Ben Joseph Andrews and Emma Roberts stopped all the clocks the moment they arrived in the Daintree Rainforest to start a five month research trip for their epic, 24-hour, virtual reality film Gondwana. Arriving in the wet season of 2019, “we scrambled our phones, our computers. We embraced the cycles of time that occur in the forest,” says Andrews, the film’s director. “That letting go and surrendering gave us time to listen, and gain a deep appreciation of the multi-layered nature of that environment.”
Their experience in the 180m-year-old rainforest, which literally re-shaped their sense of time, has never left them. Now, the pair hope to immerse audiences in a similarly perspective-altering experience with the installation of Gondwana at ACMI as part of Melbourne’s international film festival, which will screen over 48 hours from Thursday to Saturday.
Mapping 100 years of real-world data projections on to a simulated ecosystem, Gondwana is a “world-first durational VR installation” that places viewers inside the pulsating heart of the Daintree, and invites them to stay for as long as 24 hours (the longest stint so far has been 16 hours). Every 14 minutes, the environment jumps forward in time by one year – heading towards a speculative 2090.
Four years in the making, Gondwana is a jaw-dropping feat. The forest covers 350 square metres, a huge chunk of space for VR (some have said it feels limitless). Rather than one specific slice of the map, “it’s a smoosh of the Daintree,” says Andrews. Essentially, they have built an ecosystem from the ground up, with 50,000 plants and 40 hours of audio poured into the mix.
The canopy grows and recedes as viewers glide along rivers, across mountains, and along the rippling sands of Cape Tribulation. Stars wheel overhead as the sun rises and sets, and light oozes across the rainforest floor, as time both slows and speeds up simultaneously.
Andrews and Roberts, a long-term creative duo, have always been drawn to the “notion of awe.” Both passionate environmentalists, with backgrounds in “immersive creation” – part installation, part cinema, part live performance – they were drawn to the idea of harnessing VR to explore the climate crisis.
“It’s really easy to forget the magic and the presence that comes with being out in a natural space – it’s something that’s so primarily fundamental to us. Reconnecting people back to that is, literally and figuratively, perspective shifting,” says Roberts, the film’s producer.
In 2019 they left Melbourne with a plan to immerse themselves in the Daintree and what they thought was a fairly informed understanding of the climate crisis. But that trip catapulted them into a country in the throes of a reality that they had presumed was still far off.
“In the span of that road trip we went over endless dead riverbeds in the Murray-Darling Basin, areas of southeast Queensland that had been burned in unseasonal bushfires the year before, and straight into the biggest flooding event in Queensland’s history … well, at the time anyway,” says Roberts. “We arrived in the Daintree in the middle of an heatwave; around half the flying fox population was killed in a week. There were multiple cyclones and fires in the wet tropics area that had never been burned before.”
They also found a forest that was out of sync. 2019 was the year that the Wet Tropics Management Authority released a desperate report flagging the climate crisis as “the most significant threat” to the Daintree, named the second-most irreplaceable World Heritage area on the planet by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The two worked closely with both scientists and Kuku Yalanji elders, whose people have cohabited with the forest for millennia. “Their seasonal calendars were no longer matching up with their traditional understanding and knowledge – tens of thousands of years of knowledge,” Andrews says. “This idea of falling out of sync was like an important artistic metaphor that we had to grapple with.”
Gondwana portrays the decline both sonically and visually. The Daintree is essentially going through the “equivalent of the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, the much better known nextdoor neighbor,” says Roberts. “But the destruction is much harder to spot if you don’t know the difference between your ancient Gondwanan species and your modern Sumatran jungle species. You can’t see the change that’s happening. So we took that metaphor of bleaching into the experience.”
As the viewer is moved through time, certain plants and animals begin to turn white. At first, a single palm appears ghostlike in the gloaming but, as species become critically endangered or extinct, the bleach extends across the forest. Sounds stretch and become more ghostly, as birds begin to fade from view.
It’s an echo of Andrews and Roberts’ shift from awe to horror when they returned home.
“We started looking at the data in detail – it was a shocking, shocking portrait, even of what we’ve lost already. We went through this very dark night of the soul,” says Roberts. “To take that experience of living there and then to learn about what we stand to lose … it was like learning about the painful death of a close relative.”
“It was almost as if we had to go through the grief before we realised ourselves that we needed to shift how we were approaching the work,” says Andrews.
Every single time Gondwana runs, it produces a different speculative future, as it is based on not only the datasets that it chooses that particular cycle, but also, crucially, audience participation. The film-makers themselves don’t know which way the journey will go each time: you’re not guaranteed to see a Cassowary, for instance. “We’re not curating the perfect experience,” says Andrews. “Nature, chance, and rarity is important. The environment has these moments that are super precious and rare – and you are never going to witness the entire thing, you’re not central to it.”
And the more time users spend in Gondwana, the more resilient the rainforest becomes. Notes of hope flare throughout the film, like the flicker of the Daintree’s fireflies.
“We wanted to propose that no one individual can save the whole forest, but collectively we can prevent it from degrading,” says Roberts. “We wanted it to be open to possibilities like protection and resilience. It was a paradigm shift for us. And I think that is an important way to be thinking about one of the greatest issues of our time.”