CPH:DOX review: Holgut (Liesbeth De Ceulaer)

We are briefly here, and yet it is precisely because of that that we understand life differently from other forms of existence on this same planet, at least as far as our understanding of animal life goes. We know that time passes because we feel it in our bodies and because, in a sense, we are the ones who created the measurement systems of time that we are now inscribed to. It is what it is. On top of that, against such a hardship of knowing one’s own finitude we developed language – a beautiful system centered in the ability of giving meaning to things, to sounds – but also a way to represent such a hardship. And then we became storytellers, telling the grand narrative of our days here and calling it history, as well as creating myths, tales, fiction to enhance history and help us to make sense of a world that does not owe us anything. Not even making any sense. Perhaps more than enhancing things, art is one of the ways we leave a mark to say that we were here. Perhaps art, or cinema by excellence, is the ultimate metaphor of our condition, for we are constantly looking backwards to understand how things are now, in the present, whereas the future is simply not there yet. Perhaps the films we make, the photos we take, the paintings we paint will become our fossils so when the future comes into being, we will be excavated and our narratives will be told once again.

A process of excavation which lies at the core of Liesbeth De Ceulaer’s Holgut, a documentary that follows three Yakutians as they walk into the Siberian wilderness. A boy and a man, as they hunt for a secret reindeer in a ritual to leave his boyhood behind. And a scientist who sees in the melting Siberian permafrost an opportunity to find a viable DNA sample through which to attempt to bring extinct creatures, such as a mammoth, back to life. Each one of these men confronts time differently and it is the finding of a fossil that unites their narratives in a film that asks us both to contemplate things as they are now and to understand that how we perceive them is shaped by years and years of past tradition.

Holgut then seems to follow Svetlana Boym’s thoughts on ruins as a place of mourning, for something was there and it is not anymore. But also a place for celebration, since something remained. Boym also asked us to think of our time as off-modern, not post-modern for “there is something preposterous in our contemporary moment which we do not know how to describe. I see it not as a conflict between modern and anti-modern or a pure ‘clash of cultures’, but rather a clash of eccentric modernities that are out of sync and out-of-phase with each other both temporally and spatially. Multiple projects of globalizations and ‘localizations’ overlap but do not coincide.” Holgut understands that and constantly builds its narrative by overlapping tradition and modernity, not in search of a binary exposition but instead in hope of finding something more real, something else that is neither a nostalgic dive nor a complete refusal of the past. The same way its poetic structure refuses to fully partake in what would be expected of a documentary yet is not a work of fiction either. Holgut is great because it exists in the in-betweenness of things and people.

The fossil ensures that we know a mammoth existed, that there was a past before us; perhaps the film is asking its audience to see how things never fully cease to exist as long as they are remembered somehow. In a sense that, as languages are formed from dead ones and the interaction with others, our identity is also formed against an ever-growing past and a too-brief now in hope to leave something behind as we walk towards an uncertain future.