Sundance Review – Nocturnes Presents the Serene World of Moth ASMR with All Its Vivid Beauty

Deep into Anupama Srinivasan and Anirban Dutta’s serene documentary Nocturnes, we finally get to see the elephants. Cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul observes them from a distance as the herd lingers, bathed in the luscious greens of the Eastern Himalayan landscape they call home, consuming the foliage around them. An earlier discussion tells us that when there are elephants, there are gnats. This slither of information sits within the film as a reminder that this is a multilayered, living and breathing ecosystem at work, and as mere observers, we are witnessing a small moment of its continued existence.

But, we’re not here to see the elephants. Nor are we here to see the gnats. We’re here to follow ecologist Mansi Mungee and her assistant Bicki as they tirelessly monitor the existence of the moth life in the mountain ranges. Together, alongside a crew of assistants, they erect a giant sheet with a numbered grid printed on it. As night falls, they shine spotlights on the sheet, attracting moths from all around the region. Together they photograph the moths, using the grids to measure their wingspan and antenna length, while also observing the variance in moths that live in the region. As the sheet dissolves under the sea of moths, it then becomes an obsessive search for the one moth they’re there to track: the hawk moth.  

As with most modern nature documentaries, the impact of climate change is ever present, looming as an ongoing threat to what we’re absorbing. However, Nocturnes skews away from being an explicit awareness film, with the filmmakers leaning into the calming state of their narrative. This makes Nocturnes a more memorable experience as it ties the moth’s narrative to a positive emotion which lingers long after the film has finished, amplifying the directors desire to create a film about temporality.

Information is sparsely delivered throughout Nocturnes, mostly from the eternally curious Mansi who tells her assistants – and later when she presents her thesis, a room full of observers – about the history of moths. Paired with the knowledge that each moth has a lifespan of approximately two to three days alongside the notion that they’ve existed on earth for over 300 million years, we then grow to realise their importance. They are the connective tissue of the forest, and while it’s never explicitly stated in the film, we’re led to infer that without the moths, there would be no gnats, and without the gnats, there would be no elephants. In turn, when we consider that moths are older than the dinosaurs, we are reminded that humanity cannot survive what the moths have survived.

Srinivasan and Dutta recognise the soothing quality of the moths with Nocturnes greatest asset: its sound design. Narration rarely emerges to interrupt the sonic tranquillity of the film, with the sound of the moths being supported by the orchestral backing of Nainita Desai’s light score. With transportive location sound recording by Sukanta Majumdar and with sound design crafted in such a delicate manner by Tom Paul and Shreyank Nanjappa, Nocturnes becomes an immersive sound bath experience, where the beating of the moths’ wings takes the form of calming rainfall. With patient, extended takes, Satya Rai Nagpaul’s camera lingers on the moths swaddling the calm blue sheet, drawing viewers into a meditative state, almost encouraging them to partake in a nature nap and spirit themselves off into a dream state like no other. I’m reminded of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s edict, “Entering a movie theatre is not unlike entering a dream. Film hypnotises us and take us into new worlds. Sleeping and films are like twin realities.”

The more time that Mansi and Bicki spend in the darkness observing their insect companions, the more the nocturnal aspect of the moth’s life start to transfer onto them. The two discuss their loss of connection with their families as time draws on; their observations have no end in sight, they could be in the mountains for months, or possibly years. As they photograph the moths on the sheets, they increasingly become covered in the moths themselves, raising the question of when they will transform into their subjects and lose their sense of humanity.

Srinivasan and Dutta reject a didactic approach to their storytelling by embracing a gentle touch to their narrative, they invite the audience to become observers or scientists themselves by considering the question, ‘If we listen to nature, what does it tell us?’

As Mansi and Bicki, and by extension, Srinivasan and Dutta, engage in their own form of listening to nature, the more nature pushes back at their presence. An unceasing rainfall impedes their observations, causing the roads to become slipperier, amplifying the precarious nature of the act of driving. The assistants talk about needing to be aware of when the gnats are coming, because that means elephants are not far away, and if elephants are not far away, then it means they could steal your clothes. If there’s a metaphor to be applied to Nocturnes, it’s in how nature does not always wish to be observed. It is as if it’s saying, ‘We are the trees falling in the woods, you do not need to observe us to hear us fall. You will know when we have tumbled.’

Yet, when fallen rocks block their path, the team smash the rubble into moveable pieces, conquering nature once more in a bid to learn more about its existence. Dutta has talked about the dearth of human knowledge when it comes to the world around us, saying “There is this idea that we humans know it all, and [that we] have the capacity to destroy it is true, but we know very little about this world.” Knowing that the hawk moth population is dwindling, the sight of Mansi poring over drawers of hawk moth specimens late in the film raises the question about how much the impact of voucher specimens raises the extinction risk of the sacrifice being. This is less of an issue for moths whose brief existence takes the ethical concerns of the scientific examination of their bodies out of the equation, but it does highlight the catch 22 that scientists find themselves in: how do they ethically document the changes in ecosystems without hastening the extinction of a species?

It’s important to note that Mansi’s work is not delivered by way of conquering her subjects, but rather it’s driven by a desire to elevate the importance of moths and their continual presence in this world. Moths, like sharks, have survived five mass extinction events, but serious questions remain about whether either creature can survive the current extinction event, a notion that underpins Mansi and Bicki’s research process.

Yet, the more time that we spend with Mansi’s moths, the greater appreciation we have for the ecosystem that play such a vital role in keeping in balance. Nocturnes greatest asset is in how it shines a light on the serene world of moth ASMR which exists with all its vivid beauty in the luscious forests of the Himalayas. Those who give themselves over Nocturnes slow cinema vibe will be greatly rewarded with a unique and contemplative experience like no other.

Directors: Anupama Srinivasan, Anirban Dutta

Cinematography: Satya Rai Nagpaul

Featuring: Moths, Lots of Moths

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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