By Thomas Puhr.
Does a document of a unique place not lost some of its impact if packaged in a sociocultural vacuum? Perhaps, but as a means to contemplation and appreciation, The Ancient Woods exudes an undeniable power.”
The Ancient Woods (2017), a nature documentary filmed in Lithuania, says a lot by what it doesn’t provide: voiceovers explaining what’s on screen, non-diegetic music dictating emotional responses, or labels identifying the wildlife. While director Mindaugas Survila’s unadorned style can be frustrating (it would be nice to know the names of the many beautiful creatures he meticulously examines), it successfully shifts one’s focus to the rich tapestry of sights and sounds on display. Many nature documentaries are packaged like action movies, as if their creators feared audiences would get bored simply observing a little-seen corner of the world. Besides some stylistic flourishes, The Ancient Woods takes a more reverent approach, and it will reward patient viewers who give in to its meditative pace.
Although Survila doesn’t impose a narrative, the film is not a freewheeling collection of random material; there is a clear organizational method at work here. For instance, he often plays an animal’s amplified sounds before revealing it in action, making viewers feel like they are the ones exploring the land and tracing a noise to its source. In lieu of an original score, the environment’s dense soundscape (an insect’s vibrating wings; a branch sagging and buzzing with countless bees; and, most notably, a bird’s vocalizations, which sound like chalk scraping against a blackboard) becomes its own music. Discordant audio/visual pairings, such as forest sounds accompanying underwater footage, emphasize the interconnectedness among the location’s diverse elements.
Other patterns emerge: transitions from small to big creatures, day to night, and ground-level to underwater establish a rhythmic, cyclical structure. The film’s opening shot announces these motifs of circularity and interconnectedness: A night sky fades into underwater footage, the stars blending almost imperceptibly with water particles. One of the final scenes reverses this sequence, starting in the water before morphing back into the sky. Other allusions to shifting cycles are more subtle. A snake, stalking and eating a mouse early on, is again called to mind when countless ants swarm over its shed skin. This juxtaposition is made all the more startling by its lack of background music, which emphasizes the cumulative, overwhelming sounds of the ants’ scrapings and chirpings.
Humanity plays a smaller role. Besides an early shot of a man emerging from his farmhouse, humans are entirely absent from the first hour. When he reappears, in close-up, he seems weary, almost scared. Is this the person through whose eyes we’ve been looking and ears we’ve been seeing? Initially, he seems to represent humanity’s negative impact on the natural world, since Survila uses jumpy, handheld camerawork (for the first and only time) to follow him through the forest and later punctuates his reappearance with a foreboding storm. However, a climactic scene of the man reentering his home indicates a more nuanced understanding of our connection with the earth, perhaps highlighting that it is now our collective responsibility to protect these fragile ecosystems. The fact that he never utters a word implies that our relationship with nature should be one of cohabitation and respect, not domination.
Given its genre, The Ancient Woods has its fair share of jaw-dropping visuals, which range from the miniscule (spiders emerging, in extreme close-up, from thawing ice) to the panoramic (deer congregating in a clearing). Sparse, effective slow motion underlines both nature’s majesty (an owl ascending to its children, chirping wildly in a tree hollow) and cruelty (long-beaked birds tearing apart a pile of frogs). Wisely, Survila lets these moments speak for themselves and avoids flashy camera movements; with a few exceptions, the footage consists mainly of still shots and slow pans and tilts. An absence of overhead angles makes for an even more immersive experience. Placed right in the thick of things, we are never just outsiders looking in.
Nevertheless, the film’s minimalism sometimes muddies its intent. As a multisensorial record of land which, unless drastic steps are taken to address climate change, might not be around much longer, it’s quite impactful. But its sparsity (only in the credits is the Lithuanian setting revealed) has a paradoxical effect, situating viewers in the visceral experience of the woods while simultaneously distancing them from any greater context. One may walk away from the film wowed, even humbled by its thematically rich, tactile imagery, but uncertain as to what they saw, where they saw it, and what it has to do with the larger world beyond its borders. Does a document of a unique place not lost some of its impact if packaged in a sociocultural vacuum? Perhaps, but as a means to contemplation and appreciation, The Ancient Woods exudes an undeniable power.
The Ancient Woods will open theatrically at the Film Forum on Friday, June 4.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.