A crowded beach filled with happy, sunbathing, playing and laughing people. Fresh fruit, fancy drinks, beach volleyball and music from huge loud speakers along the coast.
This is a scene from the Korean film “Haeundae”. It is a scene that is so perfect and so happy, that everyone who has seen a few films in their life realises that something devastating is bound to happen. And of course it does. This time it’s an earthquake far out in the ocean, resulting in the biggest tsunami the world has ever experienced.
The apocalypse or the end of the world has fascinated the human being since the beginning of time, it seems. Even the old Greeks (as we tend to say) fantasised of the destruction of man and earth. According to them the god Zeus had already extinguished the humans a few times, and planned to do it again. He just waited for the right time and strength. The Maya Indians in Mexico let their calendar end 2012, which probably seemed quite safe around 2000 BC, but rather disturbing year 2009 (even though we don’t really know how they counted, we can be quite sure that 2012 was so far away it wasn’t even imaginable). In the bible there are several books about the apocalypse or judgement day, where we get punished for all our sins, the most well known being the Book of Revelation. Islamic eschatology is documented in the sayings of prophet Mohammed:
"When honesty is lost, then wait for the Day of Judgement.",
"How will honesty be lost, O Apostle of God?"
"When authority is given to those who do not deserve it, then wait for the Day of Judgement”.
In the light of this history, no wonder films about the apocalypse are as old as the film itself. The 1933 film “Deluge” is by many considered the first apocalyptic film, being about a solar eclipse causing a massive earthquake in California, destroying the whole West Coast. New York is inundated with massive tidal waves, threatening to destroy the East Coast as well. What many people do not know is that nine years before “Deluge”, John G. Blystone (who co-directed “Our Hospitality” with Buster Keaton in 1923) made the film “The Last Man on Earth”. It is loosely based on Mary Shelly’s novel “The last man”, telling the story of the world in the 1960s (in the 20s a distant future) being hit by a plague called male-itis killing every fertile man on earth and the world takes over by women. The film can be seen as a direct reaction to American women winning the right to vote in 1920. A woman becomes the president of the United Stares, but in this film this is not a victory, but a threat. This film shows how frightening it was to the male race that women could vote. “Soon they’ll take over”, was not only a horror uttered by Strindberg in Sweden, it even resulted in the first apocalyptic film. After that, threats have rather been represented by natural disasters or, of course, invasions from outer space – being a clear indication that the end is near. The first, and one of the most famous, being “When worlds collide” from 1951, about earth crashing into another planet. The film became famous for its amazing special effects (it even won an Oscar for Best Effects), featuring earthquakes, tidal waves, exploding volcanoes, and, of course, the title cataclysm. “When Worlds Collide” sat the standard for apocalyptic films, in many ways showing off in special effects rather than in magnificent narrative skills. We all remember more recent example such as “Independence Day”, “Armageddon” or the brand new “2012”. A remake of “When Worlds Collide” is also planned in Hollywood. The fascination for the apocalypse seems to be a never ceasing flow of inspiration for new films.
Considering various different incidents occurring only during the 00s, like September 11, global warming and climate change (and the extinction of species in the sea and on land), tsunamis, recession and the most recent pandemic swine flue, the fact that many new films coming out concern the apocalypse or the destruction of man would come as no surprise. For many of us it is suddenly more real that the human being existing forever and the earth as we know it continuing eternally is definitely no certainty.
The apocalypse is for sure something scary but it can also be seen as a way out. It is not a coincidence that many of our most fascinating apocalyptic myths have been created during times of enlightenment and information. It is when we become aware or illuminated and reach a certain amount of knowledge of the world that we also realise our own role in it and the responsibility we have. An apocalypse, an absolute end to our civilisation can mean an escape from our duty and our guilt. Parallel to apocalyptic myths and eschatological stories and almost as a part of them, we can see the longing for nature, or as Rousseau puts it “state of nature”. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately," wrote the 19th-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau. He is quoted in the new Swedish film “Man tänker sitt”, where we can see this typical yearning for a natural state where (the) man (in a very literal meaning) finds some kid of peace and quiet in a world far a away from the demands and requirements of our modern society. Like a hunger for the mother's womb, where no one wishes anything from you. We can see the same longing in two other recent Swedish films “Tillbaka till skogen” or “Trädälskaren”. One can see Rousseau’s saying as a longing for a place where duties could be forgotten, where the human destruction of the world and the fact that we can do something about it (albeit implying a lot sacrifices and work, maybe we have to give up our luxurious lives with espresso machines, SUVs and floor heating), could be left for a while – maybe eternally – in “the state of nature”.
The longing for the apocalypse can be seen as the same, human, urge. Please, let me go, let me be free, let me forget all my problems, all our problems. Let us start from zero again. It is like trying to solve a sudoku, when you suddenly realise one of the numbers is wrong (and probably many more) it is so much easier to start a completely new and empty one than trying to erase all the numbers that might be wrong – or right.
The films in this years Spotlight section in Stockholm Filmfestival varies a lot. There is animation, science fiction, documentaries, pure drama and even a comedy (though being a documentary as well).
