Wakefield Doc Fest: The Ancient Woods revealed in all its natural glory

A look inside a Lithuanian forest in the film The Ancient Woods.

The film The Ancient Woods is considered an example of ‘slow’ cinema. It is being screened on the first weekend of the 10th Wakefield Doc Fest. Before the event, the Lithuanian director Mindaugas Survila told ARTSFILE why it took him 12 years to make this award winning film about life inside a Lithuanian old-growth forest and why there is no narration or soundtrack, just the sounds in and of the woods. If a tree falls here, you just might hear it.

Q. You are a biologist by education. Why are you a filmmaker?

A. When I was in fifth grade there was a party. Those were the days when VHS cameras had started to appear in Lithuania. We were lucky that my teacher’s husband had one and was filming us during that party. I was so impressed. They asked my classmates and myself what we would we like to do when we grew up. I said a photographer or a cameraman, a nature cameraman. It was clear to me already at that time. To be able to make such films, I had to understand the nature I was going to tell about. So I studied biology at Vilnius University. Later, I started to learn how to make films.  

Q. What kinds of projects interest you?

A. There are two factors that make a film ‘interesting’ — an interestingly told story or interesting, unexplained things in the story. I did not have chance to tell this story ‘interestingly,’ because I did not study filmmaking. I had another option: to show interesting, unseen things. My first documentary film The Field of Magic was a story about a very isolated community living in a forest in their hand-made home and working in a dump. It took four years to make. I had to get close to them to be able to show their life which is totally different from what most of people see. 

My aim is to understand my characters and to accurately present their ‘texture.’ It’s impossible to do this 100 per cent, because the behaviour of a person being filmed is affected the person behind the camera and the camera itself. But after you spend four years with your characters, you and your camera become part of the household … and they become themselves.

I think it is (important) that I try to reveal my subjects in every possible way. The same is true with nature. Here, a character must not notice you at all. It took eight years to find the characters in this forest and to get close to them without being noticed. Filming them took another four years. Everything is possible when you have time. I may not have a filmmaker’s education, but I have one thing that matters – time and that I spend on my projects.

Q. Tell me a bit about the forest.

A. Basically, there are no such ancient woods left. All the characters and scenes are collected from the last remaining patches of old forest in Lithuania. The film is like a fantastic fairytale about a forest that does not exist anymore. On the other hand, Lithuanians can be proud that we have these tiny little patches of ancient woods. There are none left in Western Europe.

I was dreaming about such a film as a child. I carried this thought with me and tried to understand how to reveal the treasure of the ancient woods. What kind of animals would reveal this best? What period of their lives would be most suitable? After some time practical preparations for the film began to find out where those characters live; how to come close to them without disturbing them; what special equipment should be made. It all took eight years. From the first moment my producer Gintė Žulytė and I started to make the movie we knew what animals were there and how to get to them. I had a feeling about how an animal would behave during the shot. However, we did not have an ‘author’s agreement’ with owls, moose and other animals. I just had to shoot whatever they did after I found them. But I believe I managed to capture 80 per cent of what we planned, and the rest was a pleasant surprise.

I wanted to show people what they cannot see in the forest.

For example, it took five days and nights to film a moose going through some shrubs. But I didn’t just want to show a moose in the bushes, I wanted to show the king of the forest. And that shot took three years. We were searching for a nice natural forest clearing with birch trees where a moose could have an elegant breakfast.

We set up a hideout, so the moose would not see us and would act naturally. When everything’s prepared then you wait for a moose to come. It took 500 shifts to get 90 minutes of film.

On the team there are 80 people (from tent sewers, welders, grinders, designers, IT specialist to film editors, sound managers etc.). Despite this there was never more than seven people during shootings and 90 per cent of the time I was alone (I don’t know whom else I could spend 23 hours a day with).  

Mindaugas Survila spent many hours every day waiting for the right shot.

Q. What is your philosophy of cinema?

A. I think a filmed image becomes cinema the moment you look at it. Cinema provides people a way to see the object or image in different ways. Even the second or third time seeing a film could provide a very different experience. Slow cinema filmmakers try to provide a viewer time. And these days we feel a shortage for time. 

Q. There is no narration. Why?

A. There were several reasons I said no narration. Human influence is huge in this world (from oceans to forests). I wanted this to be felt as little as possible in my film. I did not want a voiceover, no man-made music, just beautiful images and the natural symphony of the forest. 

Narration tells a viewer what to look at. Let’s say, we film a mother owl feeding her babies. If we say that the owl’s tail has eight  feathers, the audience may start counting the feathers and miss the sunrise, or the tree where the owls live. Narration can narrow a film and it becomes less interesting. 

Without narration, every viewer can see the same scene differently, picking out what is most interesting to him or her.

Q. There is something magical about a forest. Do you like to spend time there?

A. There are no commercials, no imposed opinions, no rush. When it becomes hard at home or in the city, I go to the forest for at least half a day and I start to understand what is important in this life and what is not. I rest in the forest. 

I have had opportunities to present my film in many different places: small Lithuanian villages surrounded by forests, Sydney, Australia, New York and a prison in Vilnius. And you know what? The audiences all have same questions. Our feelings for nature remain the same. It does not matter how much time you spend in nature, where you live or what life experience you have. I think it is impossible for living creatures to disconnect from the natural world.

White-tailed Eagles gather for dinner in this scene from The Ancient Woods.

Q. Is Lithuania losing its old natural, green spaces?

A. Lithuania is a small country between East and West and for this reason, it has been devastated by invaders from one side or another. Lithuania was taken over by Russian Imperialists. They started to cut trees immediately and exported them to Western countries. When the Nazis invaded, the forests were cut and transported again. Then the Soviet Union invaded. Today the forests have started to recover a little, but when the trees get big enough they are cut down. It is sad, because in the past Lithuanian forests were destroyed by foreign invaders and now we are going to destroy them ourselves. 

Q. Why did you want to make The Ancient Woods?

A. I think a human starts to save something when he or she falls in love with it. They fall in love when they get to know it. My purpose was to get people “to know” the forest. Whether they do fall in love and start to pay attention to the problems — that is everyone’s personal business. My goal was to make a film that would be liked by people who may not like films about nature. We also wanted to do something more so we have decided to dedicate half of the film’s earnings from theatres in Lithuania to create a special fund that would buy forest and leave it untouched for future generations. I hope this fund will grow to help forests worldwide.

The film The Ancient Woods can be seen on Feb. 2 and 3 as part of the Wakefield Doc Fest. For information on tickets, showtimes and location please see wakefielddocfest.ca.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.