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Review: Mudflats: survival on the border of water and land (2018)

Director: Ruben Smit | 93 minutes |

The Wadden area is without a doubt one of the most special nature reserves you will find in the Netherlands. The islands and sandbanks, which give the coastal area its characteristic appearance, dry up at low tide. This interaction between ebb and flow creates a versatile habitat for a diverse spectrum of flora and fauna, a natural wealth that gives the area its World Heritage status.

A grateful subject for the passionate and skilled nature filmmaker Ruben Smit, who previously managed to conquer the hearts of many nature lovers with the cinema film “The new wilderness” and the series “Living river”. Smit worked for no less than five years on “Wad: survival on the border of water and land”. The result can be sure.

What is particularly striking is the organic character of the documentary. Smit clearly opts for a holistic approach. The entire food chain, from tiny single-celled organisms and diatoms to the larger and charismatic inhabitants of the Wadden Sea like the seal and peregrine falcon, is mapped to make it clear that we are dealing here with an ecosystem in which everything is interrelated. Flora and fauna are not only engaged in a constant battle with the elements, but also in a battle with each other. The herring gull survives by ending a duckling’s early life, the peregrine falcon depends on the flocks of birds that roam its habitat and the flatfish perpetuates its existence by feeding on the myriad microorganisms that make up the broad bottom of the food pyramid. But sometimes cooperation instead of eating or being eaten is also the cornerstone of life on the mudflats. A good example of this are the thousands of mussels that together form a reef. The animals filter the seawater and thus form the basis for a long and complex chain of underwater life.

In terms of style, “Wad: survival on the border of water and land” tacks between contemplation, spectacle, and modesty. For example, a spectacular fight between two male seals is heavily turned on and unfolds through the use of close-ups and slow motion into an epic scene with serious cinema potential. The same is true of the scene in which the peregrine falcon, accompanied by rousing music, plunges into a giant flock of birds to thread an unfortunate victim by its razor-sharp claws. The drama, for example, takes place in the grueling journey that a group of newborn shelducks must make; The fluffy creatures have to find their way to the nutrient-rich mudflats straight through the dunes. But creatures that normally remain hidden from most human eyes, such as ejaculating mussels and skittish shrimps, are also extensively depicted. Or take the sea spark, a single-celled organism that not everyone will be familiar with. But when these simple creatures collectively light up in the nightly waves, they transform the Wadden Sea into a true fairytale setting. The also consciously chooses to switch between intimacy and grandeur. Images of microscopic life in the mud emphasize the former, while drone images, in turn, beautifully highlight the vastness of the Wadden area.

Humans are mainly an absent factor in Smits Waddenrijk. The Wadden Sea is presented as a pristine dimension where only the echo of nature resounds. Perhaps a justifiable choice, but sometimes a bit of a shame. The Wadden Sea is in fact an area par excellence that has been (and still is) strongly influenced over the centuries by human activities such as fishing, gas drilling, tourism and climate change. The result is that as a viewer you ultimately learn very little about how the Wadden Sea relates to other, similar looking nature reserves. Little attention is also paid to the future of the Wadden Sea, and in particular the question of how climate change will affect this beautiful piece of World Heritage.

Nevertheless, “Wad: survival on the border of water and land” is a nice addition to the already increasingly rich collection of nature films. A little more context would have been desirable from time to time, but this versatile portrait of the Dutch Wadden region is nevertheless a feast for the eyes.

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