For most people, the idea of caves trigger one of three reactions. For those who have problems with claustrophobia, the reaction is anxiety or downright fear. For those with a complete lack of imagination and wonder, the reaction is oh, who cares about that? For those of us with imagination, the reaction is curiousity, the yearning to see what's down there.
My caving experience is rather limited; I've never been to any of the big ones. I have vague memories of visiting a tourist trap called the Lost Sea on the way to Florida as a child. Growing up near the Niagara Escarpment, I was used to the caves and crevices that criss cross that particular natural feature. Here in the Ottawa Valley, the Bonnechere Caves are within reach, and I've visited them. Still, I've always been curious about the big ones, about seeing the grandeur of great hidden places hidden away in the earth.
The Chauvet Cave, first discovered in 1994, is a priceless treasure of human culture. Some thirty thousand years ago, the cave was being used by humans, who painted imagery on its walls. Almost exclusively animals, of course, with the odd exception, added on over millenia. Then the cave entrance was buried in a landslide, perhaps twenty five thousand years ago, and its secrets were lost to the outside world.
The cave was sealed off by the French government after the discovery; they were eager to preserve the paintings. Humidity and sweat brought in by people tends to have an effect on such works, so a strict protocol was drawn up to ensure the paintings would remain safely in place. As such, very few people have the chance to see the images with their own eyes.
At least, that is, until now. Filmmaker Werner Herzog was granted permission to film inside the caves, to document the place for posterity, and the result is the extraordinary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The film made its debut last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, and has been lately circulating in general release, as a 3D release. I got a chance to see it, intrigued by the opportunity. Caves as part of movies are a bit of a hit and miss proposition; in terms of feature films, the horrific is usually given prominence over the grandeur, and so we get rephrensibly bad films such as Sanctum. In the case of documentaries, on the other hand, caves are an ideal subject, such as in the IMAX film Journey Into Amazing Caves.
Herzog is the ideal director for this kind of project. He's something of an eccentric storyteller (in a good way). His feature films include Fitzcarraldo, Invincible, and Rescue Dawn, while he's also gone into documentary territory before, with Grizzly Man, the story of a mentally unhinged man who met his end at the claws of an Alaskan bear.
Herzog and his crew were allowed time-limited access into the cave each day, filming the images and the interior of the cave in the 3D format. He's on the record as disliking 3D (unlike the current crop of studios who think it's the greatest thing ever), but in this case, he felt it appropriate. And I agree with him. I hate the format, but in this film, it works. I think Herzog's style helps immeasurably. He takes his time with the camera, slowly and carefully, and the paintings seem to take on a life of their own, emerging from the walls. It's not at all like a typical 3D film where the special effects are lunging out at you, making you nauseous or giving you a headache. In this case, the technology has the effect of drawing us into the cave.
Herzog narrates the film, and appears as himself; he's a likeable, gruff presence, a man who's gifted with innate curiousity. His small crew and relatively minimal lighting having the unusual effect of creating a similar effect that the people who once lived here must have felt. The lighting almost feels like torchlight, so we're seeing the images in a very similar manner as they saw them.
Throughout the cave, we feel their presence, these people who once lived here thousands of years in the past. It might be in the form of a footprint, or handprints still lingering on the walls. The art they left behind is striking and vivid, depictions of horses, bears, lions, rhinos, mammoths, and more. I found myself wondering about these people, long lost through the mists of time, feeling a connection to them that spanned the millennia.
The film drew me completely in. It's an astonishing achievement, giving us a view of a place most of us will never be able to see with our own eyes, and making us feel like we're right there with Herzog and the crew. It gives us a glimpse into the past, into times before recorded history, and gives us a chance to connect with distant ancestors through what they left behind. It's a profound, strangely beautiful record of a mysterious place. If you have a chance to see this film in the theatres, do so. You'll find yourself captivated.
Unless, of course, you're claustrophobic. Then you might have a problem.