Over a decade ago some of my friends told me I needed to see this hilarious documentary about cane toads taking over Australia. The problem is that I could not find a copy of the movie anywhere and soon forgot about it. Then a few weeks ago I was reading the news and saw a mention of cane toads and remembered that I was supposed to watch a documentary about them. So I checked my public library catalog and at last I found a DVD copy of Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (1988).
Despite what my friends and even the label of the DVD box say, I don’t think this movie is unintentionally humorous. Quirky yes and with a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of the absurdities of the situation, but first and foremost a good documentary.
The story begins in the Great Depression when beetle grubs were destroying the sugarcane crop in North Queensland. Officials learn of the voracious cane toad at an agricultural conference and dispatch an agent to Hawaii to gather up several dozen of them which are then brought to Australia and released. The problem is that the beetles fly well out rang of earthbound cane toads and the grubs feed at the time of year when there’s no cover so the cane toads have no interest in eating them. The cane toads do like to eat just about everything else though, decimating the local ecosystem (they even show a cane toad eat a live mouse!). Furthermore, because cane toad skin contains deadly toxins there are no predators that can eat them without dying a horrible death. Well-fed and not threatened the cane toads are free to do what they do best — make more cane toads!
Apparently the cane toad is something of a cultural icon in Queensland and every citizen has their opinion. On the one side there is the elderly couple who treat the cane toads like pets, children who use the cane toads in lieu of dolls, and local government official who wants to create a statue of a cane toad on a pedestal to attract tourists. The anti-cane toad bloc includes a naturalist with a grudge against the toads since they poisoned his pet cat, an aquarium biologist who stutters and stammers as he describes how misguided toads are strangling his fish in the act of love, and a man who dodges and weaves along the highway in a deliberate effort to pop the toads that litter the street. Okay, maybe this movie is a bit too silly, but it sure is educational.
More information on cane toads can be found on the internet:
“If they bring their savagery over here, we will meet it with a savagery of our own,” declares an IRA commander to his troops in The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006). In director Ken Loach’s film about the Irish War of Independence, the British leave but the savagery remains and is channeled literally brother against brother in the Irish Civil War.
The movie is told from the perspective of Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy), a young medical student from rural Cork who tries to avoid the war even though his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) is a leader of the local cell of the IRA. After witnessing acts of brutality by the Black and Tans, he joins up and over the course of the film becomes more and more radical. At the point where the Anglo-Irish Treaty is signed, Damien opposes the treaty as surrendering to fear while Teddy supports the Irish Free State as a way towards peace. The ensuing tragedy is inevitable but still harrowing to watch.
This movie contrasts beautiful cinematography with horrifying scenes of violence and torture. It incorporates a lot of the history, debate, and nuance of the rebellion in a non-didactic manner. As opposed to the Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996) great-man approach, this film takes the view of the common people. This film also goes beyond the Anglo-Irish conflict to take on issues of the class conflict. Are they rebelling to merely throw off British rule or to liberate the poor from their wealthy oppressors as well? Loach includes an element of Irish socialism inspired by James Connelly in the character of the railroad driver Dan (Liam Cunningham). The Wind That Shakes the Barley also recognizes the role of women in the rebellion, from the elderly women who feed and cover the IRA troops to the young woman Sinead (Orla Fitzgerald) who is actively involved in shaping the new nation.
Having the advantage of hindsight, I find it hard to sympathize with the Anti-Treaty Republicans. While the treaty was not ideal, it was a stepping stone as Michael Collins pointed out. The years of violence and death that occurred in the war over the treaty seem so unnecessary in light of what was to come. The opposition would eventually take power in the Dáil Éireann (by simply refusing to take the oath to the British king) and in a few more years would have a constitution for Ireland and full independence. On the other hand, some points raised in the film are also true. The poor in Ireland suffered some of the most terrible poverty in Western Europe for at least the first 50 years of independent Ireland and of course the partition of Northern Ireland still stands.