Berlinale 2022 review: Geographies of Solitude (Jacquelyn Mills)

“There is an underlying foreboding sense that the hand of careless humanity is silently conducting an orchestra of destruction.”

It is the belief of director Jacquelyn Mills that cinema can “facilitate our healing process with the natural world.” Her work is devoted to this notion so much that during the filming of Geographies of Solitude she had tucked in her back pocket a quote from Thomas Merton: “We will never love nor save what we do not experience as sacred.” That Mills carried with her a quotation from monk and poet Thomas Merton seems fitting since she offers us a look into a secret and sacred place which is a natural monastery of sorts. That place is Sable Island, a slim, isolated crescent of a sandbar situated in the North Atlantic over 100km from Nova Scotia.

Zoe Lucas is the sole human inhabitant of Sable Island. She has lived on this isolated sliver of land for over 40 years, where she has cohabitated with the island’s wild horses, seals and sea birds. We discover Sable Island through Zoe’s eyes as she guides us among the island’s wildlife through lakes and valleys, sand dunes and stars. How magnificent are those stars as Mills uses her camera to evoke the intangible in the dark nocturnal firmament with vanishing light and hidden sounds! The film traces its protagonist’s decades-long labor of gathering, cleaning and cataloging the marine litter that continuously washes up on the island’s shores. The island, this wild and windswept monastic sanctuary, is being invaded by refuse of various shapes and sizes from locations far and near that border the waters of the Atlantic. Zoe diligently collects and sorts her findings as part of her long-term study of pollution trends in the Northeast Atlantic.

Although washed strips of plastic refuse hung to dry on a clothesline evoke a sense of nostalgia and stray objects arranged as a mobile make pleasant sounds in the wind, the viewer will soon be shocked by Zoe’s discoveries of hundreds of stray balloons with tangled streamers, plastic bottles and pellets and pieces of renegade fishing equipment. The huge amounts of washed-up debris are alarming and Mills succeeds brilliantly in underlining the fragility of the island’s environment to the encroachment of modern humanity with cinematic invention. Shot on 16mm film, the director hand processed it naturally in plants. She used moonlight and starlight to expose the film and placed it with bits of marine litter and organic matter. The result is an interesting mix of the natural and the abstract. One of the most pleasing elements of the director’s experimentation is her use of the island’s haunting sounds. She creates a rich yet ethereal soundscape almost entirely recorded with and within the island by using non-toxic contrast microphones, underwater hydrophones and electrodes that translate the frequencies of Sable Island’s organics into musical patterns.

Although the film is a gorgeous introduction and sensual cinematic tour of this remote island of raw and staggering beauty, one senses its broader goals. The conversations between Mills and Lucas inform and provoke. One’s heart may be wrenched when we watch Lucas gathering up dead birds along the island’s shore as we learn that many of them have died with as much as 75% of their stomachs filled with non-digestible plastic debris. Corpses and skulls of dead birds and animals have their own austere dignity and beauty in a way that is reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe, but there is an underlying foreboding sense that the hand of careless humanity is silently conducting an orchestra of destruction. Mills and Lucas do not preach, but the film offers the viewer an opportunity to consider that each small choice every one of us makes will have a bigger and far-reaching cumulative effect on the planet. There is an immediacy and an urgency to this message even though it is told in a whisper. As one falls in love with the island’s beauty, one gets the mournful sense that this beauty is fragile and most likely doomed.

Lucas is an admirable, reflective protagonist. Mills applauds her efforts to save this island and shows her in all her humanity. Her dedication is remarkable and one hopes that her commitment will have a far-reaching effect. In an interesting conversation with the director, Zoe talks about her realization of how swiftly the decades have passed by on the island. It appears that her life now is the island. The commitment gradually became so big that she stopped paying attention to anything else because her work on Sable Island was so engaging that she seemed to have lost track of everything else. There is pride for what she has accomplished mixed with perhaps a tinge of regret for the other choices that could not be made because of this commitment. It’s a lovely, intimate, human moment and it underlines the observation that all of the small decisions we make daily eventually amount to something significant even if they seem to have no significance at the time. They accumulate into something important and life passes quickly.

The film illustrates that all is connected. Beauty and suffering. Preservation and destruction. Life and death. In one of the film’s most touching moments we see a dead horse left to decompose in the grasses. His carcass will become a source of nutrients in the grasses that will feed a mare that will in turn use these nutrients to nourish her foal. There is a respect, an awe for life’s natural processes. There is a reverence for its mysterious cycles and Mills and Lucas convey it stunningly through ingenious sight and sound and intimate conversations. The film instills a sense that our connection with these cycles and our appreciation of them will deepen through our observation. Observation is important.