Director – Joseph Nizeti – Co-directors – Gisela Kaufmann, Paul Phelan – 2023 – Australia – Cert. U – 40m
The amazing world of fungi, its place in the ecosystem and how it may be able to help solve some environmental issues; narrated by Björk, presented by Merlin Sheldrake – out at the BFI Waterloo IMAX on Friday, February 9th
Think of fungi and most of us immediately think of mushrooms or toadstools, but those are merely its above ground manifestation. In fact, the wood wide web (a phrase easily misheard as the more familiar World Wide Web) extends through forests which are, as this notes in passing, disappearing at an alarming rate through deforestation, when the mostly slow paced and marvellous imagery and peaceful sounds and music on offer are briefly interrupted by a close up of the huge drive wheel of a mechanical digger and grating sounds of machinery to match.
Innovative Icelandic musician Björk, who has referred to her 2022 album Fossora as her ‘mushroom album’, lends her voice to the English language narration here. This gives the piece a strange, unearthly feeling that’s somehow perfect for its subject matter. Also on hand is biologist, writer and speaker Merlin Sheldrake, who wanders through the proceedings to visit Kew Gardens and assorted natural areas of forest around the planet to point out pertinent items and features. However, while those two personalities profiles are likely to draw people in, they aren’t the reason to see (or in Björk’s case hear) it.
There is something undeniably compelling about movies made and shown in the IMAX 3D format; both the sheer size of the screen (London’s BFI Waterloo IMAX, where this was press screened, is the height of three double-decker buses stacked on top of one another) and the towards / away from the audience visual dynamic of 3D.
As regards the 3D aspect, the effect here is mostly subliminal in the sense that, if someone were to show me an IMAX 3D version followed by an IMAX 2D version, I’m sure the latter would feel the poorer experience, but aside from a few obvious moments, such as the aforementioned disruptive digger drive wheel and a shot where time-lapse photography shows a network of fungi growing out of the screen in various directions, the film doesn’t really scream its 3D element at you. It’s present more quietly, though, in vast drone shots travelling over areas of rainforest, in time-lapse shots of fungal networks evolving underground or mushrooms growing above ground.
It’s the astonishing time-lapse photography that stands out in this offering, and there’s lots of it. Unlike the man-made elements shown – the perfectly circular digger drive wheel, the rectangular glass house at Kew Gardens and the straight path along which Merlin Sheldrake walks as he leaves one of its buildings – the organic forms of fungal networks or mushrooms growing are devoid of straight lines or perfect geometric symmetry: their astonishing visual beauty lies in their shaped or outlines’ consistent refusal to conform to such standards (which is perhaps, also, in part why Björk’s off-kilter, Icelandic-accented English fits the soundtrack so well).
These are natural forms in every sense, and to capture their timelines in time-lapse cinematography as has been done here is a stroke of genius. There is something visually appealing about such images on a very deep level.
So, too, with the large screen IMAX format. There is something incredibly powerful, almost primal, about seeing these time-lapse shots enlarged to enormous size. A shot travelling over a rainforest you expect to be vast and huge: mushrooms, which might in reality be the size of a human hand or smaller, you do not. Perhaps, in retrospect, it conjures images of the anthropomorphised, hookah-smoking caterpillar enlarged to human size one encounters in Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (actually, in Tenniel the creature is not thus enlarged, rather it’s Alice who’s been shrunk, but the effect is much the same) or the giant mushrooms in H.G.Wells’ The Food of the Gods.
This is even more true when one comes to images shot through the lens of the microscope, as is the case of footage of fungal networks interacting with either one another or other elements. Fungi, we are told, consume their food not by devouring it from the outside, as animals do, but by penetrating and growing into it. Again, blow these images up to the size of an IMAX screen, and something remarkable happens to both the images themselves and to the viewer’s experience of watching them. Imagine what it would be like to be one of a crowd of young children, say a class on a school visit, experiencing these images in an IMAX auditorium.
In short, while the presence of Sheldrake and Björk, and for that matter the element of 3D, are largely icing on the cake – or mushrooms bursting through the surface when the real story is the vast fungal network evolving underground – the experience of seeing these gigantic, time-lapse images on a massive IMAX screen is something very special indeed.
Fungi Web of Life is out at the BFI Waterloo IMAX on Friday, February 9th. Presented in laser digital IMAX 3D.