems. At the same time, Mills’ film is a search for connection amongst the isolation of a world we continue to maim, Zoe inventorying all human debris that washes up on the island. As she states early on, “this is more about experiencing Sable”, and Mills languid approach to the subject is mostly a strong payoff to this thesis, enveloping us in the beauty and loneliness of the island, even if at times the immediacy of the message is lost as a result. Regardless, Geographies of Solitude beautifully essentialisms and immortalises the connectivity of the natural world to all things. The idea is that life is one large ecosystem that we are damaging and isolates us.

Off the coast of Nova Scotia in the North Atlantic is Sable Island, which runs 20 miles long and is 1 mile wide. With a thriving horse population, along with a strong vegetative and insect wildlife, it is a world unto itself. Or at least it was; as the years have gone by, more plastic and dead seagulls end up on the beach, and freshwater ponds have disappeared, affecting the horse population on the island. The world encroached on the island, and the documentary glides through nearly every corner of the island to document that disruption through the perspective of Zoe Lucas’ daily life and environmental conservationist who has lived on the island for over 40 years. She monitors the horses’ health, vegetation and vertebrae, cataloguing and research, and cleans the beaches, using the plastic and balloons to make forms of art collage in her home; both a way of coping with the impossible pollution of the environment and a way to connect to people thousands of miles away.

The cinematography is simply breathtaking and awe-inspiring to the point where an attempt to adjectivise the images of this feels futile. The 16mm approach meshes seamlessly with the archival footage of Zoe’s first days on the island, rendering the whole film be a time capsule of one woman’s life and how she may be disconnected from people but is conscious about her place within the environment that she derives fulfilment from elsewhere. Mills effectively uses the limited geography of the setting to explore every aspect of its ecosystem as Zoe has. The sound design is equally incredible. Mills at times create music through the placement of electrode microphones that pick up the movements of snails, beatless, etc., which then establishes the film’s score. This innovative technique allows the audience to connect to the natural world through their senses rather than just optically. This instils a sense of responsibility to the planet through a mere connection to it, Mills using film to bridge a geographical gap.

The innovations don’t stop at the film’s sound design. Mills mix of nature imagery with material film is inspired, such as filming horsehair, bones and sand exposed in starlight and developed in seaweed, and 35mm film buried in horse manure and developed through Yarrow, a type of plant. This fascinatingly creates the connection between the materiality of the natural world and of film as celluloid, almost serving as a warning, as the use of celluloid is near dead in almost all traditional filmmaking practices out of the need to expand and improve, which is what we are doing in the name of repleting the worlds natural resources. She also goes as far as to have still image photography overladen with moving images, creating a disjointed image that reflects our connection to the natural world, yet we continuously and consciously hurt it. Mills and Zoe are adamant about the immediacy of the situation in which we have put the planet, something this visual imagery connotates. Still, the film is too static at times in its presentation to have the urgency of its message be fully felt, at times becoming repetitive. In turn, this also dampens the representation of Zoe’s connection to Sable.

Geographies of Solitude has a motif that concerns the death of horses, their bodies being reacclimated by the natural world, their nutrients feeding the vegetation that supports the island’s ecosystem, and their skulls being preserved by Zoe. This cycle of life motif is beautiful in Mills, realising what Zoe has lived with for years: the cycle is wonderous and necessary but also isolating for us. Mills becomes an active participant in the film towards the end, interacting with Zoe from behind the camera, offscreen, which reinforces this idea, as Mills craves for human interaction after being on the island for a time, telling Zoe that it’s not necessary that she be around when picking up audio, but that “it’d be nice to spend time together.” Zoe tells Mills that “I lost track of everything else” in her lifelong quest to preserve the island. What she lost is unclear on a surface level, but the sense of longing is evident in the elusiveness of Zoe on camera. Geographies of Solitude is haunting in this portrait, but ultimately life-affirming in representing the cyclicity of life and gorgeous in its painting of this serene landscape.

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