Credit: CPH:DOX
by Chris Cassingham Featured Film

Once Upon a Time in a Forest — Virpi Suutari [CPH:DOX ’24 Review]

March 21, 2024

Despite the desperate urgency of the film’s subject matter, Virpi Suutari’s Once Upon a Time in a Forest takes its time. Lush and languid encounters with Finland’s endangered coniferous forests and crystal clear lakes, through the eyes of two young activists — Ida and Minka — fighting for their survival, lend the film a welcoming and loving character.

Ida, Minka, and the rest of the activists’ encounters with the commercially entrenched political machine (and, vice versa, with the politically entrenched commercial machine) provide space for a sociological survey of sorts, in which the intimate dynamics of friends and colleagues fighting for a common purpose are placed in direct opposition to the world’s ungenerous impression of them. Minka fights against the seeming disadvantages of womanhood in a male-dominated industry, where the overwhelming emotions she feels about the imminent destruction of the natural world threatens to discredit her seriousness in the eyes of the men on the other side of the conflict. Her openness, vulnerability, and willingness to share with everyone, as well as her synchronicity with nature — an introductory vignette at the start of the film sees her weave a crown of branches and practice her archery, Katniss Everdeen-style — contrasts with but also informs her passion as an activist. These activists are the site of a particular kind of code-switching one wouldn’t expect to see in a film like this, revealing the immense pressures to act and present oneself a particular way in order to be taken seriously.

Ida, too, is fighting her own battles. Her grandfather is a long-time member of the logging industry, and his staunch belief in its necessity to everyday life is a source of contention between them. But their relationship is loving and intimate, and throughout the film we get the sense that she is closer to her grandparents than she is even with her parents. The tension is palpable as their conversations reach dead ends, or while they watch news reports of Ida’s direct action and arrest mere moments after sharing knowledge about a type of logging saw or about the movie they want to watch.

The sociological aspect takes on a much more specific form, too. For example, we see how the activists’ planning meetings operate under the assumption of respect and courtesy, thanks to unspoken rules of communication via hand gestures that ensure everyone has a voice and the opportunity to use it. The film introduces the audience to these rules without telling us, privileged access that we don’t appreciate until the end of the film, when they meet with politicians and businessmen. What is usually a curt and dismissive encounter transforms into something much more courteous, perhaps even optimistic.

The cinematic landscape of direct action is vast and impossible to survey in one short review, but Once Upon a Time in a Forest strikes an admirable balance between the intimately social and the broadly political, and thus makes for an interesting entry in this lineage. The film utilizes archival footage of past direct action in Finland from 1979 to 1991 to today, three separate periods in which young people on the fringes of society are seen sacrificing their livelihoods — and in some cases are even prepared to sacrifice their lives — for the protection of nature. Placed next to the poignant scenes between Ida and her grandparents, between the young activists and older businessmen, they raise the paradoxical question of whether time, seemingly always running out, can find a way to recycle and renew before it’s too late.