The Ancient Woods (Sengirė in Lithuanian) is a stunning hour-and-a-half-long nature documentary, the result of years of filming in the forests of Lithuania. With no sound overlaid aside from the noises of the wood, it immerses viewers in the sheer variety of life that exists there; as the film’s website puts it “from the forest thickets to the wolves’ caves and up to a black stork’s nest, and then deep into the water to the underwater forest, returning after to the human beings inhabiting the edge of the woodland.” At one point, the camera is taking an unhurried look at an uneasily sleeping dormouse, then a pair of capercaillies making their odd clicking noises as they fight a duel, followed by a badger happily scratching itself, then birds feeding their young with frogs they’ve caught.
A nature documentary with no voiceover and no narrative might seem an unlikely candidate for commercial success, but after its release last year, it quickly became the most-viewed documentary in Lithuanian history. It’s received acclaim outside Lithuania as well, scooping a range of awards at international film festivals, and recently in a highly favourable review, the UK website Caught by the River claimed that “nothing that the great behemoth/national treasure of the BBC’s National History Unit has produced has ever come close to this”. Deep Baltic’s Will Mawhood recently spoke to the director of the film, Mindaugas Survila, about the experience of filming in the forests, the importance of ancient woods to Lithuania and the world, and his future projects.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
First of all, thanks very much for sending me the link [to watch the film online]. It’s a beautiful film, I really enjoyed it. It must have taken you an incredibly long time to make…
Well, yes, it was eight years for preparation. It’s a film about the ancient woods – and by ancient woods we mean woods where trees are growing, falling and growing up again. The generations should change without human activity. For some trees, [the process takes] about three hundred years; for some trees, like oaks, it’s six hundred or one thousand years.
And in Lithuania we have very small spots, the remains of these woods, so we collected all these small spots and created like a fairytale. In Lithuania woods like in the movie don’t exist; it’s a fairytale, it’s not true – we just collected all the small spots. But we can still be proud that we have these in Lithuania, because in Western Europe these were already gone a hundred years ago; they don’t have them anymore. It took eight years to find all these small spots, then to construct special equipment and to find these species, for example some birds – each one has only two nests in the whole of the territory of Lithuania. Only two nests – and you can search for thirty years, and maybe you will find them and maybe you will not. There were about eight scientists working on the film, and some additional location scouts as well. So eight years for preparation and four years for shooting.
Wow, that’s an incredibly long time for the whole process.
Yeah, you know, it takes time, because it’s a nature movie, and I didn’t have any contracts with my characters (laughs).
And how many people were involved in filming?
In the titles at the end of the movie, there are about 80 people. But actually I was mostly working alone during filming, because we were building the tents in the autumn, and then the birds coming back in spring and starting to breed, and then there are chicks. And two of us were coming to this place. I climbed up, and my colleague waited. When I was ready my colleague went outside, so the birds could not see, but only hear: someone is coming in and someone is coming out. But the thing is, I could go only down the next night – only after 23 hours because Lithuania, like Latvia and Estonia, is quite far north, and in summertime the night is very short. So I don’t know who else I could be with in a tree for 23 hours without moving (laughs).
Mostly I was shooting and spending time alone – for example while making the rope system – making two ropes, and the cameraman can fly with these ropes. And for this, it was necessary to have about four people. A lot of people were also working to construct all the equipment – to make a base for the tent, to make camouflage… My brother was a programmer, he programmed the cameras – you saw the sleeping dormouse?
My brother constructed a small computer. The dormouse comes, and you can programme that after two hours the camera starts, shoots for ten minutes and then shuts down. Also for underwater shooting – equipment was constructed to shoot underwater. So there were about eighty people, but they were together in one place only one day – during the premiere. All the rest of the time everyone was in different places – so there were a lot of different people at totally different sites.
And where did the idea for making this film come from? Had you done something similar in your previous work, or was this something very different?
Well, it’s from childhood actually. In childhood – everyone has their secret places. Maybe for someone in a garage, someone else somewhere else. And my secret place was in the middle of a forest. So every day I went to this place, just to be there, alone. And one day I came and I noticed that this forest had been cut down. I wanted to tell everyone what had happened, but over the years I understood that there are different ways to tell this to people – one way is just to tell friends, another way is to take photos, and then more people will see, but I understood that the most reachable way to tell a story is through movies.
