Review: The Ancient Woods (2017)


The Ancient Woods (2017)

Directed by: Mindaugas Survila | 85 minutes | documentary

There are plenty of high-quality nature films. Just a glance at BBC Earth’s collection is enough to substantiate that claim with evidence. But many of those films follow a fixed and unsurprising pattern: the latest, most advanced camera technology ensures that everything is conjured up on the screen sharper, grander, better and more spectacular, while an authoritative narrator tells us what we see or need to see.

In ‘The Ancient Woods’ Lithuanian director Mindaugas Survila takes a completely different approach. Due to the absence of a human narrator or general theme, the great storytelling is mainly left to nature itself. The result is an almost meditative film about the remaining Lithuanian primeval forests, a stylized portrait that largely blurs time and space. Day and night, just like the seasons, merge seamlessly, while the forest decor we look at is continuously undergoing a metamorphosis. One minute we’re looking at the giants of the forest like red deer and black storks, and then we’re just as easily swept away into the more hidden world of smaller creatures like snow spiders, rotting wood beetles and a hibernating dormouse.

The incessant cycle of life and death is also discussed in ‘The Ancient Woods’ and is, for example, ingeniously depicted by a viper. Initially we see how a mouse escapes the deadly fangs of the reptile, but later in the film we see how the viper still works its hairy prey inside. But the adder also does not escape the eternal dance of life and death, which is illustrated by the dead snake that we see later in the film, ready to be included in the ever-progressing cycle of life.

The absence of a voice-over also forces you to look and listen carefully. The cacophony of loud and soft sounds forms a world unto itself, a rich auditory universe largely unheard of in many traditional nature films. Visually, ‘The Ancient Woods’ is also a film that deserves an attentive eye. This is mainly due to the patient construction of the scenes shown. A good example is the long drawn-out fragment that only seems to show a deserted forest edge, but suddenly surprises the viewer with wolves that appear as thoughtful shadows from the green decor. The scene in which we see how a storm develops slowly, only to erupt in full force, is also a good example of the slow cinema that is typical of ‘The Ancient Woods’.

It is clear from the start that Survila wants to be an observer rather than a narrator or scientist, an approach that only enhances the authenticity of the film. You can see this very well, for example, in the sequence in which two male capercaillie compete against each other in a ritualized fight for the favor of the females. A large part of the duel takes place between two trees, so that you view the scene on television just as you would in the wild. In ‘The Ancient Woods’ man is a rare, silent and insignificant passer-by who only comes by in the form of an old man who inhabits a wooden house in the woods.

Mindaugas Survila’s approach has resulted in a beautiful film. The somewhat timid editing, controlled camera work and absence of a voice-over or bombastic music are the stark opposite of the epic nature documentaries that are usually the norm. But that is precisely why ‘The Ancient Woods’ is so refreshing. The film possesses a certain abstraction, serenity and timelessness that much grander nature films lack. A feast for the senses that is certainly worth several viewings.

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