The forest is deep and dense, home to uncounted species of plant, animal, insect, fungus, lichen, bacteria, forest rangers Gabi and Winston exploring and monitoring the ecosystem, he paddling their canoe as she ranges farther via drone; the signal suddenly cut off after she glimpses a face on the monitor, despite Winston’s warning she proceed cautiously, Gabi sets off alone on foot to investigate and recover the unit which has fallen far from the river.
Beneath the canopy, Gaby is injured in a trap; calling for help on her radio there is no response, and with the dusk rapidly falling she struggles on as best she can. Finding a cabin, she enters and passes out, woken by the return of Barend and his teenage son. An unexpected and perhaps unwelcome guest rather than a prisoner, it was they who disabled the drone and set the trap, though for something other than her.
Shot in the lush forest of the Tsitsikamma National Park in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, directed by Jaco Bouwer from a screenplay by Tertius Kapp, it is the perfect setting for Gaia, Africa the ancestral home of the branches of the evolutionary tree which led to the rise of Homo Sapiens, the mother of bountiful life so prodigious that only a portion of it can be catalogued let alone understood, yet which also embodies the capricious nature of a goddess.
Fighting the injury and infection, Gabi (Monique Rockman) battles through fevered nightmares of fungal blooms erupting from her skin, unsure if they are dreams or delusions, uncanny premonitions or genuine perceptions of the creatures against which the doors are barred at night to which she is already linked, obscene corruptions of flesh and fungus which blindly hunt by sound, children of the forest whose blood transforms those it touches into offshoots of itself.
A magnificently filmed eco-horror of captivity, paranoia and purposeful madness, Carel Nel is Barend, a former plant pathologist who has turned his back on civilisation and raised his son Stefan (an almost silent but omnipresent Alex Van Dyk) in the wild, believing that the modern world is killing the planet, the leader of a cult of two who seeks to understand “the largest organism on the planet,” patiently ripening nearby, “the mother of creation and destruction” to which he has devoted himself.
With aspects of Terror of the Vervoids and The Girl With All the Gifts, it is unfortunate for the release of Gaia that it most closely parallels much of In the Earth, a purely coincidental but organic kinship drawn from the same deep well of lore, nightmares peeled back like the skin of an onion as Gabi’s concern for her safety become fears for her existence, forced to integrate to survive, her saviour obviously insane but possibly driven mad by the truths he has learned.
Having screened at FrightFest, Gaia can be viewed on Altitude.film and other digital platforms from Monday 27th September