‘Beaverland’ (‘Los Castores’): Valdivia Review

Courtesy of Panchito Films
A charming and gentle little film that raises some tough ecological questions

Of beavers and men: winner of the best Chilean film at that country’s recent Valdivia festival

Beaverland is a good example of a footnote story that ends up being surprisingly fascinating in its own right and then goes on to open up all sorts of major questions. Set in the wilds of Patagonia, the film follows the attempts of two Chilean biologists to control a plague of beavers in the region, but it ends up as a thought-provoking on humankind’s relationship to the natural world. Having picked up the best Chilean film at Valdivia, Beaverland deserves screenings at international documentary festivals with an ecological slant.

In 1946, 25 pairs of Canadian beavers were delivered to Patagonia with the aim of setting up a leather industry. Seventy years later, the leather industry is long forgotten and the beavers’ descendants are a plague of an estimated 150,000 which are threatening the ecosystem of one of the world’s great wild places. Amongst other damage, the dams built by the beavers cause flooding, which destroys forest land, which in turn leads to the loss of species such as the woodpecker. In Patagonia, the beaver has no natural predators, and is free to run amok.

Derek Corcoran (presumably Irish by either birth or heritage) and Giorgia Graells are biologists from a Chilean university who have been sent there, basically, on a beaver-killing mission. The question of whether they people can be considered “natural predators” is interestingly raised. We follow the couple as they set traps and chat with local farmers and landowners who are, to a man, anti-beaver.

Derek and Giorgia are an appealing couple, in their rickety caravan, and as Derek strums the old Irish song “Whiskey in the Jar” on his ukelele by firelight. One lengthy sequence has Derek making a mess of trapping and shooting a beaver. It's staged as though this is the first time he’s done such a thing. “You did your best,” Giorgia reassures her disconsolate colleague later.

The beavers work at night, making it hard to catch them. They are the criminal, caught only on grainy, black and white nocturnal stealth cam footage, and Derek and Giorgia are the law. But then a quick visit to a nearby town shows construction work in progress. Both beavers and people are natural builders who destroy the ecosystem, the film is implying, with the difference that nobody’s killing the people for doing it. The film’s later scenes are complicated by this new knowledge, and over the final minutes Derek and Giorgia, now enjoying a meal of beaver meat, no longer come over as the affable, slightly bumbling couple they were.

There’s the suspicion that they may have been coming over as affable and bumbling for co-director Nicolas Molina’s camera. When not adopting an intimate fly-on-the-wall approach to his subjects, Molina is framing the majestic Patagonian landscapes, and the damage being done to it, in lengthy, sometimes too lengthy, shots which allow the atmosphere of isolation to come strongly through. The beavers themselves are given little screen time -- although they are given the final visual say as they perform their magical work, which as we watch seems more creative than destructive. 

This is a film which  poses its questions indirectly, perhaps too indirectly for more impatient viewers, and more explicit context would have beefed things up: at the purely informational level, we are left wanting more. But the questions it does raise are complex and interesting. To what extent can killing beavers be just, when the problem is human-created? Is it ultimately money (in the form of the affected landowners) which is leading to the beaver cull, or are they indeed driven by ecological concerns? Are there less brutal alternatives available? These, and the other questions raised by the small-sized, big-thinking Beaverland, affect us all.

Production company: Panchito Films, LucoMolina
Cast: Giorgia Graells, Derek Corcoran
Directors: Antonio Luco, Nicolas Molina
Screenwriters: Pablo Nunez, Antonio Luco, Nicolas Molina
Producer: Francisco Herve
Director of photography: Nicolas Molina
Editors: Camila Mercadal, Valeria Hernández
Composer: Ives Sepulveda
Sales: Panchito Films

No rating
68 minutes