Each year, AFI Fest devotes part of its program to its Cinema’s Legacy series, a retrospective of older films deserving of rediscovery. For 2018, this section is devoted wholly to movies directed by women. In addition to works from revered figures like Chantal Akerman and Barbara Hammer, the lineup includes more obscure titles from lesser-known filmmakers. Some of them, like pioneering African American director Kathleen Collins, are in the midst of a major reevaluation and new appreciation. Others are ripe for such treatment, particularly the 1990 gem The Juniper Tree, directed by Nietzchka Keene.
The film was the acting debut for Björk, filmed when the Icelandic singer and artist was on the cusp of superstardom. Based on a Grimm fairy tale, Björk and Bryndis Petra Bragadottir play sisters Margit and Katla, who are left on their own after their mother is executed for witchcraft. They find shelter with Jóhann, a widower with a young son, Jónas. While Margit grows close to Jónas, he resents Katla when she uses magic to make Jóhann fall in love with her, and these clashing tensions eventually lead to tragedy.
Playing out like a pagan spin on Bergman, The Juniper Tree is focused on the nuances of the interactions between its tiny cast. It sheds a less archetypical, more human light on fairy tale tropes. Here, the stepmother isn’t wicked but doing what she sees as necessary for herself and her sister to survive in a harsh world. Jóhann recognizes that Katla is using him, but her spells prevent him from sending her away, in a metaphor for how infatuation and perceived obligations can override one’s common sense. Margit sees visions of her dead mother, but whether she’s truly seeing a ghost or working through her own grief is ambiguous.
The Juniper Tree was the first feature from Nietzchka Keene, whose career was cut off by her death from pancreatic cancer in 2004. Underappreciated at the time, Keene made movies on microscopic budgets, often incorporating mythological or supernatural elements. Shot on location in Iceland, the film uses the expansive landscapes to forbidding effect, emphasizing the isolation of the characters and how their makeshift family is their sole protection from doom. Made in stark black and white to further emphasize this sense of desolation, Keene produces some stunning compositions. One indoor scene plays shadows across both Katla and Jónas to show their shifting suspicions of one another, while another on a seaside cliff brilliantly differentiates the different blacks of the stones and the sea.
Arbelos Films is aiming to introduce Keene to a new audience by re-releasing The Juniper Tree, which has been restored by the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research and the Film Foundation, with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation. The AFI Fest screening of the film will be the premiere of this restoration, with a theatrical and home video rollout to follow next year. Hopefully the rest of her work will receive the same treatment, and she and the other overlooked directors spotlighted at AFI will only grow in esteem moving forward.
The Juniper Tree plays at the AFI Fest on Saturday, November 10. Arbelos Films will release the film in theaters and on VOD and Blu-Ray in the spring of 2019.