Last week, my department had a screening of the documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” by Werner Herzog. The documentary is centered around the Chauvet Cave in southern France. Said cave contains amazing works of prehistoric art, dating back over 30,000 years. It was in constant use for so long that some overlapping images are thought to have been painted with thousands of years between them.
Thanks for the cave’s preservation are owed to a rock slide that buried the cave’s original entrance, and kept the save in relatively perfect isolation until 1994, when the cave was discovered by Jean-Marie Chauvet (for whom the cave is named) and his two friends Éliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire. The cave has sustained some damage in that time – it is located near a large body of water, and some seepage has eroded some of the paintings, but overall the cave is incredibly intact.
I greatly enjoyed the film for a variety of reasons. Not only were the images of the cave itself beautiful, but the craft of the film was amazing. The film balances information with artistry in a way that made it so that I felt like I was learning and yet there was never a dull moment. The music throughout the documentary was eerie, and at times tense, but fit well with the overall thematic vibe of the film.
While the art that was intentionally painted in the cave is fantastic, almost as astonishing are the cascade of glittering calcite crystals, which not only form stalagmites and stalactites, but also coat many of the skulls and bones left behind from both rituals and the fact that the location functioned as a bear cave at some point in its history.
One line that stood out to me in the film was “We are locked in history. They were not.” This line resonated with me quite deeply, as I have long wondered at the idea of preservation. So much of our time is spent preserving the past, that sometimes I wonder whether that is harmful to our present. While I feel that our history is important I also feel that by staying entrenched in the past can be damaging to our future. The constant struggle of innovation and tradition. I’m not sure what the answer is, or if there even is one. I’ll let you know if I ever find it.
PS: If you would like to watch the film yourself, it is available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video for purchase/rental and select subscriptions. If you are interested in learning more about the cave, and/or viewing images of the cave and its replica, I have pasted additional resources below.