Claude Barras follows My Life As A Courgette with an eco-animation set in Borneo

Savages credit Anton

Source: Anton


Dir: Claude Barras. Switzerland/France/Belgium. 2024. 88mins

In the battleground jungles of Borneo, loggers and palm oil plantation companies are pitted against Indigenous communities and environmental activists. Eleven-year-old Keria (voiced by Babette De Coster) finds herself caught in the crossfire. Her European father – who now works for the plantation – has learned that resisting the loggers comes at a considerable cost. Meanwhile, her late mother’s family are members of the Indigenous Penan tribe, fighting tirelessly to protect their forest home. Swiss director Claude Barras’ follow-up to his Oscar-nominated feature debut My Life As A Courgette combines the appealing style and heart-squishing emotional heft of his first film with an urgent ecological message. 

Directly engages with Indigenous rights and some of the more urgent environmental issues of the moment

Barras returns to the main competition at Annecy having won both the Cristal prize for Best Picture and the Audience Award for My Life As A Courgette in 2016. It remains to be seen whether Savages, which premiered as a Special Screening in Cannes, will match Courgette’s impressive haul of prizes and nominations. Barras’ debut had the advantage of a distinctive and very original story, whereas animated eco-parables, even those as gorgeously executed as this one, are rather more plentiful. There’s also the question of whether Barras, a white European man, is the storyteller best placed to address the issues faced by the Indigenous people of what we assume is Malaysian Borneo. (Although the voice contributions of Penan performers Komeok Joe, Sailyvia Paysan and Nelly Tungang are worth noting at this point).  

Qualms aside, the intention seems honourable and this is an undeniably lovely film that uses stop motion puppetry and Barras’ signature style of huge, sad eyes and shadows of pain to tear-jerking effect. It should prove popular with audiences looking for an issue-led, high-quality alternative to Hollywood production-line animation and franchise fodder.

The film’s attention to character detail is evident from the outset, with the picture’s deft screenplay written by Barras and Catherine Paille, along with Nancy Huston and Morgan Navarro. Keria is a satisfyingly spiky character, her abrasive tweenage stroppiness balanced against a well of loss and longing for the mother who died before they could get to know each other. When, at the very start of the film, Keria and her father (voiced by Benoît Poelvoorde) rescue an orphaned baby orangutan whose mother has been killed by the loggers, the little monkey fills a hole in Keria’s life. She is fiercely protective of her new charge, whom she names Oshi.

When her younger cousin Selai (Martin Verset) is sent to stay with Keria and her father, Keria is initially hostile. She views the boy’s Penan clothing and culture with the same suspicious and judgemental eyes that the mean girls at school turn on her for her mixed-race heritage. But when Google Maps fails her and Keria, along with Oshi, gets lost in the forest, Selai soon earns his cousin’s respect with his somewhat haphazard tracking skills.

Together with head animator Antony Elworthy and his team, Barras, who was partially inspired by the work of the Swiss anti-deforestation activist Bruno Manser, creates a jungle that is worth fighting for. As a strikingly designed backdrop to most of the story, the forest is a magical place teaming with life and full of stories – some of which, Keria discovers, directly relate to her own family history. The children find their way to Keria’s grandparents, who fill her in on her Penan heritage and, more importantly, teach her about her mother’s legacy. Keria, in turn, uses her social media literacy to bring the fight for the forest to a global stage.

And this, perhaps, is what Barras aims to do with Savages: it’s a charming coming-of-age picture, certainly, but it’s also a film that directly engages with Indigenous rights and some of the more urgent environmental issues of the moment.

Production companies: Nadasdy Film, Haut et Court, Panique

International sales: Anton Corp; Gebeka International

Producers: Nicolas Burlet, Barbara Letellier, Carole Scotta, Hugo Deghilage, Vincent Tavier

Screenplay: Claude Barras, Catherine Paille, Nancy Huston, Morgan Navarro

Cinematography: Simon Filliot

Editing: Anne-Laure Guegan, Claude Barras

Production design: Jean-Marc Ogier

Music: Charles De Ville

Main voice cast: Babette De Coster, Martin Verset, Laetitia Dosch, Benoît Poelvoorde, Pierre-Isaïe Duc, Michel Vuillermoz, Gaël Faye