When people say that we’ve got to take better care of the planet, my reaction is that the planet can take care of itself. For the next 7.5 billion years, or whatever the latest scientific estimate says, it will continue to absorb extinctions and other catastrophes, regenerating itself as it did after the Ice Age and whatever event accounted for the dinosaurs. There seems no reason why the Age of Man should not be just another passing phase, to be accepted by its host with a similar indifference.
Upstream, a new half-hour television film written by Robert Macfarlane and directed by Rob Petit, puts the viewer in the realm of that very different perception of time. It’s the result of half a dozen trips over three years to the Cairngorms, where Petit guided a camera-bearing drone over the River Dee from its floodplain to its source high in the mountains. Macfarlane, our greatest contemporary observer of landscape, contributes an accompanying prose-poem, its spare, evocative lines murmured by the Scottish singer Julie Fowlis.
Filmed in black and white, the images exert a mesmerising and eventually hallucinatory effect as the camera tracks slowly and inexorably upward, the direction of travel never varying as the sense of rising takes hold. Edited together with great but entirely unobtrusive skill, the individual shots are taken from many heights and distances, the puzzle-shapes of harsh whites, blurred greys and soft blacks playing quiet games with the viewer’s perception of scale.
My excuse for writing about Upstream is that it has a soundtrack by the German pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann, who works under the name Hauschka. Violin, cello and piano are blended with electronics in a way that shifts in and out of focus, rooted in the abstract but drifting towards the concrete, underscoring the images with a musical commentary that bears an equal emotional weight. Snatches of Gaelic, spoken by the poet Niall Górdan, are added to the weave.
I was going to describe the film’s beauty as unearthly; that, however, would be the very opposite of what I mean. Yes, Upstream brings us closer to a sense of the eternal, but its gaze is fixed on the ground beneath our feet.
* Upstream is transmitted on BBC4 this Sunday, September 29, at 8:30pm, and will be available for a month on BBC iPlayer.