In my childhood – it was during the Soviet Union – and the price of a camera that could film videos was I don’t know how many houses. Very expensive, so it was impossible to have it. But when I was in the fourth grade in school, around ten years old, I received a Zenit B camera as a gift from my father. So, I started to make – not videos, but photos of birds and other animals, and then I studied biology at Vilnius University, and after that, when I had received my education, I started to work with cinema professionals, to study cinema. And then I made a movie about people who live next to a dump (The Field of Magic). Then I had got some experience and I started going to the forest. So it’s quite a long story.
So it went right back to your childhood. And which part of Lithuania was this that you’re from?
Aukštaitija – the eastern part, where there are a lot of lakes and a lot of forests. Near Utena.
And you mentioned in the email you sent me that when the film started showing in cinemas, it became the most popular documentary in Lithuanian history. Is that right?
Yes, actually. So far, 68,000 people went to the cinema [to see The Ancient Woods]
What do you think it was about the film that made it so popular in Lithuania? Because although I think it’s a very good film, I wonder if it would get the same reaction in all countries. Do you think there’s something in Lithuanian culture that makes people interested or care about this kind of subject?
It’s a very difficult question. I don’t have a clear answer, but there are some points.
One point is that we were making it for a very long time, and a lot of people knew about it – that this movie would be coming out, and a lot of people supported this movie. After that, we did a good campaign. But maybe the most important thing is that humanity still has the forest in its DNA, in its blood. I was showing this movie in small Lithuanian cities, in Australia, in New York, in jail. And everywhere the reactions were the same.
In jail, did you say?
Yes, in a jail in Lithuania where people stay until the end of their lives – there were about thirty people like this, and they also watched the movie. And actually everywhere – in small cities, in Japan, in New York – the questions are the same; it doesn’t matter where you live, in your genes there’s still the forest.
And I think that the most important thing is that people need to go to the forest, especially in Lithuania, because Lithuanians are actually the last pagans in Europe – and in our blood we still have this (laughs).
And one more thing – the next project, which we’re starting now, is to make an interactive platform. We gave a presentation about this, and it was only seven minutes – you need to talk very briefly, very quickly, to say everything that you need in the speech. But actually we talked only for six minutes, and for one minute we showed [footage of] a moose: how the moose is eating the leaves. No comments, no music nothing – just a moose. And people were just sitting there, and… (gasps). Because people are tired of Trump, Putin, Kim Jong-un – all the mess which is happening in the world. The news is coming, coming, coming – and the forest is like a different planet. You go, and you relax.
Were you surprised by that reaction?
Yes, of course, because the world premiere was at IDFA [International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam], and we were very happy about that. And after that we came back to Lithuania and we started to talk with cinema directors. What do you think: how many people will come to see this movie? And in Lithuania, usually about two or three thousand people come to see documentaries. And they thought: your movie is long; there is no narration, no music, long shots – maybe 2,000 will come to your movie. And these were the professionals’ thoughts – all the professionals, without exception. But actually during the first weekend, 8,000 people came. It was something unreal, and really, really unexpected. I did not expect such a big success.
But actually it’s an educational movie. We wanted to tell people what the forest means; it’s not just about money – that you can cut down some trees to sell and you have money. I wanted to say that the forest is something much bigger, much wider. It’s like an educational movie, but after the first weekend we understood that so many people had come and bought tickets, so we had some money. And after the first weekend we understood that we could do not only educational things, but also some practical things. So we decided to spend half of the money on another project – the interactive project – and to give back the other half to the forest. That means to create a foundation and buy the forest, and no one will go to this forest anymore – people will be allowed to come, to admire the forest and experience being there, but cutting down the trees will be forbidden. It’s a very small amount of money – it’s about 60,000 euros. It’s not a lot of forest, but we wanted to tell people that not just neighbours, not just the government, but we ourselves can do something. Each of us.
And is that one specific forest you’ve chosen?
It’s very difficult to say which one we will buy, because we do not have a lot of money. We will select the forest – for example, some old people don’t want to cut down the forest, but they need the money. Usually, if you sell the forest, in one year the forest will have been cut down. The forest, which was your family treasure, will disappear. But if you sell to the foundation, you will still have the possibility to go there and to be there forever.
