The star of “Poppy’s Promise” is a hamster and her offspring. However, a wealth of creatures populates a film subtitled “Secret Life of a Cornfield.” How crafty the filmmakers had to be to infiltrate the details of this secret.
With cameras installed inside a hamster’s burrow, we get to see hamster sex. (They must have edited out the X-rated parts.) Anyway, the female only tolerates the male a few days per year.
Mama hamster tends to her babies. The babies mostly snuggle sleepily, punctuated by lively hunger and learning. Much cuteness is on display, be it mama busily stuffing her cheek pouches with seeds or babies transforming from hairless newborns to scurrying independents.
Top notch nature photography seems to have set up shop everywhere, high and low, in the teeming fields. Rabbits mate (of course), but their boxing matches are more interesting. Deer mate (of course), but their scampering through the grassland intones the art of their lives.
In a film like this, it’s the smaller creatures that elicit the most fascinating camera work. Gall flies mate (of course), but curiosity peaks more when the zigzag patterns on flayed wings scare off a predator spider. A “roundabout” flower attracts a wasp and dusts it with pollen. Attracting the wasp a second time, the pollen rubs off onto the flower that cleverly changed sex from male to female between visits.
A British narrator, with his soothing educational tone, sneaks in a few well photographed lessons about the benefits of organic farming. One lady bug eats up to 40,000 aphids, quite an alternative to chemical spraying. Five hundred earthworms per square meter eat and poop, eat and poop, enriching chemical-free soil. A diversity of flowers thrives amidst the cornfield.
A fundamentally satisfying nature film, “Poppy’s Promise” has orchestrated a parade of birds, insects, flowers, and other players in a cycling dance of the seasons.
---- Q and A with the “Poppy’s Promise” filmmaker, Jan Haft ----
Chuck Jaffee: I have the nerve to think that a better title for your film would have been "Cornucopia," because you display the abundant vitality of nature, such a horn of plenty. Why did you choose a relatively minor piece of your film for the title, "Poppy's Promise"?
Jan Haft: In Germany, documentaries traditionally have very descriptive titles. The German title translates to “The Cornfield – Jungle for one Summer.” We felt the poppy comes back year after year, exactly what cornfield inhabitants must do, even if their habitat is “destroyed” each year when harvesting takes place. We enjoy that films in the English speaking world often have cryptic and bloomy titles.
CJ: What did it feel like, capturing tiny and tucked away places?
JH: Many things were so rare that we had to travel quite a lot. We drove 300 kilometers just to see a field with one rare species of flower. And we filmed many things we had never seen before. We had to gather a great deal of the information ourselves, for instance, finding out how long the natural processes take in various species and when flowers bloom.
CJ: Tell us a little bit about the vibrancy of the colors you put on screen, as well as the soothing, erudite tone of the narrator you chose.
JH: We always try to run the camera after dusk and before dawn, when colors are most intensive and contrasts are low. We run our HD Cams with a reduced detail level, so the footage appears soft and smooth. We avoided enhanced sharpness to capture a warm and somewhat dream-like style. For a narrator, we also sought that warm feeling of “good old times” (or, maybe, “good new times” to come).
CJ: You seem to have tread lightly talking about organic farming and any message of sustainability. Do you feel this was an important and effective film making choice?
JH: We discussed this in making the film. We felt it was enough to show what lived and could live in an organic farming landscape. We felt that things such as bio-diversity loss and the push for cheaper agricultural production would find its way into the film well enough.
CJ: Why do you think there is such a ready audience for yet another nature film filled with flowers and bugs and creatures big and small?
JH: Our motto is, “Show the unknown within the well known.” We find that people like to see an environment they know well, and at the same time, hear stories they never heard before. It is just like getting news about your neighbors. That is much more likely to attract your interest than news about people you don´t know.