Lance Hackett (Bruce Spence) is a geologist working in the Australian Outback who has been having trouble with the local Aborigines since he has been employed by a mining company to work on land that traditionally belonged to them. At the moment, however, he has to contend with a little old lady (Colleen Clifford) who has lost her pet dog and is convinced the technology available to Lance will enable him to find the pooch, but he has to reason with her that is would take very specific conditions for the equipment to pick up the movements of her beloved companion. Just as he is explaining all this, his colleague Cole (Ray Barrett) informs him there is trouble outside: those Aborigines are a stubborn lot.
And that was the basic set up which director Werner Herzog, once established, stuck to for the rest of the ninety minutes it took to relate his story. Writing with Bob Ellis, a prolific Australian screenwriter who also took a small role as a cynical supermarket manager, Herzog married his usual concerns about the implacability of the natural world to a set of characters who would encapsulate that sense of refusing to cave in to the world of so-called progress. The director invented a whole mythos for the natives to adhere to where they were protesting thanks to their belief that if the mining went ahead, it would drive away the green ants which in turn would spell the end of the whole planet.
None of that exists in actual Aborigine legends and teachings, but like Peter Weir's The Last Wave it sounded authentic to outsiders' ears and that was all that mattered to get his point across, something to do with the way that it wasn't worth trying to get this representation of an ancient, globe-deep setting of the way that nature worked to change their mind as they had all those aeons of history on their side, and the white guys merely had some earth moving vehicles and explosives. It's the sort of premise that could have made for a charming comedy, but in Herzog's hands he approached it with a very grave concern, as if he was actually depicting a real land battle, almost in documentary style given he could just as easily have made a factual work on the subject.
The problems that Australia's indigenous population suffered once the new influx from the West arrived have been well-documented, and Herzog saw these first hand when casting for those roles in his movie, which had patently given him a sympathy with their plight and beliefs (even if he did have to make up some for the sake of his plot), though perhaps he was more identifying with the Lance character. He is supposed to be in the pay of the mining company, yet in right-on fashion he has a spiritual awakening and his conscience is raised the further the Aborigines push their campaign, right up to a court case which was based on real incidents of their feelings that they had more right to the land the corporations and the government were, in their view, exploiting.
All very worthy, but many have an issue with Where the Green Ants Dream, which is their belief that it comes across as simplistic and even amateurish in its delivery. Certainly the Aborigines recruited to play the relevant cast were not professional actors, but Herzog had a liking for placing those with no acting experience front and centre in his works, and you could regard these as simply more in that tradition, so as a whole the general air was unmistakably of this director's canon and methods, merrily inventing various aspects (such as recurring shots of tornados from America to hint at an apocalypse to come) that were designed to reach a truth that an unadorned show of earnest politicising would fail to achieve. We never find out if the little old lady found her dog, but then we likewise don't discover what happens to the aeroplane the natives request in return for the land rights, then just keep while continuing to refuse to budge, but it's all destined to send Lance off on his own journey which Herzog indicates is the most satisfying consequence.
Eccentric German writer/director known equally for his brilliant visionary style and tortuous filming techniques. After several years struggling financially to launch himself as a filmmaker, Herzog began his career with the wartime drama Lebenszeichen and surreal comedy Even Dwarfs Started Small. But it was the stunning 1972 jungle adventure Aguirre, Wrath of God that brought him international acclaim and began his tempestuous working relationship with Klaus Kinski. The 1975 period fable Heart of Glass featured an almost entirely hypnotised cast, while other Herzog classics from this era include Stroszek, the gothic horror Nosferatu the Vampyre and the spectacular, notoriously expensive epic Fitzcarraldo.