Friday 14 September 2018

The wanderers: "Down to Earth"

The entirely unpersuasive Dutch documentary Down to Earth is the movie equivalent of those newspaper features in which name writers with the resources to follow their nose and hearts lecture us workaday drones on the advantages of returning to the land. It comes from an understandable place, but each of its points arrives with a resistible side order of head-in-clouds naivety, insufferable smugness or editorial hectoring. The directors, and our narrators, are Renata Heinen and Rolf Winters, a real-life couple who, after self-diagnosing some unspecified urban malaise, took the life-altering decision to uproot their young family and relocate to nature for a year, a process that apparently involved loading up their truck and travelling the globe in search of the spiritual guidance that might aid us in making this transition. It is a not unfamiliar trajectory: head for the wilderness and wisdom and joy shall be yours, a path followed many times before Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal set out in search of The Good Life, and followed many times in their wake. As a cinematic quest, however, it's been pursued here with an almost wilful lack of rhyme or reason, and a near-complete absence of detail as to what this pair are escaping, and where they might be headed. One minute Heinen and Winters are soliciting the advice of a Native American chief, the next they're pow-wowing with Kenyan tribal leaders; scenes filmed in Japan rub up against footage from the Outback and the Amazon. How did they get there? Magic carpet? Or did their Land Rover sprout wings? These questions sorely needed answering within the body of the film, because - as it is - the answers involve either a substantial carbon footprint or an impossible leap of journalistic faith.

Strangely, the Heinen-Winters clan don't actually seem to have done or documented much in the way of day-to-day living on the ground, being too busy jetting to the next destination, where the locals visibly greeted them, and treated them, like the hallowed white Westerners they are. They have, however, spent a lot of time recording sub-Godfrey Reggio imagery of their travels: sand dunes and sundowns, silhouettes of planes passing over arid desert landscapes, contrasted with stock-looking footage of overworked metropolitan feet, and intercut with much gawping at tribal ritual that rarely gets explained to the viewer, completely negating the film's announced purpose as a tool for re-education. (Allow me to propose a new title: Koyaanisketchy.) The pity is that Down to Earth should have emerged at a moment where consumer capitalism sits more or less fully exposed as the unfair, one-sided, draining shell game it possibly always was; the film's reported success on ultra-liberal home turf speaks more than anything else to a widespread longing for alternative ways of life. Yet these alternatives surely have to be viable for all, and informed by a measure of practicality and common sense, not simply patched together from the variable soundbites ("Poverty is wisdom") these New Age tourists scatter before us like confetti. There is value in seeking out and listening to others, as Heinen and Winters do here, but any even vaguely successful overhaul of the status quo requires a degree of self-interrogation missing from Down to Earth. I spent most of these ninety minutes wanting to ask the blonde pre-teens sporadically glimpsed being dragged along in their parents' wake whether they'd enjoyed twelve months of being rushed to airports at 4.30am in support of mummy and daddy's thesis, or if they'd rather have been sat in front of Netflix with a Twix.

Down to Earth opens in selected cinemas from today.

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