As a child, director Michaël Dudok de Wit would walk at night through the forest near the Dutch town where he grew up, and in that darkness, cradled by its soothing ambience, he felt at ease with nature’s essential mysteries.

Subconsciously, this synchronicity with life in its purest form, whether violent or beautiful, has followed him, and nowhere is this more present than in his debut feature, The Red Turtle, an animated wordless poem whose premise deals with a man stranded on an island at the mercy of the elements. With nature as its spiritual core, the film is in fact the cinematic equivalent of a loving prayer without religious denomination.

“Always when in grand nature—in mountains or canyons or the desert, or in this case on an island—I find it humbling. Even if you feel like you have tools to transform nature, and you want to build great structures, you can’t help but feel humbled by it, and in a very positive sense, you feel very simple,” says Dudok de Wit about his relationship with raw beauty. Finding divinity in such vital notions is also how the character in The Red Turtle understands his role in the eternal cycle of existence. “[The man] realizes that he has never not been nature. The separation between him and nature was basically illusionary, because he has always been nature,” he adds.

Michaël Dudok de Wit, whom Studio Ghibli invited to be the company’s first animation collaborator. Photograph by Claude Pauquet

In narrative terms, setting The Red Turtle on an isolated location devoid of human influence was not only philosophically enticing, but also presented a narrative challenge. “In a story there has to be suspense, so in this insular situation, where does suspense come from? It comes from danger, for instance, so you create situations that are genuinely dangerous. You establish in the film that death is real, that anyone can die at any moment. That creates vibrant moments of suspense to carry the spectator through the story. The natural violence of nature and some of the natural aggression of nature, where creatures have to eat each other to survive, are just as beautiful as the colorful sunset and the branches that move gracefully in the breeze.”

The Seychelles, an East African archipelago, served as visual inspiration for the breathtaking landscapes that comprise The Red Turtle’s microcosm. “I chose that island partly because it has exquisite rock formations—very ancient granite rocks from when the continents were still all joined together—that by now have very round shapes, almost sensual shapes. You want to caress those rocks. You want to follow the silhouette of the rocks with your eyes. I went to see them on the spot to take photos and just to walk amongst them, and I wanted to know what the rain feels like in the tropics, how the skies are when you’re there, what it is like when you are on top of an island to see the horizon in front of you, on the left and the right and behind you,” he explains.

The Red Turtle is the story of a man stranded on an island, with nature as his ally and opponent

Dudok de Wit’s interpretation of the natural world from his experience in this paradisiacal location was heightened by his interaction with the eponymous creature. “To my great surprise I met a marine turtle on two occasions: once in the sea, and once laying eggs on the beach. I got that as well while there—the experience of being with that creature, just the incredible beauty of a turtle. Even though it looks fierce, it looks angry, it has no affection or gentleness and it has a hard carapace, it’s so beautiful.” As a link between the ancient and the present, for the artist, the turtle symbolizes the magic of that we cannot comprehend: “We may have learned somewhere how long marine turtles live, but in reality we have the impression that they are immortal. The fact [that] they’re just suspended by the sea and disappear into infinity, and come back to the beach to lay eggs and disappear again into infinity, also generates a feeling of timelessness. That’s very awe-inspiring.”

An Oscar-winner already for his animated short Father and Daughter, Dudok de Wit finds in the amalgamation of instrumental music, lack of dialogue, and animation a precise formula to translate his imagination. “In live action, the separation between imagination and reality is very clear, very neat. There are certain imaginative things that you can’t tell in live-action, because they would be too absurd. In animation, right from the first frame, the spectator accepts that the polarity of so-called reality on the one hand, and imagination, on the other hand, is much looser, much freer and much easier to dissolve. The imagination and so-called ‘reality’ are much closer in animation. I say so-called, because what we call ‘reality’ is our perception of reality. It’s not as objective as we think. It’s what each of us perceives, and your interpretation of reality and mine are not the same.”

The Seychelles served as inspiration for the island landscapes in The Red Turtle

Though he doesn’t underestimate the power of film as a catalyst to change people’s behavior toward nature, Dudok de Wit finds the term “environmental cinema” too rational, devoid of emotion. Nonetheless, the filmmaker knows that small gestures, both in cinema and life, are still profoundly meaningful: “I know that we animation filmmakers understand that even some very small details—just a tiny movement upward, or the small details of a bamboo plant—can say a lot. There’s some kind of unwritten law that you can say big things with small details, and I feel the same way about life outside of filmmaking. In filmmaking in general but also in life outside of filmmaking, you can be really touched by very small things. Then, when a huge event happens, it passes by and you hardly notice it. I think a filmmaker can make a contribution, but even the smallest, most ordinary contribution is wonderful and very noble.” MM

 The Red Turtle opens in theaters January 20, 2017, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.