«We just always imagine we are smarter in the present than the people before us.»

Even King Midas reached the limits of greed when it dawned on him that his desire to turn everything to gold by touching it also meant the end of food and affection. In LE FORMICHE DI MIDA the inescapable turning point we have reached in humanity’s dealings with the planet led Edgar Honetschläger on a journey into mythology and the history of ideas to create a multi-layered collage, prompting reflection on how and when things got out of hand between nature and humans.

LE FORMICHE DI MIDA is an essay that confronts humanity's relationship with nature. The interesting thing is that you use mythology and philosophy to explore the issue of how things began to go wrong between people and nature. Could the basic question of this film be formulated like that?

LE FORMICHE DI MIDA is an inventory that goes back to the beginnings of agriculture and its significance for society: the film tries to explain, partly by using humour, how we got to where we are today. Originally, I wanted to focus on nature alone in LE FORMICHE DI MIDA, but it quickly became clear that humans were necessary as a mediator. The film is an attempt to pinpoint the crystallization points in human history when our ideas of nature underwent transformations. Without making value judgements or pointing fingers.

You have lived in Italy for many years; has this also had an impact on certain facets of this topic? How does the place where you currently live affect your work?

Around the year 2000, when I was still living in Tokyo, it struck me that I had studied Japanese culture and politics for almost a decade but knew too little about my own. I felt the need to reconnect artistically with Europe: the question was: where? The conclusion I reached was Rome, seen as the cradle of our Western society. The nuclear accident at Fukushima in 2011 represented a hiatus in my life; it triggered an incredible sensation of despair in me. That event convinced me that I should definitely return to Europe. Driven by fear of the consequences of a nuclear disaster, I started my first vegetable garden. I wanted to find out how big a garden had to be in order to feed you all year round. I started with 20 m². After more than 20 years of living in the megacities of N.Y., São Paolo, L.A. and Tokyo, twelve years ago I became a country boy. The garden brought me into constant contact with farmers, and we were able to observe everything that’s going wrong ecologically: insect and bird populations shrinking dramatically, tree species being lost. This situation led me to the conclusion that art must be able to do more than accuse and condemn. In 2018, together with biologists, ecologists, lawyers, economists, etc, I founded the NGO, which has the utopian plan of creating areas in the world that no human being is allowed to enter: places where nature is left to its own devices.

By means of voice-overs and quotations, from Greek mythology and philosophy, the film also refers to the texts that fed it. What were your sources?

I would identify the theoretical foundations primarily as Bruno Latour, Philippe Descola and Lynn Margulis, who have shaped me for decades but are only now claiming awareness in the current discourse. As for mythology: living in Italy and not devoting yourself to mythology is virtually impossible, because the cultural heritage of the past is inexhaustible. LE FORMICHE DI MIDA begins with the Greek legend of Phaeton, which describes 1:1 the situation in which we find ourselves today.

How did Midas become the central figure in your film?

The story is well known: Midas wants the gods to turn everything he touches into gold. As a result, he can neither eat nor drink, and even his beloved daughter turns to gold when he embraces her. What few people know is that Midas was abandoned as a baby and fed by ants. It is interesting that there is repeated recourse in the current scientific discourse to mythological sources relating to insects or animals, because they allow conclusions to be drawn about how our ancestors dealt with nature.

Two mythical creatures run through the whole film – a nymph and a donkey. What do you see as their role?

One very important element is a dryad: half human, half plant. Hybrid beings have always fascinated me. In my film it ends up with Psyche being given the task of sorting grain during the course of one night, as a punishment imposed by Aphrodite, and she only succeeds in doing so with the help of the ants. We humans are nature and must stop distancing ourselves from it. Dryads are tree souls. If the tree dies, the dryad also dies. The symbolic humanization of nature makes it possible to feel empathy for it. In LE FORMICHE DI MIDA, the only creature for whom the dryad is visible is a donkey, which takes on the role of philosopher and observer. Incidentally, shooting with the donkey was exciting. You end up being at a complete loss on the set; the donkey becomes the director and dictates what is done. I liked breaking down order on a film set. The animal, which is to say nature, sets the pace.

