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In The Ancient Woods, filmmaker Mindaugas Survila avoids the usual trappings of anthropomorphism in nature documentaries. Shot over 10 years, the film alternates between the different creatures inhabiting a deep Lithuanian forest and their different levels of reality: using zoom lenses, slow-motion capture, and exceptionally precise sound recording, Survila immerses the spectator in the world of the animals he’s discreetly observing. The sensitivity of The Ancient Woods is partly owed to Survila’s background as a biologist — he obtained both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Natural Sciences at Vilnius University in Lithuania before turning to filmmaking.
The dynamics of a violent confrontation between two birds, showing off their plumage and making threatening glottal sounds before physically attacking each other, slowly reveal themselves thanks to the filmmaker’s unwavering attention and evident respect for the environment he’s exploring. The creaking of an immense old tree is amplified to better place the audience at the ants’ height, and slow motion allows us to perceive the extremely rapid pecking of birds devouring frogs. Across these many layers of experience, Survila also finds a natural lyricism and captures it intact, only using film techniques to uncover the harmonious rhythms of the habitat. Fireflies at night recall the shining of fish in the river and that of stars in the night sky, which don’t appear as coincidences but rather as the balance that an untouched environment can achieve. An astonishingly intimate, long overhead take inside a dormouse den similarly lets us witness the creature’s habitat, but also captures amusing moments of sudden changes: out from under the bed of leaves, another mouse jumps out, surprising us but not her companion who’s hard at work collecting acorns. The whole film has this wondrous quality: it feels like a precious and startling gift, and a unique opportunity to give precedence to the natural world we so often take for granted.
The Ancient Woods by Mindaugas Survila is screening at Film Forum (209 W Houston Street, West Village, New York) June 4–June 10.