‘[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
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.
Lithuania’s relationship with its (sadly dwindling) forests is an intense one. It is not an exaggeration to say that the forests are the reason Lithuania exists. They are the reason the Lithuanian language survived as an island of extremely conservative Indo-European linguistic development; they are the reason Lithuania survived the Mongol onslaught on 13th-century Eastern Europe, and were able to take advantage of the chaos to build their own vast empire; they are the reason German crusaders were unable to invade and subdue Lithuania; and they are the reason Russia, whether under the Tsars or under Stalin, never fully succeeded in dominating Lithuania or breaking the will of its people. In modern times, Lithuania’s forests have been the refuge of its defiant partisans, but for centuries the forests were sacred. Depending which author we rely on, the forests seem not only to have been the dwelling of innumerable gods – gods of moss, of bees, of specific species of tree – but also in and of themselves divine, to the point that the Lithuanians would execute anyone who trespassed in a sacred forest or, worse, attempted to fell trees there.
The conversion of Lithuania to Christianity between 1387 and 1417 involved the deliberate felling of sacred forests and trees, although we know that such beliefs lingered even into the late 18th century. But what was it like to experience the forest as sacred? This, to me, seems to be the question with which Sengirė is wrestling. In what way is the forest sacred? How can this sense of the forest’s sacredness be conveyed to a cinematic audience? How do we recover a sense of that sacredness? How did we ever lose it? All of these questions, to my mind, crowd around the film. Because many of the characters we encounter are Lithuania’s sacred animals – the snake (in this case an adder), which was at the heart of medieval Lithuanian animism, attacks, poisons and then slowly digests a dormouse. But even the gods are subject to death; later in the film, ants swarm over the carcass of a dead adder.
We also meet other gods of the forest: the bison, which performs extraordinary feats of tossing a huge branch on its horns, the majestic elk, the precious bees, and the storks that have come to represent Lithuania itself. And we meet the god of the heavens, Perkūnas, as a thunderstorm breaks over the summer woods. There are humans in Survila’s forest too, taciturn, contemplative and unspeaking, as if to remind us that what seems timeless is indeed subject to human whims. The film begins and ends with human interaction (albeit minimal) with animals; a group of deer eating chopped up turnips in front of a farmstead at the forest edge.
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.