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Claude Barras’ Heartfelt and Incisive Animated Film

Claude Barras’ Heartfelt and Incisive Animated Film

Films about the ecological stakes of contemporary life often center the results of unfettered human consumption. By showing the abuses suffered by the environment, they function as both an urgent warning and a desperate plea. Claude Barras takes a different route in Savages (Sauvages), his incisive and edifying animated feature about an 11-year-old girl trying to protect her land and people from encroaching deforestation. 

Premiering at Cannes, Savages focuses on elemental beauty and the dignity of community-driven preservation. It is the latest film from the Swiss director whose last film My Life as a Zucchini premiered at Cannes in 2016 and went on to critical acclaim and an Oscar nomination. As in that movie, Barras does not condescend to or patronize his youngest audience members. Savages, written by Barras and Catherine Paillé in collaboration with Morgan Navarro and Nancy Huston, is uncompromising in its messaging, deceptively spare in its instruction and absolutely gorgeous to look at.


The Bottom Line

An inspiring and entertaining ode to ecological and cultural preservation.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Cast: Babette De Coster, Martin Verset, Laetitia Dosch, Benoît Poelvoorde, Pierre-Isaïe Duc, Michel Vuillermoz, Paysan Sailyvia
Director: Claude Barras
Screenwriter: Claude Barras, Catherine Paille, Nancy Huston, Morgan Navarro

1 hour 27 minutes

The stop-motion animated film luxuriates in scenes of the natural world, from the vivid colors of the jungle (mellow greens, bright blues and understated browns) to the symphony of nocturnal animals (howling owls, shrill cicadas and crying crickets). Working with Charles de Ville on sound design, Barras deepens our understanding of Borneo, a large island in Southeast Asia, with the tropical forests’ soundtrack. It’s here, within the pitched calls of birds, croaks of frogs and rustling foliage, that we witness the first of many threats to environmental order. 

After seeing his colleagues at the palm oil plantation kill a mother orangutan in cold blood, Kéria (Babette De Coster) and her father (Benoît Poelvoorde) save the baby primate from suffering the same fate. They take the young orangutan home, where Kéria assumes a maternal role and quickly bonds with the animal. She names the ape Oshi, after a sound he makes while sneezing.

Kéria’s budding relationship with Oshi is cut short by a visit from her younger cousin Selaï (Martin Verset), with whom she has a fractious relationship. A big fight between the two kids leads Selaï to run away with Oshi and forces an anxious Kéria to venture deeper into the forest than she ever has alone. 

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The main action in Savages kicks off when Kéria, Selaï and Oshi reunite in the forest and journey back to Selaï’s home. Whereas some films geared at younger audiences might render the forest a charming expanse, Barras keeps it real: His portrayal of the jungle underscores the beauty and magic of the natural world without lying about its more dangerous and less attractive sides. He intercuts this motley crew’s expedition with scenes of the ecosystem — poisonous snakes preying on their next meal and panthers slinking through dense vegetation. 

As Kéria, Selaï and Oshi traverse the unpredictable terrain — textured with tree trunks, territorial animals and fissures in the land — the cousins share stories about each other. Selaï is Penan, a nomadic people indigenous to Borneo, and his mother sent him to live with his uncle so he can learn to read and write at school. With Kéria, he shares legends and lessons of the land passed on by his grandfather. Kéria is also Penan, but her relationship to the tribe fractured after her mother’s death when she was young. The adolescent has few memories of her time in the forest or her connection to the land. 

Barras builds an inspiring narrative through Kéria’s rediscovery of her identity, from learning bits of the Penan language to demonstrating a greater appreciation for her role in the broader ecosystem. With the help of her grandfather (Pierre-Isaïe Duc) and her father’s old friend Jeanne (Laetitia Dosch), Kéria discovers more about her family’s history and the community’s ongoing fight against their own extinction.

This anti-colonial approach reframes our existence on this planet as a debt to the future instead of an inheritance from the past. When Kéria, Selaï and Oshi reunite with the rest of the Penan people, they become engrossed in the fight to protect the land from the palm oil company. Savages offers a resolute and unyielding position about what it will take to save the environment from greed. It’s inspiring to see Kéria take part in direct actions against the industrial loggers who invoke imperial power to intimidate her family and friends.

In English, the word “sauvage” translates to primitive, wild, savage. The employees of the palm oil plantation often use the term to insult Kéria and her family, who reject the company’s attempts to buy them off. As Barras’ film comes to its galvanizing conclusion, it forces audiences to shift their perspective. The real brutes are not those trying to defend the land, but the people seeking to destroy it.

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