Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Opposite poles

SCIENCE / The scientific and the natural combine to construct a contemporary portrait of a contradictory reality in the Catalan countryside and help us rethink our relationship with these seemingly antithetical worlds.
Director: Pau Faus
Producer: Nanouk Films SL
Distributor: Taskovski Films Ltd
Country: Spain

Among the many significant transformations and lasting changes COVID-19 has brought into our lives, from the radical digital revolution and technological dependence to a greater focus on science, health, and wellbeing, our relationship with nature is undoubtedly one. Since the pandemic’s emergence, we have witnessed an increasing sense of contradicting detachment from and familiarity with it as we found ourselves locked inside our sanitized, impenetrable fortresses and yet longing for the outside natural world.

Science and nature are at the core of Pau Faus’ second feature, which brings together worlds that wouldn’t usually come into contact and yet manage to collide into one single piece of land during pandemic times.

Fauna, Pau Faus
Fauna, a film by Pau Faus

Two interweaving insights

Set in a small town on the outskirts of Barcelona, Fauna centres on two distant, almost distinct worlds living in close proximity. Valeriano, a shepherd since age 14, grazes his sheep in the Catalan countryside. As we follow them moving comfortably within an environment they feel their own, for natural and vocational belonging, the camera zooms out to reveal its true position: a not-too-distant laboratory where scientists are focused on their work trying to find a vaccine against COVID-19 experimenting on animals.

The conflicting paradigm upholding this film is immediately disclosed while never fully declared, as Faus’ work deftly lives off this constant, subtle juxtaposition to explore the tangled relationship between these spaces, their living beings, and what they represent.

While shepherds embody the ancestral traditions of a now ‘endangered species,’ nostalgically witnessing the constant decline of their profession, the research center is a hyper-sanitized and structured world looking to the future, where strict procedures must be followed to find a solution for humans survival. Valeriano is afflicted by a painful disease of the joints, for which he undergoes an MRI scan while two lab workers discuss the stretching benefits of yoga and dancing classes. Shepherds comment on being «the stone age» while they are «the outer space,» yet their reliance on modern tools to milk, feed, and shear their sheep seems to defy this statement. Conversely, the center consists of accurate, scientific rituals, such as the act of wearing full protective equipment, accurately weighing chemical components, or patiently guiding test subjects back into their cages.

The conflicting paradigm upholding this film is immediately disclosed while never fully declared

Human and non-human

In this constant tension, animals further strengthen questions around human relevance and control as well as their ethical relationship with the natural environment and scientific advancement. The controversial discussion around their use in laboratories is personified by researchers repetitively leading sheep, pigs, and chickens inside a room where their destiny has already been decided, but also by a researcher acknowledging how, unfortunately, there is still no alternative close to replacing this kind of experimentation.

At the same time, scientists must constantly separate themselves and the lab from nature, which must be kept outside at all times, and this is put to the test when an external organism invades the scientific space and the crack through which it has sneaked in has to be detected immediately. Oppositely, their test subjects never leave, as they do not belong to nature anymore, they are just another form of equipment to get rid of once entirely exhausted, to be disposed of as waste.

Fauna, Pau Faus
Fauna, a film by Pau Faus

Fabricated tension

Visually taking advantage of these nuanced contrasts, Fauna employs fixed shots to invite us to indulge in this contradictory, repetitive alternation. The camera carefully transitions between each sequence in an elegantly crafted, quasi-fabricated manner, greatly reinforcing this sense of blended opposition. It switches flawlessly between the natural and the built environment, organic and inorganic, leisurely tranquil and perfectly structured. Faus also undertakes a fully transparent and unbiased approach to the subject matter, not only letting the viewers take their own stance but also fully acknowledging his presence and positionality, showing himself, the crew, and the camera as part of and direct makers of the film, casting a doubt over the most ‘natural’ form of filmmaking, documentary, being indeed an accurately, scientifically planned construction.

In this constant tension, animals further strengthen questions around human relevance and control as well as their ethical relationship with the natural environment and scientific advancement.

Whose experiment?

As the film draws to a close, we are forced to acknowledge the stark contrast between these two apparently separate worlds has never really existed, as these opposite poles have always been attracting each other, growing closer, until revealing they are more connected than one could think of. Fauna then leaves us with a more pessimistic vision and yet a more truthful one, opening up an uncomfortable yet honest conversation around the paradoxical world we live in, helping us reconfigure our relationship with nature, our surroundings, and their precarious equilibrium, and the contradictions that make us who we are.

While returning to that landscape that looks out of the windows of the laboratory, we are left with the wondering feeling of who has really been the test subject of this larger-than-life experiment, as the cyclical return to the film’s opening dishearteningly suggests things are meant to stay the same.

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Massimo Iannetti
Massimo Iannetti
Film programmer and writer based in London. Film critic at Modern Times Review

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