You said before it’s an educational film, and I can see that’s true, but it’s an educational film in a very kind of subtle way compared to many nature documentaries. There’s no voiceover – there’s no one talking; there’s also no narrative: in a lot of nature documentaries they try to make a narrative – you know, you follow one animal and they make a little story. But that doesn’t happen; it seems very much that you want people to take their own lessons from it.
Yes, because if you do a voiceover, let’s say there’s a shot of an owl flying towards the nest very slowly. And if in this shot you say [in the voiceover] “on the tail of the owl there are five feathers”. Then everyone will count how many feathers there are on the tail of the owl. Most of the time, these voiceovers make the movie more strict, and if there’s no voiceover, different people can look at different things, and these different things will be interesting for them – not only the number of feathers. It was quite a risky way to do it, because all the professionals told us that “no one will come to see your movie”, but now we can see that a lot of people are coming to see this movie and enjoying it. For example, I was in Sydney at a festival, and it was screening on Tuesday – a working day – at two o’clock, and 1,000 people came to the cinema.
It’s not necessary to tell people at each step what and how they must think. The audience is not stupid. They can understand by themselves.
You were talking about the ancient woods in Lithuania, and how actually there are only quite a small number of areas where these are still existing. I did notice that there are some animals in the film that I know can only live in very old forests – like the capercaillie.
Yes, although the owls in the film are also very rare. The small beetles, which were going into the trees; in Lithuania, there are only twenty places where this beetle lives – it is very rare. And ravens – they are not at all rare, but they were making some interaction with eagles, so we put the ravens in too. Most of these species are very rare. The moose is not so rare, but it’s also an animal of the forest.
And these kind of forests exist in Lithuania, and maybe some other countries in the region, but not in Western Europe, I think.
I also found it interesting that there are only one – or possibly two – people present in the film, and only for very short periods of time.
It’s just one person. (laughs)
It is the same man both times? I wasn’t sure.
I wondered if this was a deliberate statement, since we’re in a period that I think has been called the “Anthropocene” – you know, when humans are affecting the planet so much. Was this quite a conscious decision that you wanted there to be no people present – or almost no one?
Well actually, I was fighting with the editor for a few years about having a human in the middle of the movie. He wanted to take out [the scene with] this man, who was kind of amazed and looking around slowly. He wanted to take him out, because he thought that he was destroying the kind of paradise of the forest.
But for me it was very important to leave this human in, because I wanted to raise some questions – and one question was “what do we understand about the forest?” And what can we protect? What can humanity protect? Pandas, gorillas, maybe some sharks? What else? In the ancient woods, there are 10,000 different species. And by destroying these woods, we are destroying all these species, without maybe even knowing that these species existed in this forest. And the second thing that I wanted to say is that for people it’s necessary to have the forest, and for the forest it’s necessary to have people? It’s quite a philosophical question, and maybe after the movie not everyone formalises it as completely as I’ve told you. But a lot of people asked me after seeing the movie “what is this human doing in the forest?” They actually bring up exactly the question that I wanted them to.
Throughout the movie, we raised some more philosophical questions, which you cannot see directly but you can feel.
It seemed to me – I don’t know if this was your intention – but the one man who does appear in the film, he seems to exist very much in harmony with nature, in that the animals seem to accept that he’s there, and he’s a part of nature. You know the deer who come, he gives them food – and they kind of don’t notice him, in a way; he’s like a part of the environment. I was wondering if that was the point you were making there: that it’s possible to exist without destroying things.
Well, everyone has a different experience, and sees the movie differently. And I think it’s a good thing that people can see the movie in different ways.
Tell me about the interactive platform that you mentioned you’re working on now.
We’re just starting to work on it. In the browser, you can see a forest and leaves are moving, and you can hear the wind and birds, and if you move your mouse, everything moves. There are sounds and video. And you can go and take a look around, and if you hear some strange noise – let’s say, [makes strange noise], and you can click on a stump and go inside and look at how beetles live. Or you can hear black storks, and you can go up and look at how the storks live. It’s not like Wikipedia, where there are just photos and descriptions, but it will be informative in a more emotional way, creating sound like a movie – but the difference is that the movie has a linear structure, where you sit and watch, and here it will be the same as the movie, but everyone will create their own scenario. They will be able to go where they want to go.
You can find out more about The Ancient Woods and Mindaugas Survila’s work on the film’s website
All images credit Mindaugas Survila/The Ancient Woods
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