There’s a creepy and unsettling photograph that haunts the drama of Flora, and anticipates the movies own most striking visuals. It’s a black-and-white print showing a huge assembly of young Soviet pioneers gathered in a Russian forest in 1937, all of them wearing gas masks and staring directly into the camera. Originally intended as a striking image for Stalin’s propaganda machine, the snapshot’s meaning has long since changed: it’s now a skin-crawling juxtaposition of the natural world with the looming threat of industrial-scale gas and chemical warfare in a wholly dehumanised landscape.
It’s an image that clearly inspired writer and director Sasha Louis Vukovic when penning Flora, an inventive and intelligent fantasy thriller that premiered at the 2017 Sci-Fi London film festival. Set in the summer of 1929, the film follows the unravelling of a botanical field trip by a group of talented young Ivy League scientists charged with documenting the flora and fauna of a little-explored forest on the North American frontier. Played by a talented young ensemble, they are a well-balanced team, comprising of a cartographer, an illustrator and a cataloguer, as well as a botanist, who are all supported in their endeavours by a nurse and a cook.
Together they make for a well-drawn group of characters. The film’s namesake (Doran) is a considered and thoughtful artist (who sketches adventure comics in her free time, stories in which she is the heroine). She soon learns that she must demonstrate heroism in the real world too. Writer and director Vukovic has a clear interest in ensuring that his team become more than ciphers, but there’s precious little time to explore their backstories, or the challenges facing their “breakthrough” generation in inter-War America, before the forest consumes its first victim. What the botanists quickly discover is that something in the woods sees their presence as a threat to its ecosystem that must be eradicated.
Vukovic gets huge value from the lush, verdant forest locations, its brooks and rivers, its dense and open spaces and an abandoned mill (evidence of nature’s ability to erode and reclaim the space occupied by the temporary structures of human beings). He resists the obvious temptation to flood the picture with endless aerial drone shots; instead opting to track his protagonists’ plight at ground level, relying on hand-held footage of their worsening plight. Rendering a period piece in a woodland setting (rather than in downtown Ottawa) certainly helps an indie filmmaking team balance a tight budget, but the abandoned artefacts and personal belongings at the mysteriously empty campsite do reinforce the growing sense of otherworldly unease.
As their escapade shifts from light-hearted jaunt to life-threatening flight, the character interplay of Flora works really well. This is a group of over-confident young adults who find themselves in circumstances where the arrogance of youth is ripped from them. As the survivors prepare for a long march to safety through the forest, the haunting image from that infamous photograph again looms large: white coveralls and gas masks transform the humans into alien intruders in a silent woodland that wants them dead. In fact, Flora is at its most successful in making the brightly lit, summer time setting of a forest feel like a threatening and unnerving place. It does so without relying on the familiar beats of a spooky soundtrack or the use of predictable jump scares.
Viewers hoping for a Triffid-style monster “reveal” are going be disappointed by Flora. The horror here remains for the most part an idea: a threat, carried on intoxicating air, that poisons all of the animals it touches. The brilliant conceit is that the group have to negotiate through woodlands in which the risk is manifest but invisible, making for some fantastic “running from something unseen” moments. This is an original and engaging story that gets under the skin (if not, thankfully, into the lungs). Told with a huge sense of self-belief, Flora is a more than creditable entry in the “if you go down to the woods today” film genre.
FLORA / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR & PRODUCER & SCREENWRITER: SASHA LOUIS VUKOVIC / STARRING: TERESA MARIE DORAN, DAN LIN, CALEB NOEL, SARI MERCER, WILL AARON, MILES G. JACKSON / RELEASE DATE: UK RELEASE TBA