Friday, December 5, 2008


If you’re a fan of David Attenborough or, say, the "Planet Earth" series, this one is for you. (Warning: Creationists, this one is not for you.)

Genesis: Where Are We Coming From?
not only answers its own question, with striking grace and elegance, but also addresses the question of our final destination.
The mysterious origins (and end) of life are addressed by African griot, or storyteller, Sotigui Kouyaté, and French filmmakers/writers Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou. From the big bang and the universe’s birth, to the primordial pool and our return to the earth in the end, the cycle of life is told with folkloric vision by our griot, and illustrated by the filmmakers with profoundly vibrant images.

(Note: I’ve read that the griot’s story was written by the filmmakers; which makes it their story, not his. If true, this may explain his use of the word “atom” and a few other concepts that I thought didn’t ring true to an African storyteller. In the long run, the narration is a bit of a downside, as its poetic ruminations will be lost on children, and in the beginning it slows things down.)

The film opens with a classic microscopic view of dancing, squirming spermatozoa, moving about their business to the chaotic and joyful sounds of children on a playground. It’s a charming few seconds, effective in its simplicity and creative expression, and sets the tone for the film.

From the abstract and beautiful shots of lava, moving water and plant life, to the positively ballet-like images of a seahorse mating dance, there is much here to take your breath away. We laughed out loud at legless mudskippers falling out of their mud-cone houses, and slapping each other with affection (one surmises), at a snake devouring an egg 20 times the size of its head, and at pholcid spiders vibrating in their webs. Genesis is a true feast for the eyes.

As I said, the beginning of the film (the first ten minutes or so) may be rather slow for children. Depending on your kids -- their age, patience, and ability to grapple with foggy, philosophical concepts -- you might want to have the fast forward button handy to keep them engaged. You’ll also politely ignore the distracting, dubbed English narration; I’m sure it was done to avoid subtitles interfering with the images on screen.

moves from the beginnings of life to the re-creation of life -- before getting to our final destination -- and the images of creatures “in love,” as Kouyaté puts it, are quite innocent and charming. (There’s nothing as unsightly or as awkward as rhinos mating here.) You may wonder, “Gee, are those toads actually.... in flagrante... as they move around, from land to water to land, or is it an affectionate piggy back ride?” (You can choose which explanation suits your kids.) After love and marriage, of course comes death, and this film, in my opinion, treats the end-of-life concept with a simple, matter-of-fact tone. In one sequence, a ripe, glowing, orange peach lying in grass is shown, in time-lapse photography, returning to the earth (ok, decomposing), and it offers up several opportunities for discussion. (Notice the grass suddenly shooting to new heights as the peach fertilizes the soil, for example.) It’s an evocative sequence.

The storyteller eventually portends doom, claiming, “In the end, life is cannibalistic. Life devours life...” And here, of course, is where we must see nature at its most beastly: creature on creature violence. Compared to a great deal of science and nature film, the images here are not as harsh as they could be; there are no lions gorging on juicy, baby gazelles. Here we get a terrifying ugly anglerfish (this one looks amazingly pretty in comparison), smugly devouring innocent shrimp in the blink of an eye, big toads eating little toads. It’s all lightening fast, and painless (well, from where we sit!).

If you watch Genesis, use the biggest screen in your house. Don’t even attempt this on a laptop; you’ll be robbing yourselves of the real thrill of it all.

Genesis won the Grand Prix des Amériques at the Montreal Film Festival in 2004. The directors' other film of note, and one I also recommend, Microcosmos, took the Technical Grand Prize at Cannes (1996), and won Cesar Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Film (1997). Trailers for both below, though I could only find the French language trailer for Microcosmos.

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