The Flat Jungle: Meeting of the microscopic and the gigantic

Johan van der Keuken directed a documentary film about ecological issues when the debate on them was only just entering the public arena. The Flat Jungle (1978) deals with multiple themes; it is a depiction of the codependency between nature and humans, as well as exploitation and pollution of natural resources by big companies.

© Johan van der Keuken / The Flat Jungle

Johan van der Keuken (1938-2001) was a Dutch documentary filmmaker, photographer and author. During his career, which spanned for over four decades, he produced 55 documentary films, six of which won academy awards. Van der Keuken’s trademarks include his experimental style of filmmaking that blurs the lines between realistic and fictional representation. The director went through a period of politically engaged filmmaking and did not shy away from using harsh imagery to denounce poverty, inequality, and other kinds of social injustices. During this phase, Van der Keuken made a film about the housing problems in Amsterdam (The Way South, 1980) and went to Palestine to express support for the Palestinian cause (The Palestinians, 1976). Then there is The Flat Jungle, a film about ecological problems and the exhaustibility of natural resources.

I would be very satisfied if this film could make some contribution towards making more people aware that it is in their own interest that an area such as the Wadden Sea is safeguarded. This means that we must try to disprove the supposed conflict of interests between the conservation of nature on the one hand and the well-being of the workers on the other. This task is so difficult that even a partial success on this score would be very welcome.

– Johan van der Keuken

The Flat Jungle is filmed in an area called the Wadden Sea, a shallow body of water between Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. The Wadden Sea has a unique ecosystem that its wildlife and inhabitants are highly dependent on; for instance, it’s an especially important area for both breeding and migrating birds. In 2009, the Dutch and German parts of the sea were inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The Flat Jungle portrays how the arrival of big companies and capitalist practices take their toll on the area’s natural resources and agricultural economy. The film features interviews from people whose lives have been fundamentally altered by the developments taking place in the area, such as worm-diggers, farmers and fishermen. And then there are the tourists, the small-time entrepreneurs and the demonstrators against the most fatal threat: nuclear energy. In the 1970s, awareness about ecological issues was only just becoming known for the wider public and this film pays witness to this historic tide change with unusual sensitivity. 

Johan Van der Keuken‘s style challenged and changed the rules of traditional editing by, for instance, blending still and moving images. Throughout The Flat Jungle, the director frequently varies the scale. Sceneries with vast and open countryside and ocean are alternated with shots of minuscule marine animals: organisms living in mutual existence and symbiosis on the borders of the sea and dry land, both just as important to one another’s survival.

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