Forest Play

An article by
Anna Bostedt, editor Swedish Film Database
Granny's Dancing On the Table

The Swedish forest sprawls across more than 41 million hectares. It is filled with associations and heavy with symbolism. It is both alien and familiar.

Those who don’t have the forest as part of their everyday life, carry an image of it – a personal mix of childhood experiences, mythology and romantic ideals. What happens then, when a filmmaker invites a few hectare of forest to come out and play?

We see the forest swoosh by in many films, through a car or train window or as a backdrop in front of which the important stuff happens. The forest as an extra, there to show us how big something is, how far away, and where the city –the civilisation – ends.

But when the forest gets to play a real part, what part does it play?

Not seldom it acts as a hiding place and a ”keeper of secrets”. In Hanna Sköld’s Granny’s Dancing on the Table (2016) Eini hides her treasures in holes in the ground, and the father, in turn, hides Eini in their house in the forest. The isolation becomes a prison and when fleeing is the only way out, we understand that the forest also is to blame for Eini’s fate and that it is necessary for her to retaliate against it before she can leave it behind. The forest is a hiding place in Fredrik Edfelt’s Sanctuary (2013) too, but nobody is there against their will, and nature acts as a benevolent refuge and a place where the characters are left alone and able to bond with each other. When a boy, a young dad with his son and an elderly man disappear into the woods in Henrik Hellström and Fredrik Wenzel’s Burrowing (2009) the question is whether it is a voluntary act, a quest for comfort, maybe even a need to disappear, or whether it is the forest drawing them in, wanting to hide them away from “civilised society”.

Other times the forest is simply the ”not-city”. In the documentary The Tree Lover (2008), director Jonas Selberg Augustsén talks about his “concrete anxiety” and his yearning to leave Stockholm and return to the pine trees and his home in the north of Sweden. In a scene in Bitch Hug (Andreas Öhman, 2012) the forest is forced to mimic the city of all cities, New York. Of course it fails miserably, since it is, in every sense of the word, its opposite.  It is the city versus the forest in Jägarna (Kjell Sundvall, 1994) as well, as Rolf Lassgård’s returning Stockholm police is mocked by those who stayed in the rural north and for whom the forest has remained a place to live and work (and do lots of nasty stuff, as it turns out).

Some older films depict the antagonism between the ordered farmers’ community and the wild forest with its barely civilised (male) inhabitants. In Rågens rike (Ivar Johansson, 1929) the rough lumberjacks up in the woods are rejected by everyone on the farms. And Livet i Finnskogarna (Ivar Johansson, 1947) tells the story of Heikki, wrongly accused of poaching, and how he symbolises the Finnish settlers’ low status vis-à-vis the farmers of the plains.

Often the film forest is a man’s world, his domain and refuge. It is plain to see that the forest in Jägarna is strictly for the men. It is where they go to hang out, work, settle arguments, hunt – and murder. The only woman who dares to enter this inhospitable territory, becomes one of the victims. And the four people who disappear into the woods at the end of Burrowing – do they have anything in common? Oh, yes. They are all men. The team Selberg Augustsén has gathered to help him build a house in a tree, and simultaneously make a film about the adventure, is also an all-men constellation. In this instance though, the director becomes conscious of the imbalance and searches for answers as to why this is the case.

Finally: it is not possible to write an article about Swedish film and the Swedish forest without writing about Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter (1984). Astrid Lindgren set the tone in the book the film was based on, and Tage Danielsson took that tone and raised it even higher. He filled the frames with love and respect for every single branch and rock, and for everything wild that lived amongst them. In a key scene Birk shouts to a grumpy Ronja who wants to be left alone in ”her” forest: “It is not your forest, Ronja! It is the spiders’ forest, the deers’ forest, the ants’ forest!” It is impossible not to feel a tinge of melancholy, over a forest that was there long before us, but which we might be about to lose. Which will, if everything goes to pot, one day be gone. And all we will be left with, is our images.

What’s moving in the film forest?

Pine needles 48 %
Brushwood 17 %
Branches whipping faces 8 %
Cracking twigs 8 %
Gun shots 4 %
Berry pickers 2 %
Goblins 2 %

Films where the forest plays a part

More curious?