There really aren’t enough African films in the international film circuit. Nollywood (Nigerian Film Industry) is certainly getting its flowers, but rarely do those films ever make their way onto American shores. Even most films we see about South Africa are American-produced and/or are simply shot in South Africa for its “otherworldly” look. Rarely do we ever see African cinema being distributed by the likes of A24, Sony Pictures Classics, or Netflix in the same way they will release French films every month. Luckily, perhaps the tide is changing, with film being as accessible to make as ever, and with that, more stories are getting to be told. Hell, I know at least two South African films in the first half of this year being released by sizeable studios, Moffie being released by IFC Films, and Gaia, being released by NEON and Bleecker Street’s joint home entertainment arm, Decal.
Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) are South African park rangers on a surveillance mission deep in the forest when they encounter a young boy (Alex van Dyk) and his father (Carel Nel) living a primordial, survivalist lifestyle. Separated from Winston, Gabi discovers the forest teeming with terrifying humanoid monsters after dark, and she must place her trust in the imposing, threatening duo for her safety. Gabi soon learns the dark secrets of the forest and the terrifying religious root of the duo’s fear of the outside world.
Gaia, while not always consistent in its message, is consistently fascinating as an exercise in stylish indie horror. It has major Annihilation meets Blair Witch vibes, and it runs with that to create a trippy nightmare visually unlike anything I’ve seen at SXSW so far.
There are other films that do the individual elements of man vs. nature, religious zeal, isolation, mutant creatures, and the apocalypse bigger and better, but there’s a way in which Gaia brings it all together that makes it unique in its own right. It’s terrifying, but it’s not such slam-bang horror to where it’s assaulting. It’s strange and artsy, but it’s not like suffering through the worst parts of Lars Von Trier. It has a fierce bite to it, but doesn’t shy away from stopping to have moments of sweetness and levity in the mix. It’s an odd little bugger of a film that both fits into and rejects every convention of the genre in its own way. Does it always work? No. Much of the film feels a bit lost, and the final act definitely felt like a letdown compared to its fascinating lead up, but I can’t fault it for trying to be different.
Visually, the film is absolutely stunning. Like The Evil Dead went to a Florence + The Machine concert, Gaia is ugly, yet ethereally gorgeous. It’s the last film I would ever want to do drugs before watching, but perhaps that might make it even more gorgeous (and maybe I’d look past some of the holes in its narrative). It does, however, do that thing that’s becoming so popular where indie films are insisting on shooting their films in multiple aspect ratios. While this can be effective in transitioning the film from a certain feeling in one act to a more constrained or open feeling in another, Gaia uses four aspect ratios throughout (starts in 1.78:1, transitions to 1.55:1 for the majority of the film, then to 1.33:1 for its final act, and 2.00:1 for its epilogue). I loved the unique framing of the film in its Arri Open Gate 1.55:1 aspect ratio, and wish it had simply stuck with that throughout. The shifts seem to be unnecessary and rather distracting at a point, serving no real purpose.
But Gaia is simply too unique and different to judge it over. I would rather something take serious risks in art and miss some steps along the way than to play it safe 100% of the time; it’s literally the textbook definition of “risk.” I respect the hell out of Gaia and was moved by its visuals and commitment to bringing a new, fresh voice to the table. Jaco Bouwer has an exciting directorial eye that audiences will look forward to seeing more of. The film falls into some indie horror tropes that should die down a bit (please stick to an aspect ratio, even if it’s Snyder Cut-y and doesn’t fit), but there is terror to be found and these woods, and to say one sequence in particular didn’t scare the shit out of me would be selling Gaia far too short.
Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 16th, 2021.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.