It is time to stop labeling moths as villains. Moths received an unfortunate, terrible rep due to the common phobia of insects when reporters hyperbolically covered moth plagues over towns and moth inspections at apartments. However, in his documentary The Night Visitors, video artist Michael Gitlin discerns them as benefactors for Earth: he encompasses a personal and societal lens on how the moths’ pollination of flowers leads to good harvest and the planet’s biodiversity.

The Night Visitors is an extension of Gitlin’s fervid ecological output after observing caves in Nine Guided Tours (2000), birds in The Birdpeople (2004), and fossils in The Earth is Young (2009). Gitlin applies animation, observation footage of moth enthusiasts across the U.S. (particularly of the annual Ohio event Mothapalooza), text, and voiceovers from himself and others. Those techniques accentuate the moths’ caregiving responsibilities and growth from caterpillar to butterfly-esque, adult-like human beings. This configuration establishes the solicitous reasons moths need to stay in our ecosystem. 

The Night Visitors is a playful inverse of the Planet Earth / DisneyNature documentary formula. These works tend to present a chronological presentation of the featured animals’ lives and have a narrator with an intellectually neutral cadence where people pedagogically comprehend their traditions. Gitlin shot the moths in an extended lens, with one light source, to dig deep into their finesse as caterpillars crawl and eat on a leaf. Early in the film, he incorporates an onscreen-lyric video of a person’s amusement at the moths. Its fast-paced delivery burgeons Gitlin’s subversion to the anthropological narrative; it buttresses his attuned weariness of the film’s tone. The segment acclimates the audience into having a fun time on their journey with the cast. Though this is one of the few moments that will garner a chuckle, it reduced the haunting expectations of the ride we buckled our seats on.

Gitlin repeatedly wields a TV screen to explore the methods people have been conditioned to their relationship with moths. Notwithstanding its introspection from the contemporary to the historical, it could have been more effective by just cutting from a close-up of the entomological characters’ dazzling wings to archival footage as its corresponding narration from Gitlin and the ensemble serves as a time-traveling bridge. The framing device of the screen has been used in many films to understand the lead-up of environmentalism from the past into its effects in the present day. However, Gitlin makes an intimate revelation about his relationship with moths at a pivotal point, how the teachings on dreading moths have been transferred from generation to generation.

Gitlin shares a past anecdote about how reading books regarding “the nature of omens” formulated his insights on moths during a visit to a relative’s cottage. In a fragile elocution, he reveals that the fears developed in his past made him kill a moth. His negative interaction with the moths transcends the ethnographic, essayistic, and observational cinematographic modes. It invigorates one’s curiosity in grasping precarity and learning to love one another––thus The Night Visitors is a heartfelt letter of unification. It attempts to destigmatize the terrors of moths and other bugs, allowing us to appreciate the moths pollinating food and their presence.

The Night Visitors made its world premiere at the New York Film Festival.

Grade: B-

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