At the recent Melbourne Film Festival I only bothered to see one film, Agneiska Holland’s Spoor, an account of one woman’s fight to protect animals from the ravages of hunting. Agneiscka Mandat plays Duszeiko, a retired civil engineer, mystic, and passionate proponent of equality between humans and animals.
Duszeiko lives alone high in the mountains on the border between Poland and Czechoslovakia outside a small village where she teaches English to primary school children. We see the exquisite landscape of woods, fields and mountains in all seasons. It is populated by many indigenous animals and birds; deer, wild boar, badgers and polecats, owls. We see young deer lifting their legs high to plod through deep snow, then the crack of gunfire as the men from the town, hunters all, shoot them down.
The local calendar marks a season on every animal, the priest preaches the gospel of man’s God given right over every animal. Hunting parties and poaching are the predominant activities of the local men, even the police chief and the priest.
Duszeiko fights a lone battle against this prevailing orthodoxy and has a reputation in the town of being something of a ratbag (although her pupils love her). She frequently visits the local police who treat her with disdain. When her two dogs, whom she calls her ‘daughters,’ disappear, she is pretty sure who is behind it. Her appalling sadistic neighbour, with his gated security, his caged foxes screaming in pain, is the leader and power behind all the male activity in the town. He also seems to have a hold over many of his neighbours (including the police chief). Duszeiko redoubles her visits to the police. It does not help her cause that her passionate advocacy often sounds like demented raving. They treat her with open contempt.
But now,slowly, the hunters are one by one found dead, with animal tracks in the blood beside their mutilated bodies. Are the animals fighting back?
I found the first half of this film disturbing but compelling. The ravaged bodies of the animals, their screams and blood, the snowy beauty of the countryside against the arrogant pride of the hunters were hard to watch, but I could not look away. The aging protagonist, Duszeiko with the softly worn face of a woman in her sixties, at times tender and compassionate, at others distorted by rage, is also deeply sympathetic.
Spoor is based on a novel by Polish author Olga Tokarczuk,
Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead (a line from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell), which is not yet translated into English. I hope it is soon, because some of the supporting characters had fascinating stories which were not able to be fully developed in the film. The Gerts are reading her book Flights, which we will report on later.
This film is not for the squeamish, and for animal lovers it will be either a rallying call or a cause for despair. I found the last third of the film, played out in the leafy landscape of summer, perhaps a little too wish-fulfilling, but I was glad all the same.