Before Wesens (Creatures), there have been many found footage films since the Blair Witch Project launched the popular genre. Found footage suggests a recording was recovered due to death, loss or attempts at burying the truth. This spectrum makes it most at home in the domain of the horror, sci-fi, mystery and thriller genres. Paranormal Activity built on what The Blair Witch Project had achieved, refining the process of low budget filmmaking. The Blair Witch Project was a pioneer film project that proved the genre had low risk, high return potential. Leveraging the mythos of actual recovered footage in the marketing, studios realised Paranormal Activity could go even further with a little spit and polish.
The found-footage genre works wonders thanks to its anything-goes shooting style, rough edit plausibility and overlaps with reality. While the format has been upscaled in recent years with films like Cloverfield, the entry point is relatively low. The most important factor is having a smart concept that captures your audience’s imagination, keeping them in suspense long enough to cover the duration of a feature film. Their emotional investment is critical, portraying compelling characters who are relatable. The genre’s proliferation has made the authenticity of the found-footage an afterthought or marketing gimmick, which was at best ambiguous at the time of The Blair Witch Project.
It’s quite surprising that Wesens is one of the first, if not the only, found footage feature film from South Africa. We’ve clearly got the talent and have managed to produce sharp Clerks-style indie films such as Casting Me… on a micro budget. In terms of the genre’s limitations of scope, this is where Oscar Best Picture nominee District 9 was made and there are hundreds of stories waiting to be unearthed that don’t involve the Tokoloshe – although this would be it’s most fitting format. That’s why Wesens should be the blueprint that inspires other aspiring filmmakers to make their first film.
Punted as an arthouse found footage sci-fi mystery, Wesens is much more cerebral and stylish than other films in the popularised genre. In terms of concept, the found footage is retrieved from the remnants of a deceased estate and tracks a 1967 investigation into an unidentified object that landed on a Karoo farm. In terms of character, the case is led by four intelligence agents, who try to rule out a Russian connection and identify the object’s origins.
Written, produced and directed by Derick Muller, his debut feature film shows surprising restraint and forethought. Creating the impression that the film was shot on Super 8 and 16mm cameras, the frame gives it an otherworldliness as do the uniforms, technology and historical context. District 9 started with a mockumentary edge and it’s easy to see how Wesens could have been a madcap comedy under the guidance of Taika Waititi, whose candid magic landed the outlandish adaptation of Jojo Rabbit. Dealing with UFO investigations, laboratory jargon and special crack squads in a low budget arena and low-tech era, it could have been insane. Yet, to Muller’s credit he grounds the film every step of the way so that it maintains good humour and an earnest undertone.
“What I’m smoking is out-of-this-world.”
From unusual shots to its candid feel, Wesens remains visually-captivating and grounded thanks to its alienating style and convincing performances. Helping him anchor the concept, time and space are his cast in Pietie Beyers, Morne Visser, Conradie van Heerden, Randy Januarie and Albert Maritz. Beyers is the Mulder of the ensemble, whose open-minded approach and willingness to believe makes him vulnerable and likable. Visser chimes in as an upstanding no-nonsense official and team leader while its fun to watch Albert Maritz embracing into his role wholeheartedly as a perturbed Karoo farmer. A concept-driven film, the nature of the investigative photography and radiation suits adds some distance from most of the characters but their actions help define them.
A modest sci-fi mystery thriller, the earthiness forces the filmmakers to leverage the power of imagination rather than relying on escalating visual effects like in films like Chronicle. While a strength and weakness, there is something quaint and noble about the effort to keep things real much like Primer did. Filming predominantly at one location gives the found footage scenario a sense of authenticity without breaking too many rules. The creative use of cinematography and evolution of thought around the object’s significance keep Wesens suspenseful and resourceful in its mercurial interpretation of the psychological, historical and social impact of the event.
While it’s true power and weight is felt in the third act, it’s also a make-or-break depending on your expectations and acceptance of the dénouement. The underlying slow-burning sci-fi mystery is stretched, in spite of its clever reframing and atmospheric handling. While the perceived absence of visual effects adds substance, it simultaneously displaces the climax with an undercurrent of incredulity. As pure sci-fi it works with a trail of carefully laid out breadcrumbs but its cold light of day impact is underwhelming, clouded by its bait-and-switch mythos. Still, Wesens is inspired and engaging… a sharp, thoughtful and smart refresh on the found footage genre, which will have more staying power for South Africans.
The bottom line: Thought-provoking