Apart from the apocalypse seeming to be a rather manly world and it makes me wonder how we will survive as humans if most of the people surviving these deluges, plagues or gigantic monsters are of masculine gender, the films offer a rather varied and together fascinating view of the end of the world (I know this might sound like a contradiction, but it will all clear out). In the film “The Road”, based on the Pulitzer price winning novel with the same name by Cormac McCarthy, a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son march south through a United States completely erased by earthquakes and fires, hoping to find a warmer climate where there can still be life. The whole film is shot through a kind of greyish, brownish filter adding to the feeling of the complete removal of our colourful civilisation. There is a low key realism, far away from the orgies and special effects we are used to in apocalyptic films such as “Day After Tomorrow”, “2012”. The earthquakes, fires and catastrophes are liberatingly absent in this film that rather focus on the relationship between the father and the son. This is about them struggling to survive or killing themselves in a common suicide, as the mother (Charlize Theron) suggests and wants. Death or life, escape or fight. As the apocalypse can be a relief so can death, rather than life. Sometimes life is a far braver option. While “The Road” starts off after the disaster, the Korean film "Haeundae" begins with the 2004 Tsunami, effectively building up to and preparing us for the next Tsunami, bound to come. We see a blooming tourist place filled with money, luxury and joy, even though poverty and unlucky love is present here as well, as is alcoholism as an escape from bad conscience, rooting in the experience of (or being the cause of) a deadly accident during the 2004 tsunami. We get the usual smart guy trying to warn powerful people, who in turn are not willing to see what is coming up and not willing to cancel money-bringing events and scaring sunbathing tourists “without a cause”. Realising too late, when the gigantic wave is only a couple of nautic miles away, building a worrying wall along the horizon and then drowning the whole city of sky scrapers and happy vacationers as well as locals. “Haeundae” takes place only a few years from now, the 2004 tsunami still being a very present memory in everybody’s head. It has none of the science fiction traits that would make it distant, instead this film tells us this could happen any day, tomorrow. The resent swine-flue together with the vampire fever that has infected the world of film and television recently, makes “Daybreakers” a natural consequence. A film that tells the story of the human being, being almost completely erased by a vampire virus. Almost everyone is now a vampire, and now there is no blood left. I am good at this, I was never really good at being human. It is a line from one of the main characters. As a vampire the only thing you want is blood and the human empathy is long gone. The human being as someone who takes responsibility and the vampire as someone who doesn’t, the end of the world as a way of escaping our duty, again.
In the documentaries in the Spotlight section, the very disturbing “The Cove” and the equally disturbing “Earth days”, focus is on the human being and our consequent failure to take care of our world and our selves. “We haven’s inherited the world from our parents, we borrow it from our children, and when our children look back at this time, they will be grateful”, president George Bush the first says in the beginning of “Earth Days”. The film focuses on the environmental movement during the 60s and 70s, showing that we are not the first to alarm our leaders of the disastrous results of our excessive living. Many have been there before us, and what did we do? Not much it seems. Guilt, guilt. It is a rather powerful reminder of us having had quite a lot of time to do things, having had quite a few possibilities to inform our selves and to make other choices than we have. Yet more, it is a reminder of the American governments of the 80s, who completely abandoned all environment politics in favour of shortsighted economical interests. But it is also a reminder that people before us have done a great job, which we tend to forget in this newly re-awakened concern for the environment. If we are left with a feeling of “fuck, we could have done so much so long ago” after seeing “Earth Days”, “The Cove” rather leaves you with “fuck, can we really do anything”? The cove is a place on the coast of Japan, where they hunt and kill dolphins. We are taken through the parks where dolphins perform to crowds of amazed and astonished people, intrigued by the cute and talented animals, to the place were they are caught and stabbed to death. It is a story about loveable animals, becoming extinct, but it is also a story about mercury, stored in the dolphin’s body and then served to Japanese children, marked as whale meet. The extensive fishing in our seas has made the dolphins a problem, since they eat the fish we want to catch and sell to humans to eat. Therefore we kill dolphins (extinct?) and eat their meet, filled with mercury that poisons our bodies.
Another film, yet again completely different, in this year's spotlight section is “9”, produced by Tim Burton. It is an animated piece about nine dolls, trying to save the world from the machines man has invented and who are now taking over. An apocalyptic story, at its best. Once again focusing on human beings' constant ability to fuck up everything, not being at all able to handle the gifts he has been given. No wonder the womb seems like the safest and most comforting place to be, no harm can be done. The visions painted in all these films could easily be described as pessimistic. There is however another way of seeing it. There can namely be something very appealing with a complete efface of everything that is, everything in our history that lies like a wet and heavy blanket over all our actions, all our deeds. Like with the sudoku that failed, what if we could get a new chance, build a new world, from scratch, where there is no racism, where there is no sexism, where we are all treated equally and have the same possibilities and the same responsibilities. A world that we do not destroy with nuclear weapons and war, with pollution and chemicals, where we do not run all the fish in the sea to extinction and chop down the whole rainforest or mangrove swamps. Maybe also a world not controlled by a few very rich people and ruled by economic interests instead of human. The apocalypse as a new start rather than the end. Maybe the end of the world as we know it, but offering something we cannot imagine.
The films in this section might be seen as fatalistic or even as if we have already resigned and submitted to the unavoidable future. But rather, they offer a more complex view of the yearning for a state of nature or the longing for a place for peace. They show us that the apocalypse might as well soon be here (in a more or less obvious way), but that it is not time for going off duty, that is a time when even more pressure is put on us as human beings. Nature is not an objective and solid state of mind, it demands a great deal of thinking and great deal of responsibility to create that world of irresponsibility that we all long for. Paradise, the Garden of Eden or our mother’s womb, there is no place where we can rest.