In considering biographical documentaries, it is always difficult to divorce the film from its subject, to view one without being influenced by the other or to consider each solely on its own terms of merit. Just how much is the film, as product, influenced by its subject? How are our perceptions of the subject shaped by the form and structure of the film? It’s also difficult to say whether one should separate them, or even whether it’s possible to do so in the first place. And it is always interesting to note whether a strong, interesting subject raises a mediocre film or whether a bland film brings down an otherwise engaging subject. There is also, rather unfortunately, the shadow of Werner Herzog hanging over most documentaries about odd and intriguing characters, which shadow most films (perhaps unfairly) find themselves judged. One basically needs to watch documentary films of this type three different ways at the same time.
The Creator of the Jungle (Sobre la Marxa), from first-time film-maker Jordi Morato, demands this type of viewing.
On the one hand it is a film about a madman running around rural Catalonia building enormous and intricate wooden edifices, creating and re-creating the most expansive jungle-gym ever seen. On the second hand, it is a wildly unevenly paced and superficial film making very little of its amazing subject. And on the third hand it leaves you wondering just what the great Herzog would have done with it.
The “star” of the film, and of the films within the film, is a man-child called Garrell (real name Josep Pijiula) about whom we are told very little indeed. All we learn of him is shown us; and, it’s a good thing too, as we don’t hear directly from him in the whole film, apart from the odd throw-away line only tangentially directly at the camera. What we get instead is a lot of amateur footage, spanning 14 or 15 years or so, during which we learn that Garrell is an eternal child, and has spent all of his time alongside a road outside of Agrelaguer in Spain constructing, by hand and using only locally sourced wood and rock and bits of other things too, a playground of some note. There are towers and tree-houses and tunnels and bridges and all of it is sturdy enough to handle a middle-aged Garrell clambering up and down and across and over all of it. The voice-over and its subtitles feed us a constant stream of nature-based epithets and anti-civilisation platitudes, as we are told a little more about the jungle and the rather ambiguous relation which develops between Garrel and his 14-year old cameraman (shooting the home-footage) who became obsessed with Garrel and his Tarzan-like tendencies. Hence the films within the film.
It is great idea showing the pair’s early Tarzan films. They give us a nice visual tour of the jungle and allow Garrell to espouse some of his more primitivist/atavistic ideals. What’s not such a great idea is the sheer amount of Tarzan footage we get. The first 40-odd minutes of the film are spent watching a man, looking like a crazed Ray Mears, run about the woods in a pair of pants with an ill-fitting skin loincloth. The main problem with this is twofold: firstly, much of the footage is the same, and the cameraman spends for too much time focussing on Garrell plummeting into lakes from the treetops and clambering over platforms, and not enough time showing us the wonders he created; and secondly, the footage is, judging by its looks, either 8- or 16mm handycam footage which is incredibly grainy and in its 4:3 ratio does not lend itself to the big screen at all. In fact it all becomes rather tiresome. Even when we see Garrell become disillusioned with his creation and its effects on the “civilised man” (his jungle begins to attract not only visitors but vandals too – one of whom, it seems, has killed one of his animals) and his subsequent decision to burn it down, it’s all rather underwhelming. No doubt, Garrell’s single-minded determination and commitment is astonishing, it just doesn’t make for particularly interesting viewing. Partly, this is down to the monotone of the voice-over (Mark Cousins comes to mind, barely) but it is also due to the fact that by this point, I was so eager to move on to the present day that I didn’t much care whether Garrell had to build everything again from scratch (he did, twice) or whether he came to terms with the fact that “civilised man” and his pre-utopian jungle don’t seem able to co-exist.
At this point in the film we do eventually catch up with Garrell, now an old man, still building his jungle and still “getting back to nature” though by now, thankfully, no longer wearing the loincloth. It is rather jarring, this switch from Garrell’s home-footage to Morato’s altogether better looking widescreen film. Much of this latter part of the film (the final 25 minutes or so, of which at least 3, oddly, consists of a static shot of a teddy-bear slowly burning) is taken up with watching Garrell, once again, reduce his playground to wooden rubble and smouldering embers (apparently, as if it were not obvious from the very beginning, his jungle was deemed…unsafe) and the whole thing kind of unfolds towards its ending in a rather unremarkable way. A text-only epilogue informs us that Garrell, now 72, is still playing in his jungle. This is not to say that The Creator of the Jungle fails entirely though, just that it, well, trundles along and doesn’t really do very much..
From above, I’m not sure whether the dull-nature of the film renders Garrell’s achievements uninteresting or whether this amazing man’s terrific skill, imagination and innocence makes a dreadfully dull film really rather more engaging than it should be. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. One thing is certain though, in the hands of Werner Herzog The Creator of the Jungle would have been so much more than the jarring intersection of nearly 60 percent home-footage with Morato’s own intentions. There is none of the ecstasy we have come to expect from films like this; none of the cosmic man-as-creator (Garrell merely builds and re-builds) or nature as life-giving power versus nature as destructive force and man’s place between the two. This is rather disingenuous I suppose, comparing a first-time director’s film with the work of a bona fide genius, but I just can’t help but feel that The Creator of the Jungle is a missed opportunity. It could have been a great study of a remarkable outsider artist (his status as such is only mentioned very briefly) and a man with a drive and a vision we see so rarely these days. What we get in the end, though, is an all-too-brief study of man with an incredible but all-too-briefly glimpsed personality in a bizarre mixture of amateur film and attempt at philosophical essay.
The Creator of the Jungle screens at the BFI London Film Festival as part of the Debate strand.
Director/Writer: Jordi Morató
Stars: Josep Pijiula Alias Garrell, Jordi Morató
Runtime: 77 min