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VISIONS DU RÉEL 2024

Review: Apple Cider Vinegar

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- Stone takes centre stage in Sofie Benoot’s playful, philosophical film essay on the interconnectedness of us, nature and the cosmos during the Anthropocene, voiced by Siân Phillips

Review: Apple Cider Vinegar

The latest effort by Belgian director Sofie Benoot, Apple Cider Vinegar, which has just world-premiered in Visions du Réel’s International Competition, is a freewheeling, playful film essay that tells the story of the Anthropocene without ever mentioning the term.

Even though the era in which humans have changed the Earth is addressed in the second half of the film, its starting point is directly related to it. The voice-over narration is conducted in first person by iconic Welsh actress Siân Phillips, who was for decades the voice of numerous nature documentaries. She tells us that an analysis of her kidney stone showed that it contains a mineral found only in Antarctica. Benoot (who wrote the screenplay and the voice-over narration) and Phillips don’t exactly go out to research how this happened; instead, they use the stone as, well, a stepping stone towards a deeper exploration of environmental and social issues, coloured with well-measured philosophical musings. It is a curious film in which Phillip’s husky voice gently immerses us in the idea that stone is as alive as humans and that they are deeply connected.

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Phillips speaks directly to the viewer as we watch live nature webcams that she says, for her, are replacing what she used to do. Nocturnal images of sleeping orangutans with babies in their arms, an elephant’s trunk curiously approaching the camera, or recurring images from a camera on which a little spider has woven its web alternate with “empty scenes”: a railway under the snow, a peaceful lake on which nothing is happening. Making a nature documentary always means a lot of waiting, but later in Phillips’ career, it became longer and longer as humans increasingly encroached on the wilderness.

Phillips visits Palestine, home to more than 300 quarries that produce material for Israeli houses, while locals keep fish fossils found between the layers of stones that are millions of years old. In California, where most people simply do not think about the fact that they are situated on a fault line (“It’s like building a house on a cliff,” says a seismologist), a lady living with chronic pain recognises which tectonic plates throughout the world are stirring based on which part of her back aches. In England, a geologist travels with his family and stops by every rock, estimating its age and often surprising origin. On the island of Fogo in Cape Verde, humans have accepted stone as a living companion: after the volcanic eruption, their houses are now not only surrounded by cold magma, but it has also penetrated the walls. An artist makes sculptures out of “plastic stones” from the sea, which we often mistake for pebbles. The summit of Mount Everest is covered in shell fossils.

Even though the approach seems meandering, jumping between apparently randomly chosen parts of the world and a myriad of sub-topics, the film tells a story that is easy to follow thanks to its visual and semantic associations that are edited by Benoot and Liyo Gong to work like a funnel, with all of the disparate rivulets flowing into the same river, the banks of which are not strictly defined, but the direction of which is unmistakable. The editing shows another playful side, often letting the shot last a few seconds longer than strictly necessary, with Jonathan Wannyn’s camera tilting or zooming in blurrily, as if to say that there is so much more to explore and understand about our connection to our planet, and all of the mutual links between us, nature and the cosmos. Apple Cider Vinegar is an insightful, enjoyable film, and constitutes a valuable contribution to our increasing awareness that we are not separate from each other or the world.

Apple Cider Vinegar is a co-production between Belgium’s Inti Films and Dutch company Pieter van Huystee Film. Prague-based Filmotor has the international rights.

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