Thursday, 9 October 2014

At the LFF: "The Creator of the Jungle/Sobre la Marxa"

Once upon a time, there was a young boy who delighted in building treehouses in the forests outside the Catalan village of Agrelaguer. In the early 1990s, the boy - now a greying, bespectacled, middle-aged figure known only as "Garrell" - returned to these forests and began to build anew, this time with a grown man's ambition and skill. Soon, the treehouse had taken on the dimensions of a small city: there were vast wooden observation towers, lakes and streams diverted from a nearby river, and mannequins posed on every footbridge and platform. Jordi Morato's The Creator of the Jungle is less a conventional documentary on this man and his constructions than a meditation on what he was building and why he was building it. Garrell is not around in person to explain his methods and motives - an intriguing absence from the get-go - and so Morato's voiceover has to do the heavy lifting, along with VHS footage shot by Aleix Oliveras, a 14-year-old boy Garrell befriended out in the woods. 

In our post-Savile moment, the pairing of a middle-aged loner with Aleix and his bare-chested contemporaries, only some of whom are of age, might set alarm bells ringing in certain quarters, yet rest easy: Garrell's only real relationship is with his immediate environment, and the footage gives off a sense of fun, rather than criminal evidence. We share Aleix's off-camera chuckles when his surprisingly nimble leading man - part Howard Roark, part Tarzan - falls off a rope into a pond, or locks horns with a mountain goat on the set of the pair's camcorder opus Tarzan III. Morato offers just enough of this footage to lull us into this idyll, but even so, we can't help but notice the increasingly frequent intrusions. The construction - which soon towered over the treetops - inevitably attracted curious locals, some of whom damaged Garrell's long-crafted tunnels and fences, and began killing animals for sport; at a certain point, Tarzan III became a personal statement, with our loinclothed hero dodging the unwanted attentions of the civilised world, beating off interlopers with rocks and sticks, and eventually burning this playhouse down so nobody else could get at it.

You think the film might also go downwards from here, spiralling towards the death, destruction and nothingness Werner Herzog so revelled in while concluding the thematically similar Grizzly Man. In fact, in its final act, The Creator of the Jungle moves in the opposite direction - it gets bigger, more awesome, gives us even more to marvel at. This is not, it should be said, a film that burrows inwards: although we hear Garrell shrug several times that he's been lucky to have experienced more good than bad in his life, we're shown and told next to nothing of his life away from the trees, an omission that prompts all manner of questions on our part. Is Garrell really the jolly visionary Aleix's footage presents us with, or is there more to this retreat to the wide open spaces of his youth? Are his constructions outsider art, or just a Sunday DIY project that got out of hand? Without lecturing us or stressing it, Morato has at the very least given us one of the more striking green docs to have come along in a while: the images Aleix captured, and which The Creator of the Jungle now reframes, are themselves a monument to the ways one man not only existed in harmony with nature, but worked together with it to create the darnedest of spectacles.

The Creator of the Jungle screens tomorrow (Fri 10) at 8.45pm in NFT2, and again on Mon 13 at 1pm at the ICA.

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