Of Landscapes And Men

in 17th Black Nights Film Festival

by Jan Kaus

There’s a saying — sort of a modern cliché — about the way of living in Estonia: one prefers to live in the city centre, surrounded by the forest and situated by the sea. It says something about the way Estonians understand space — they want to remain separated even in areas of dense population, even in the times of urbanisation.

This is connected to the fact that although the area of Estonia is bigger than the area of Netherlands, it has fewer inhabitans than the urban region of Amsterdam. This comparison between the space and its density of population is even more visible in Scandinavia.

Concerning the territory, Sweden is the fourth biggest country in Europe (ahead of Germany, Italy and Great Britain). One could put 3.5 Greeces inside Sweden. At the same, if one should compare the numbers of population of those countries, Greece would have the upper hand with more than a million inhabitans (and Netherlands with seven million).

It is interesting to observe how this kind of geography – in which one can drive a car for tens of miles without seeing a single human being — becomes visible in art. I recently read one of the new bestsellers of Swedish literature, Thomas Bannerhed’s Raven. It tells a story of a boy on a farm where his father is trying to make ends meet, attempting to cultivate the land and quietly losing his mind under the constant troubles. The boy wishes to avoid the faith of the father, he tries to reject the inheritance of the land and the hard work which it will bring. Where does he run into? The forest. This is a landscape, where nature is not hidden behind the horizon, nature begins right on the other side of the picket fence.

The same logic becomes visible watching the Tridens competition of feature debuts from the Baltic Sea and Nordic Countries at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. I’m talking about the Fredrik Edfeldt’s movie Sanctuary (Faro). The title of the film basically says it all – the wilderness is a sanctuary.

It is a story of a father who has committed a crime and is forced to take desperate measures, leaving home in a hurry, bringing his daughter into the wilderness, hiding with her in the deep forest. The escape is easy, because the wilderness is at hand, one can see it from the living room windows, just as in any typical Nordic village.

At first glance, the movie seems to make quite realistic impression. Although the scenery is beautiful, it offers little comfort. The sanctuary is indifferent towards those who are trying to hide inside. The lake will not benevolently swallow the getaway car. But as the film moves along, a curious atmosphere deepens and a question may arise: how can they survive for that long? How come it is so hard to find them? Naturally, we see hunger, cold, desperation, but they are working side-by-side with other elements. At one point, the girl finds a house in the middle of nowhere. Thus the motifs of a fairy tales step in – the lady living there can be seen as a modern version of the wicked witch, an older woman in existential pain, which has some qualities of madness. The girl escapes again, away from people, back to the forest, where the rules are clear.

The atmosphere of the fairy tale becomes even stronger when father and daughter discover the underwater forest – a forest inside the forest, a double-sanctuary. The episode is filmed in a manner where one could almost believe that the fugitives can breathe underwater. In other words: they have become the part of the natural landscape. The same element was visible in another movie, which actually won the FIPRESCI prize – Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss), directed by Fridrik Thor Fridrikkson.

Filmed in Iceland, a vast space, which can contain more than two Netherlands but has fewer inhabitans than Den Haag. The living souls of that movie – both horses and men – are not divided from their surroundings, they are part of the cruel and majestic wilderness. Naturally the landscapes of Sweden and Iceland are totally different: the spaciousness of the latter is the opposite of concealed shadows of the first. But both reveal the true measures of human kind.

In Sanctuary, Edfeldt uses interesting details to describe the way people are becoming part of the natural background, such as a moment of death, when the vapour of breath mixes with the smoke from the fireplace and vanishes into the trees and shadows.

Of course, the question remains: does being part of the natural landscape make us better people? It is possible that the daughter and father were as indifferent towards their sanctuary as the sanctuary towards them.

Edited by Amber Wilkinson