The New Wilderness (De nieuwe wildernis): Film Review

An epic nature film shot in a reserve just 20 miles from Amsterdam.

Dutch documentary director Mark Verkerk and renowned nature photographer Ruben Smit team up for this breathtaking look at the Oostvaardersplassen natural reserve.

UTRECHT -- A natural reserve that was created pretty much by accident in the world’s second most densely populated country, the Netherlands, is more than ready for its close-up in The New Wilderness (De nieuwe wildernis), jointly directed by local ecologist and renowned nature photographer Ruben Smit, a winner of the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year kudos, and non-fiction filmmaker Mark Verkerk (Buddha’s Lost Children).

Shot in stunning widescreen, this traditional-minded documentary feature covers the expected four seasons and the cycles of life and death as they occur in the Oostvaardersplassen reserve, just 20 or so miles east of Amsterdam. The main surprise, apart from the film’s breathtaking beauty, is not only the diversity but the enormous quantities of small and especially large animals that live in this area of just 22 square miles — as more than amply demonstrated by the countless aerial shots of stampeding herds of Red Deer and semi-feral Konik horses (the latter incidentally the largest European population of the species, according to the film’s occasionally overly didactic voice-over).  

This Netherlands Film Festival premiere has been a huge hit at home, debuting at number one in the box-office charts and, after being relegated to second place the week Gravity was released, bouncing back to the top spot the following week to become the country’s highest-grossing nature documentary ever. Western European distributors especially will want to investigate this child-friendly marvel that suggests that the countless beauties and unrivaled perseverance of nature can be witnessed almost literally next door.

What’s entirely left off-screen and might have to be added for foreign distribution, is a short explanation of the uniqueness of the Oostvaardersplassen area, which was created when the central part of the 1960s Flevoland polders -- a lake area that was turned into land to create new living space for people in overcrowded, nearby Amsterdam -- didn’t take and the resulting swamp area attracted large quantities of migratory birds. Almost 90% of what now constitutes the reserve is closed for the public and has become an example of “rewilding,” with larger species that either used to live in the Netherlands or are close contemporary equivalents introduced to try and re-create a self-sustaining ecosystem (hence the film’s title).   

Though filmed over a staggering 600 days, the film tells a classically structured story from the beginning of spring through the end of winter. The birth of a Konik foal and various other young animals opens the film on a cute note, with the voice-over by Harry Piekema (the Flemish voice-over for the Belgian release was done by The Broken Circle Breakdown actor Johan Heldenbergh) mostly resisting the urge to anthropomorphize too much and managing to inject some humor without becoming too cutesy.

Smit and Verkerk beautifully illustrate how smaller cycles exist within bigger ones and everything is connected. After a spectacular summer storm, shallow pools come to life in the wetlands and a shoal of carp is stranded in too-shallow water, thus providing food for maggots that in turn attract birds. Similarly, on the plains -- where grazers were introduced to keep the area from turning into a forest -- yellow dung flies feast on the feces of the Konik, providing food for other insects and birds.  

Death is of course an integral part of life, with young foxes chasing baby geese in slow motion and a young foal struggling throughout fall and then winter to keep up with its healthier peers, finally resulting in its death in the depth of winter. 

A dozen cinematographers are credited for the stunning imagery, which include aerial, underwater, macro, high-speed, remote, time-lapse and cable-cam photography, with truly gasp-inducing imagery including the sight of Little Egrets in thick mist, deer fighting each other in mating season, horses huddled together under the first snow and countless contre-jour shots that show a side of the Netherlands rarely seen on-screen.

Just as important are the expertly captured and rendered ambient noises, which thankfully often take precedence over Bob Zimmerman’s smoothly supportive score.

Venue: Netherlands Film Festival (Out of Competition)

Production companies: Ems Films
Directors: Mark Verkerk, Ruben Smit
Screenwriters: Mark Verkerk, Leo van der Goot, Ruben Smit, Hans Dorrestijn
Producer: Ton Okkerse
Executive producer: Ignas van Schaick
Directors of photography: Ruben Smit, Michael Sanderson, Paul Klaver, Dick Harrewijn, Rene Heijnen, Jeroen Verhoeff, Joris van Alphen, Paul Edwards, Jelte Maarten Boll, Tjeerd Fonk, Navid Tansaz, Pieter Alkemade
Music: Bob Zimmerman
Editors: Mark Verkerk, Helen Delachaux, Niels Roza 
No rating, 97 minutes.