For the scenes with dialogue you have chosen prototypical figures: the peasants, the bourgeois couple, the horseman, the priest, the modern Midas and the choir. How did this ensemble come about?
The characters function as representatives. If you want to say that there is a King Midas in the movie, it's Giancarlo, the owner of the house I rent. Like Mussolini, he stands on the roof terrace of the house and rants about the migrants who appear in front of his house. I invented the choir of immigrants and had them sing content-heavy lines to the white 'Aborigines'. They stand in a circular, very well-kept piece of lawn, which symbolizes the urge felt by people to impose order – to tame nature. In the scene where the immigrants land on the beach in rubber dinghies, their first gesture is to worship Western technology/industry. The film makes fun of the principle of progress. What is it? Technological progress has not morally improved humanity one iota. As Bruno Latour says: Modernity is over. Modernity is the culmination of the reification of the world that has led us to 'hell'. Now we are finally entering a new era of equality, a redefinition of human existence in conjunction with nature. At this point, mythology is again in demand, which, like the Bible, thought of everything in stories and symbols in order to make statements about man, culture and nature. In LE FORMICHE DI MIDA I tried to have all conceivable mythologies and epochs work simultaneously to create a narrative continuum. It doesn't really change much over the course of the ages. We just always imagine we are smarter in the present than the people before us.

Where did you shoot and choose your actors?

In Tarquinia, 90 km north of Rome, where the Etruscans left their most beautiful tomb paintings. I chose all the actors from my surroundings. The "Don Camillo" of Tarquinia, who walks through the film with a rifle and wants to shoot everything he doesn't understand, is a hunter over 80 years of age who speaks a local dialect. All of them are friends from the surrounding area and from Rome. There is only one professional actress: all the others are amateurs.

In the film, progress and individualism are two keywords Midas has emblazoned on his personal flags. In your opinion, are these concepts the decisive reason why human civilization has got so out of hand?

What makes people human is the culture they produce. If they create beauty, they are equal to nature. And this should be the task of humans: to promote diversity, because only this allows us to survive and bring beauty into the world. I am not making a plea in the sense of everything used to be beautiful and today everything is ugly.  It is ridiculous to say that the baby boomer generation is to blame for the destruction of the earth. If there had been aeroplanes 500 years ago, they would have been used. The destruction has been going on for many generations. That’s why the film touches on the colonial history of immigrants as well as that of the Epicureans, who, without being able to prove it scientifically, defined the atom as the origin of all matter. It was in Ancient Greece that people first turned away from the gods: the individual as an independent universe was born, and that also led to a turning away from nature. Before agriculture, we were nomads without property. Possession is a problem; it represents a denial of one's own transience. Since living in Japan for such a long time, I've been preoccupied with the concept of individualism. Where does this idea, which is negotiated quite differently in Japan, come from? How has the Western ego society developed? In LE FORMICHE DI MIDA so much thought is compressed and conveyed that you have to take a breath every now and then to ask what the concrete meaning is. When it comes to my films, I always advise people to just let go without thinking too much, because my films are like ponds. The enchanting landscape around the dark pond is reflected. It is enough just to succumb to the beauty of images and sound, without desperately puzzling over what could be meant. If it stimulates the viewer, he is welcome to immerse himself in the pond. I simply make an offer.

The final scene features the metaphor of the beach without the sea; is this to be understood more as a pessimistic forecast or purely as food for thought?

This is poetry from the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. The discovery of her writings overwhelmed me. She works with incomprehensible metaphors. For me, a beach without the sea is poetry and not at all a reference to a dark future. It's about evoking images in your mind without developing a dark scenario. For me, the principle of hope applies.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
January 2023

Translation: Charles Osborne