‘At first we felt the effects were mild,’ says the voiceover. ‘But then the trees started to speak to us.’ How promising a start to an exhibition. This short looks at Puerto Rico’s vanishing plants, from hallucinogens to manzanilla de la muerte – the apple of death, so toxic that a boy died from falling asleep beneath a tree. Artist Beatriz Santiago Muñoz and her guide have to look pretty hard for that one: the government is destroying them in the name of tourism. Neither this fact nor many others are apparent to the viewer, though – not only do the trees not speak, the guide barely does either, and then only obliquely.
An environmental conscience is a fine thing, especially in places where natural riches are being trampled beneath cities, holiday resorts or the detritus of both. But Muñoz doesn’t seem to realise how much excavation she needs to do before her ‘Black Cave’ sees the London light. The cave in question – subject of the longer, duller film next door – is a rediscovered indigenous burial ground, not that you’d know this; her stars are two local boys, mooching through the undergrowth with little to say.
Worthiness is the problem, in both films. Of course it’s important that the land is being raped – and ‘The Black Cave’ has burnt-out cars and mattresses strewn through the Amazon like vicious plantlife – but Muñoz’s elegy is unlikely to help, artistically or practically. Progress grinds on, and the ghosts, like the trees, stay silent.