Film review: Sengirė

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Film review: Sengirė

Francis Young

Quote:‘[The Lithuanians] had forests they used to call sacred, in which it was sacrilegious and carried the penalty of death to touch them with iron … They think that the god of the forests, and the other gods, are in the woods in this way, as the poet has it, “The gods also have dwelt in the woods.” They also placate snakes and serpents …’

Jan Długosz, c. 1480

Quote:Sengirė (released under the English title The Ancient Woods) is a 2017 film by Lithuanian director Mindaugas Survila. The term ‘nature documentary’ hardly does the film justice, although it certainly uses the cinematographic techniques of nature documentary-making. The film reportedly took four years to film, which is easy to believe, relying as it must have done on cameras discreetly hidden in animals’ dens or areas known to be frequented by particular species – and the film’s performers, the wild fauna of Lithuania, cannot have been particularly tractable and co-operative. Unlike most nature documentaries the film is without music or commentary; the soundtrack is simply the sound of the forest. The story is told only through the editing of images; and the absence of overt narrative or narrative cues invites (and perhaps compels) the viewer to read their own story into the film.

Quote:The sacred forest can be cut down, the gods can be killed; but the question that Sengirė leaves us with, it seems to me, is whether the fragility of the forest makes it any less divine. In the 14th century, Lithuanians embraced the Christian faith when they saw Polish soldiers hewing sacred oaks, unsmited by the gods; the timeless forest was timeless no more. But in the 21st century our yearning is for more time to appreciate this beauty. The viewer doesn’t want Sengirė to end, because we don’t want the timeless beauty of nature to end, in denial as we are about our reckless destruction of it all. The forest’s fragility makes it divine; it lies outside our realm of eternal plastic, cold metal and unyielding tarmac. It is no longer rendered divine by ancestral familiarity, but by profound alienation and difference.
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell


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This resonates a great deal with me.

I recall earlier generations going on an African safari. There, just as today's tourists use a phone to take a selfie in front of a landmark, or indeed anywhere, it used to be de rigueur to shoot an elephant or rhinoceros. Or a tiger when in India.

These days to a large extent, most (but not all) are horrified by that idea. Myself I recoil in horror whenever a tree is cut down. I grew up among trees. I don't live in a forest, just an ordinary town. But there are trees nearby, I spent much of my childhood among them. The trees mean more to me than most of the other environmental issues which gain attention. I don't see it as an environment. The trees are my companions.

I recall one day, I was walking through some local woodland. (Stop me if I told this story before). I picked up a large, round pebble, about the size of a decent potato, and enjoyed its weight as I swung my arms as I walked. In that peaceful place, the rhythm of the walk and the quiet birdsong, the rustling of the wind through the branches, I fell into a kind of reverie, a sort of meditation. Casually as I passed a tree, I swung my arm so the pebble thumped against the trunk. It was as if a bolt of electricity went through me. It was a great shock. I stood there and reached out to touch the tree with my open hand. More than ever I don't see trees as separate, but as fellows.

The most wonderful among the trees reach their fullness over a much longer timescale than a brief human lifetime. It saddens me to see one cut down because I know neither I nor anyone else alive today will live long enough to see another grow in its place. In modern town planning, trees are often incorporated into the designs. But they are considered expendable, like wallpaper, they pop up, are chopped down, some other tiny trees appear elsewhere, and one can be sure it will not be long before they too are removed. There is no honouring or respect for trees, or little enough of it. I read of people protesting to save their local trees, sometimes they succeed.
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