Mill Valley - The Warden
7 October 2020
Alone by choice - The Warden by Threes Anna
It was kind of prescient, and heralding of the new reality we were all to experience. Threes Anna had finished and edited The Warden even before lockdown, a film about a man who has withdrawn from all physical contact with the world and fellow humans. But in the case of the warden, played by legendary Dutch comedian Freek de Jonge, his withdrawal was voluntary, and was undertaken more than 40 years ago.
Back in the late 1970s, the unnamed warden set out to inhabit an equally unnamed island in the North Atlantic ("between Ireland and Canada," says director Anna) and to record the migratory habits of gulls, ospreys and dunlins, living on a diet of porridge and canned beans regularly delivered to him by boat. His only human contact has been with Tom who works in Section 10 of a Bird Research Centre, to whom he calls in his weekly findings and receives, in return, the English Premiership football results (the warden is a firm Everton supporter).
On his island, he has to be self-sufficient and all the time picks up stray plastic that he sets aside for future use, placing it beneath his makeshift but solid shack on stilts. We see him perform an autopsy on a dead gull to discover that it had choked on a discarded lighter. When he finds a football he is overjoyed and recreates Cruyffian moves and turns on the beach. And when he falls and breaks his arm, he takes it all in his stride (even if it is somewhat gruesome to watch), resetting the bones with the use of a vice.
But one day, it isn't Tom at the other end of the line, rather a new female voice who ends up telling him that his days on the island are numbered. The observation post will no longer be supported, so he has to pack it all up, all with a three-month notice period. At which point the warden begins to consider his existence. And then comes the hurricane...
"You always get these movies, mostly about men who are alone somewhere in the sky, or in a cave or on an island, and they want to go home to the real world of people," says director Anna, before explaining her premise. "I thought, no, people can also be very happy when they are alone, especially when your companion is nature, because he is not alone. He lives alone but he is not lonely."
Her choice of comedian Freek de Jonge is inspired, but she observes how she had to mute his natural ebullience and expressiveness in order to tell her tale. "Language and speaking, speaking, speaking. He speaks extremely fast. Speaking is his sword, his power, and I took that away as a lot of the film must be in silence. So for two years before the production we were having walks near his house, just to talk and to understand. He had to understand me and I had to understand him," she says.
"All my work has a very poetical but also a very serious tone," she continues. "What I did was to make the comedian more serious, and he made me more light. It was a very important interaction between the two of us."
The film, produced by KeyFilm and supported by the Netherlands Film Fund, was mainly shot on her home island of Texel, in the north of Holland, but the production had to decamp to the new Lites Water Stage and Studio in Belgium for the storm sequence. The Warden was the first film production to shoot there, she claims.
Furthermore, the perfectionist in Anna determined that the cry of every gull, plover and gannet in the film was authentic, and so she charged her sound recordist to record each one. "For bird people, this is a film they won't be irritated by," she says.
The Warden was nominated for the Dutch Film Critics' Award at the Netherlands Film Festival in September. Now that the film is out and will celebrate its international premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival (California, US), how will a public whose lives have been blighted by the pandemic respond to it?
"The audience will see a different film, and will give new meaning to it. A powerful meaning, a sort of hope also. That loneliness isn't always a bad thing. This was loneliness by choice, a natural organically developed type of loneliness," concludes Anna.
Watch The Warden trailer here...
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