Natural Magic of the Unseen and Wonders beneath our feet
Louie Schwartzberg’s documentaries have always had to do with seeing the world through different lenses. From his independent shorts “Mysteries of the Unseen World” and “Moving Art: Forests” to his Disney-backed butterfly doc “Wings of Life,” Schwartzberg has been opening audience’s eyes to visual beauties hidden in plain sight.
His latest film, “Fantastic Fungi” takes this motif to the next level, as Schwartzberg not only uses his distinct visual style deliver a message, but that message itself is actually about our world beneath the surface and our minds beyond our senses.
The topic, of course, is mushrooms, or rather fungi of all sorts, the plantlike organisms that sprout from the earth and extend beneath our feet in all different directions. As Schwartzberg documents, fungi are of unparalleled importance to the natural world, and if used correctly, they could also help people improve their perception of life on the inside and out.
The movie starts out standard enough, with Schwartzberg’s signature time-lapses, landscape shots, and animations illustrating the awesome lives of mushrooms in the wild. Over interviews with ecologists, journalists, nutritionists, and more, the film shows how fungi’s roots are all connected beneath the surface, creating an enormous active network of billion-year-old ecological information that humans only understand the very beginning of.
Fungi’s potential is thus unpredictable. The natural sophistication of mushrooms could make them an inherent resource for health, sustainability, medicine, nutrition, and more. Their relationship with people is a beautiful example of humans not just learning about, but learning from a different form of life in its untouched place on earth.
Despite the intriguing topic, though, this first part of the movie still feels kind of like a simple National Geographic special or something cut out of a “Planet Earth” episode. “Fantastic Fungi” really distinguishes itself in its second and third acts. After Schwartzberg introduces us to fungi in the wild, he then delves into the ways humans use the organism for their own advantage.
Here, the film obviously looks at the ways mushrooms can be used as food and medicine, but it also talks about the ways that fungi preserve water and adapt efficiently, making them potentially valuable resources in creating revolutionary environmental progress.
Additionally, the film digs into the psychedelic aspects of mushroom consumption, interviewing mental health councilors and patients who use fungi as therapeutic tools. This is where the film becomes meta, as the experience of taking psychedelic mushrooms is meant to play with perception and ultimately make people feel extra clam or enlightened.
Maybe there’s more to Fungi if we Become One with them?
Perhaps gratuitously, this raises the question of what it would be like to watch “Fantastic Fungi” under the influence of these mushrooms. Certain films, particularly movies with intricate colors or visuals, are known for being extra interesting when watched on psychedelics. Because “Fantastic Fungi” has some very cool, high-resolution visuals as well as an illuminating message, one could expect that watching the film with a mushroom-tinted consciousness might be a transcendent existential experience. Given the subject matter, we cannot help but wonder whether or not this was aesthetically intentional all along.
The film was featured at the Maui Film Festival’s Celestial Cinema screenings. Along with Louie Schwartzberg as the movie’s director, Brie Larson narrates the film and Mark Monroe of “Before the Flood” and “The Cove” wrote the screenplay. Monroe has written many documentaries that have to do with environmentalism and the human body, most notably perhaps the Oscar-winning “Icarus,” which started as a film about athletic doping in Russia, but eventually escaladed into a political thriller.
“Fantastic Fungi” looks like it will be leaving politics at the doorstep, though. Except for maybe a brief conversations regarding the legality of psychedelics, the film looks will probably be a happy and hopeful movie, one that not only teaches us an interesting lesson in ecology, but like a mushroom trip itself, will open up our minds to possibilities we never considered before.
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