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Yes, a Tree Falling in the Forest Makes a Sound

Coast of Death, a gorgeous documentary by an experimental filmmaker, visually upsets the man v. nature balance of power

Still from Coast of Death

The tree we first watch collapsing to the floor of its ever-dwindling forest is well-miked, so we're sure to hear the sound it makes when it falls. But first we hear the panting lumberjack approach and pull-start his chainsaw. He's joined by several others, and soon the logs they've accumulated require specialized heavy machinery to stack.

Considering there's not a beach in sight, this isn't the most obvious beginning for a documentary called Coast of Death, video-installation artist Lois Patiño's latest feature-length film. But the title is both a reference to a particularly rugged portion of the rocky Spanish Galician coast, and also to the destruction of that ecosystem as humans harvest its natural resources.

These humans, miked at least as well as that doomed tree, never get their close-ups, whether they're chopping wood or digging shellfish out of a shallow ocean bed, forcing us to always view them in a more realistically tiny context, cosmically speaking. Photographer Carla Andrade's lingering shots of grandiose landscapes dwarfing the fishermen, lumberjacks, quarrymen, and others who constitute the closest thing to characters in Coast of Death leave little doubt as to the real balance of power in man's ongoing efforts to subjugate nature, but Patiño's vision never expands to the panic-inducing scope of Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi—another beautifully shot examination of breathtaking ecosystems jeopardized by the human ego.

Where Koyaanisqatsi largely depicted man's impact on a corporate scale, Patiño keeps his camera just close enough to capture interactions on an individual level, where nature doesn't seem nearly so out of balance that it can't be tipped back to equilibrium. A few nasty-looking forest fires flare up for example, but we never see who or what is starting them—just the brave people, often no bigger than ants on the screen, risking their lives to put the fires out.

But the fires captured are nothing compared to this coastal region’s recent history; it was the site of one of the worst oil spills in history in 2002 when the Prestige, a 26-year-old tanker, began taking on water during a winter storm. It snapped in half off the coast of Northwestern Spain, covering 350 miles of shoreline in approximately 64,000 tons of toxic crude oil number four. The incident, which resulted in a six-month ban on fishing in the region while a $2 billion cleanup could be completed, is recounted by Coast of Death's fishermen, some of whom blame the Spanish government's actions for making the situation worse. However, most of the people we see wading through knee-deep water in search of shellfish or out casting their lines into deeper waters seem as far removed from that disaster (the fifth of its kind in the region in three decades; experts estimated it would take more than 10 years to recover) as they do from the possibly apocryphal stories they tell of soldiers said to have hid in the area’s caves and crevasses during the Spanish Revolution, or the bandits once said to have lured ships into crashing against the jagged coast, allegedly giving the region its fatal reputation.

Writes Patiño of his own film: “The immediacy of the sounds of the words combined with our distance from the human beings also makes it seem as though the landscape itself were telling its own stories.” The effect is entrancing and meditative, but begs the question of who has the right to speak for the land and which stories they're obligated to tell. We hear the sound the trees make as they fall, but how much responsibility does the filmmaker have to capture the echoes of those felled long before he turned on the camera?


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