Besieged Fortress is the most violent film in recent memory. As two armies battle for survival, the soldiers are impaled, enucleated, dismembered, decapitated, poisoned to die agonizing deaths while body parts are severed and carried away for consumption on the battlefield, and a body count that numbers well into the hundreds as corpses fill the vista or are carried away by muddied streams. That the combatants are driver ants and termites is beside the point – watching the massive jaws of a driver soldier (which equal its body length) puncture the head of a termite newborn and inject copious amounts of formic acid while the victim writhes on the ground is no less cringe-inducing than any undercooked scene from the dying torture porn genre. These shots are, of course, quite real, and the pain felt by those vanquished are all the world left in their fleeting lives. Besieged Fortress was shot on location in Burkina Faso, using microcamera techniques to bring the craft to the level of the insect, and is edited creatively in the style of March of the Penguins to telescope the events into an efficiently paced story. There is the possibility that some of the events were staged, but if so, they are to the film’s credit in creating a tightly plotted narrative that uses juxtaposition of various characters inhabiting the African savanna to develop a tension unimaginable for a documentary about bugs. If only films using human characters could generate this level of drama. The edge of your seat will be well-utilized, and the climax will leave you in stunned disbelief. First, however, comes the dawn of an empire.
Termites build the largest structures in the world not made by humans; some mounds exceed nine meters in height, and are crafted entirely from mud and digested wood. Some 4000 species inhabit subtropical regions, the Isoptera group lineage that predates ants utilizes a decentralized swarm intelligence to organize a colony that numbers in the millions. The body of a termite is soft, and individuals are subject to predation; the queen is immobile and is essentially an egg-laying machine that drops thousands of eggs per day which develop into workers, soldiers, and reproductive individuals. Together they build arboreal or earth mounds that are hardened fortresses against the elements and predators. So complex are these homes that they provide thermoregulation that protects those within, circulate air, and keep out enemies while allowing access to food and water. Of utmost importance are protecting the queen and a garden of mushrooms that assists in cellulose digestion. Such a titanic enterprise begins with a tiny couple, one of thousands who take to the air during mating season, then burrow into the ground to begin their work. They shall never again see daylight.
Driver ants are native to central and eastern Africa, forming colonies of up to 50 million individuals. Theirs is a nomadic existence, moving constantly in search of food in highly organized groups that appear to take their cues directly from the queen. Workers and soldiers work in systems too complex to be instinctive, forming adaptable bridges, tunnels, and temporary armored walls to move swiftly or protect the queen behind a rampart of stinging jaws. Any animal caught in their path that is incapable of flight is quickly immobilized and dismembered, the body parts saved to feed the ravenous column. As Besieged Fortress opens, one such colony of driver ants leaves a parched plateau for greener pastures, and detects the fragrant waft from the termite mound. The hunt is on, and as sedentary animals, the termites have no escape – only defense.
Structured like a disaster film, the termites must endure challenges from all quarters that threaten the survival of the entire complex. Animals can tear open the nest to attack, and so soldiers are always at the ready to protect a breach while workers seal the cracks. A tree is struck by lightning, which breaks open the top of the mound, choking the lower levels with dust. Rain enters the wrecked castle, drowning individuals by the thousands and bringing asphyxiating mud to the very chamber of the queen. Even at the best of times, the termites labor to maintain the nest at fairly constant temperatures to protect the nymphs, the food supply, and tend to the mushrooms. At the worst, the queen lays eggs prodigiously to replete those lost to the weather or to marauding ants or other predators. They must withstand regular raids by a local ant colony. All of these sacrifices yield an annual reward: the winged offspring, the princes and princesses, take flight under ideal weather conditions to mate, and those lucky enough to withstand the ordeal will establish a new colony with a massive fortress as the fruit of their extraordinary labor. Besieged Fortress brings home the essential lesson that survival at the frontier of these interlocking evolutionary arms races is anything but guaranteed.
As the driver ants approach the termite mound and sweep aside anything in their path, you will have difficulty watching the impending slaughter; there is a strong human desire to see a triumph against impossible odds. There is no protagonist or antagonist here – just warring factions attempting to garner a niche in the unforgiving savanna. I am projecting, of course, but watching the driver ants tear other insects to pieces, rendering the giant body of a snake into bite-sized segments, I found my heart sinking, just considering the cruel fate in store for the termites just a short distance away. They have a soldier class as well, but termites do not stand a chance against such an adversary with superior numbers and weaponry. As the assault begins, the suspense is terrible as the ants coordinate the attack with a surprisingly sophisticated battle plan. The queen is at all times connected to the soldiers via a combination of sound and chemical signals; the termites are overwhelmed and the bodies fill the holes and tunnels as the soldiers and workers fight desperately whilst being impaled and ripped apart, succumbing to poisonous injections. The queen cannot move, and so much as a single wound would cause a massive bleed of lymph from which she would not recover. The siege progresses relentlessly despite a desperate defense, right into the royal chamber itself.
Now, I would not dream of spoiling the entire story for you, but the termites are canny and prepared to throw it all into the most audacious of counterattacks imaginable. Life goes on for some in the African wilderness, and nature itself is indifferent to whom is able to suffer the onslaught.† The work is imperfect – the narration is not great, and could have been excised entirely in favor of captioned factoids. The action and the intricate photography that penetrates the inner workings of the complicated termite world carries this feature. It is the equal of Luc Jacquet’s The Tick and The Bird, or some of David Attenborough’s Life series. Anthropomorphizing may occur in the process, but this is not for the camera to judge – we do this ourselves when we identify with a thing, an event, an animal, or a struggle. We see ourselves in the masterpieces of nature, and are the richer for understanding how it all fits. As a film, this is cracking entertainment. As a meditation on the power of the survival instinct, it gives the viewer much to consider as part of their own personal struggle, or the greater drive of evolution. And if you care about none of the above, you will be entertained by a riot of violence that approaches poetic abandon.