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Carel Nel unpacks survivalist journey in the ecological horror drama ‘Gaia’

Carel Nel as Barend in the feature Gaia. Picture: Supplied

Carel Nel as Barend in the feature Gaia. Picture: Supplied

Published Apr 22, 2022

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At the recently-held 10th Silwerskerm Film Festival, which I attended, I couldn’t help but notice there was a lot of noise around the premier of “Gaia”. And later realised why.

This ecological horror drama film by director Jaco Bouwer and writer Tertius Kapp stars Monique Rockman, Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk and Anthony Oseyemi.

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Having been shown at several major festivals around the globe, it’s bagged several awards to date.

One of the proudest wins has been Jorrie van der Walt walking away with a Zeiss award for Cinematography at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.

Variety has given it a nod for being one of the Best Horror Movies of 2021. Forbes and IGN Africa have named it among the Top 10 Horror Films of 2021.

It also bagged the Best Director, Best Feature Film, Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Sound Design accolade at the Silwerskerm Film Festival.

As such, I recently caught up with Nel, who plays Barend, to gain more insight into the critically-acclaimed film.

He took me back to 2019 when he was approached by Kapp and Bouwer while they were grabbing a few beers at the bar.

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From the get-go, he was fascinated by the premise of an environmentalist guy in the woods. And he was a huge fan of theirs, too.

Nel says he was on honeymoon in Vietnam in December 2019 when he got the first of several drafts and by March 2020, just before the hard Covid-19 lockdown, they were filming.

He shared: “First of all, Jaco is my favourite director and Tertius is my favourite writer in South Africa. They are really amazing in terms of how they create. Jaco is a visionary in filmmaking.

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“As their story came out, it was really intriguing. It’s about this father and son living off the land in the forest and he has a weird religion that he’s created - he worships Gaia.

“Obviously, we know it’s Mother Earth. He has created this complex relationship with this God. This God speaks to him and he gives offerings to it.”

Nel continued: “In my discussions with them, he’s got such a vivid history. We only see him for a couple of days in the film and to really bring that back story of his into his being in a couple of days was something really interesting to me and I thought it would challenge me a lot and I really enjoy challenges.”

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Nel was hesitant to talk about the reaction to the film at festivals and more inclined to chat about the accolades it bagged.

“For us, the big reaction was overseas, to be able to premier it at South by Southwest Film Festival, which is one of the top five film festivals in the world and Jorrie van der Walt winning the Zeiss cinematography award there, that's a massive award to win for anyone in the world, let alone a South African,” he revealed.

Carel Nel as Barend, Monique Rockman as Gabi and Alex van Dyk as Stefan in Gaia. Picture: Supplied

The “Raised by Wolves” actor added: “And so that was quite interesting, being part of a film that tours around the world and you are stuck in South Africa and you can’t go to any of these premiers and you see reviews in Forbes magazine and The Hollywood Reporter.

“It’s almost kind of sad we weren’t able to attend because of Covid.”

As with any film, there are always takeaways from it.

He admitted: “I’m not fond of telling people what to think of movies or what to take out of them. I feel like it’s almost propaganda. But the theme for me, mostly in the movie, was what we are as human beings doing to the Earth.

“There are many ecological themes. And obviously, for my character, it’s about how far are you willing to go for your belief system.”

He added: “We live in a world where everything is so polarised. You are either far right or far left and there’s almost no centre position. And that’s the interesting thing for me. Climate change is mother nature's way of fighting back and all these kinds of ecological themes come through.”

In season 2 of “Raised by Wolves”, Nel plays an android.

He shared: “I play a specific android. So I’ve played six different ones already. They are all basically the same but they do different jobs.

“So I play Karl, Able, The Teacher, The Surgeon and I die almost in every episode because there are hundreds of this specific android and they all look the same because they are all me.”

Aside from bagging a role in this international project, his highlight was getting to work with the inimitable Ridley Scott.

Nel admitted: “It was a dream come through for me to spend a couple of days on set with him and to learn from someone that is so dedicated and so good at what he does. And he’s a really nice human being as well.”

He’s got a few projects in the kitty, a series that will be releasing soon, as well as the feature “Bethlehem”. Due to contractual obligations, he wasn’t able to delve more into the projects.

“Gaia” is available on DStv BoxOffice.

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