“We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth,” says the narrator Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil.”
The palpable menace that permeates Conrad’s classic novella has been edited out of the narration in this short film, made for Tourism Malaysia by British filmmaker James W. Griffiths. What remains is a poetic sense of wonder for a natural world that is no longer frightening, no longer in need of being subdued. In the original, the twisting and turning sentences are like a microcosm of a journey up the winding Congo River, into the metaphorical darkness that lies at the heart of all men. Out of the stillness of the page, Conrad’s imagination washes over us in a rolling wave of words:
The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence. And it moved not.
Griffiths can perhaps be forgiven for defanging Conrad. We Were Wanderers on a Prehistoric Earth is a beautiful little film, a quiet meditation on the unspoiled rainforest of West Malaysia shot in November by cinematographer Christopher Moon, who also collaborated with Griffiths on last year’s award-winning Nokia cellphone film Splitscreen. The music is by Lennert Busch, the sound design is by Mauricio d’Orey, and Conrad’s words are spoken by Terry Burns.
Forgiven!? I wonder what Conrad would say if he were alive and confronted with a film using _some_ of his words, about a place on the other side of the world from where those words were born? It’s not as if Conrad didn’t write eloquently about the Malaysian archipelago. Me? The best I can do to be charitable is summon up a huge sense of the irony here, along with a uneasy sense that there might be something else hidden behind the film concerning its subject that _all_ of Conrad’s meaning would lay uncomfortably bare.