The island of Espíritu Santo is wild land, off limits to humanity. It sounds like an awful, forbidding place, but Mexican environmentalists consider it one of their greatest triumphs. To commemorate this feat of preservation, Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias created a special installation, not on the new no man’s zone, but off the coast, on the floor of the Sea of Cortez, bringing new meaning to the term “site specific.” Thomas Reidelsheimer documents the creation and dedication of the Espiritu Santo architectural sculpture in Garden in the Sea (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DocuWeeks.
There is a tiny irony that a film taking us to task for all we collectively dump into the ocean would also celebrate plunging a series of concrete gates into said waters. Yes, it’s hardly the same thing, but it is still rather odd. Still, there is a good chance the fish will like having it down there, like a giant aquarium ornament. Potentially, Garden could have been one of those documentaries that take viewers someplace they will most likely never have the opportunity to visit, like Into Eternity, Michael Madsen’s tour of Finland’s subterranean nuclear waste depository Onkalo or Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog’s 3D journey into the Chauvet cavern.
Unfortunately, despite the striking vistas of Espíritu Santo and the liberal helpings of underwater photography, Garden simply is not very cinematic. Frankly, it feels more like a cable special than a theatrical documentary feature, particularly given the relatively brief sixty-nine minute running time. However, it includes some soothing but distinctive Stephan Micus music licensed from the ECM label, perfectly suited to the aquatic theme.
Perhaps you have to be there. Swimming through Iglesias’s Atlantis gates is probably a pretty cool experience for scuba divers, but at about ten feet tall, they are not imposing enough to command the big screen. There are also only three of them too, so the project cannot really be thought of as Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates underwater.
Granted, Espíritu Santo is a nice story about engaged citizens taking direct action. However, most viewers will have nagging doubts whether turning the preserve over to the Mexican government is the wisest course of action. One has the uneasy feeling that if the environmental consortium is not constantly monitoring it, the beautiful island might be turned to more nefarious purposes. Of course, Garden is not about to address any concerns regarding systemic government corruption in Mexico. (Instead, look out for Bernardo Ruiz’s Reportero on the festival circuit for that kind of reality check.)