The Hunters Become The Hunted In SPOOR, A Dark Ecofeminist Fairy Tale
Janina Duszejko is an eccentric elderly woman, strict vegetarian, astrologist, and animal lover who lives alone in the Klodzko Valley. After her dogs disappear, she understandably suspects some kind of foul play. This sets off a series of murders, all not so incidentally targeting male hunters. Duszejko is convinced that she knows who (or what) is the murderer, but nobody believes her.
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Cast: Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka, Wiktor Zborowski, Jakub Gierszal, Miroslav Krobot
Country: Poland, Czech Republic, Germany
Runtime: 128 minutes
Reviewed by: Leticia Sim
Targowiczanin—or ‘traitor’ in Polish, is what Director Agnieszka Holland has been lambasted as in Polish media. So when Spoor was first screened, Polish journalists naturally were quick to brand it is as anti-Poland, anti-Christian, and anti-ecology. But woe betide those who box Holland in as a radical contrarian; the prolific director proves she is able to discern the comic and tragic sides of humanity in Spoor.
Spoor refers to the track, trail, or scent of an animal, one that hunters use to track it down. Holland leaves the spoor of her sociopolitical body of work in this iteration of a dark, ecofeminist fairy tale, one that roars with primal rage.
Spoor has all the bite of a chilly Polish winter, but also the lush surrealism of its sprawling mountainous landscape, setting the stage for a far more complex tale than its synopsis would have you believe. Driven by its mighty powerhouse of a lead, played by vetaran actress Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka, she portrays Duszejko with exuberant conviction and headfast sensitivity.
Living a peaceful and isolated life in a small town where Poland and the Czech Republic meet, Duszejko is a stubborn older woman who abides by her strong beliefs—she is an animal rights activist, strict vegetarian, and astrology believer. This seems counterintuitive, however, as the town she lives in is saturated with hunters abiding by a senseless hunting calendar. Equally alarming is how the women of the town fall prey to archaic patriarchal Catholicism, one that pushes women to the bottom of the food chain, second from last to animals.
Adapted from the novel Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead, Holland describes the film as “an anarchistic, feminist, ecological crime story with elements of black comedy and magic realism”. Femininity undoubtedly permeates through the film—one that isn’t traditional; rather the anger of a woman, the product of elements and circumstances surrounding her. Duszejko forcefully disrupts the boy’s club of authority figures, unspooling a yarn of emotional intensity. She’s unabashedly hysterical and steadfast in her convictions that the series of murders targeting hunters are an act of revenge inflicted by the animals, wearing her heart on her sleeve. Despite the police and investigators dismissing Dusezjko as a joke, Holland never once undermines her and her intense emotions; intentionally depicting her as a woman with agency, and a spine made of iron.
The story is further illuminated by a colourful cast of offbeat supporting characters, each with their own unique set of quirks and beliefs. Though their own journeys and conflicts are often sidelined in favour of moving the main plot, their interactions with Dusezjko inject a surprisingly effective dose of dark humour, another subversive element in a long list of Spoor’s studies of juxtaposition and contrast. With Dusezjko’s small army of supporters each experiencing their own forms of victimisation, the not-so-subtle parallels raise questions about the marginalised individuals—human or not—that echo throughout.
Sweeping shots of snowy alps and distinctive vistas of dense forests underscore the mysticism of Spoor’s atmosphere. The animals are shot almost documentary-style, as we observe them being disrupted in their natural habitat—sometimes beastly, sometimes at rest, most of the time terrified. This establishes them as much of an important character as any other human in Holland’s tale.
Holland’s dark fairy tale feels potent and urgent in today’s sociopolitical climate; it would be a mistake to consider Spoor singular in its attention to politics. Above all, the fable acknowledges how feminine sexuality, vulnerability, and strength are allowed to coexist and be celebrated even in the harshest of climates. The film, thanks to its surreal nuances, doesn’t come off as anti-anything, moreso a veiled call for revolution, for us to understand that the characters aren’t just facing an issue of animal rights or women’s rights—more than anything, it’s a human issue.
And just like its namesake, Spoor leaves a lasting mark, a track, a trail, a scent with its viewer, one that leads us to an intentionally brutal rumination.
Spoor is one of four films from a line-up of female-directed films revolving around the themes of homelessness, solitude and adversity screened at the N.O.W (Not Ordinary Work) Film Weekend.
You can catch Spoor at TheatreWorks SG on 20 July. In the meantime, you can view the trailer here:
N.O.W. is a three-week public project. From 2019-2021, Noorlinah Mohamed, established actress and arts educator, is appointed N.O.W.’s Artistic Director. For the next three years, she focuses on celebrating women creators, thinkers, and change-makers, and their approach to making a difference. Led by women and supported by women production, technical and administrative teams, N.O.W. makes visible the multifaceted and capable women, their voices and their not ordinary work. From performance to film, music to visual arts, workshops to talks, N.O.W. spotlights her process, her thoughts and her creation. Experimental, deliciously weird, and yes, fun, these works explore the conversations women creators and thinkers have with the world – and each other.