- Geographies of Solitude
- Directed by Jacquelyn Mills
- Featuring Zoe Lucas
- Classification N/A; 103 minutes
- Opens in select theatres Dec. 16
Far off the coast of Nova Scotia sits a crescent-shaped island about 43 kilometres long but only one click across at its widest point. It has been the site of hundreds of shipwrecks, the subject of a Stompin’ Tom Connors song, and the focus of a handful of CBC and National Film Board documentaries, including 1982′s St. Lawrence: Stairway to the Sea, featuring Jacques Cousteau. And now Sable Island is the star of a beguiling new Canadian film that reintroduces and recontextualizes what the land, what even the basic concepts of nature, are all about.
Geographies of Solitude follows – in the literal sense, as director Jacquelyn Mills mostly trails her subject from behind – Zoe Lucas, a self-taught environmentalist, naturalist and archivist who arrived on Sable Island four decades ago and never looked back. Now the only full-time resident of the land – there are research scientists stationed by Parks Canada who come and go – Lucas is Sable’s caretaker, the lone but not lonely guardian of a truly isolated space.
What does she do with all her time? Documentation, mostly, with Lucas keeping staggeringly detailed records about everything to do with Sable, including spreadsheets tallying all the plastic waste that washes ashore. (Her obsession with the dangers of microplastics makes Geographies of Solitude an unlikely companion piece to another Canadian film this year, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future.)
But there is a quiet, impressive beauty in Lucas’s attention to tracking and adoring every detail of her adopted home – she knows the sweetest-smelling patches of its grass, the rituals and habits of its beetles, the decomposition cycles of its horses (about those galloping animals: apparently it was simply custom back in the day to drop off a herd of wild horses on random islands).
In keeping with Lucas’s general life philosophy, Mills’s film doesn’t attempt to paint a portrait of one woman, but rather a capturing of the land that woman calls home. Using 16 mm film, Mills shoots the sands, seals and serenity of Sable with an abstract yet intimate eye. The sounds of the island’s insects creep onto the soundtrack with a static crackle. The natural materials that Lucas collects are magnified and saturated into hypnotizing images that could feel at home on the other end of a microscope or on the wall of a gallery. And then there are the night skies, starry and seductive.
More than once, you get the sense that Mills is only making the film in the hopes that Lucas might invite her to stay in Sable alongside her. This is a study of and a sell for living the Sable Island way, a travelogue that is also a treatise. And by the time the poetic and ultimately powerful Geographies of Solitude comes to an end – for entirely natural reasons, too, as Mills seems to run out of film stock – you might want to follow Lucas’s lead, and stay forever.