‘Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest’: Hot Docs Review

Katja Gauriloff’s nonfiction feature revolves around the bond between a Swiss writer and a semi-nomadic tribe in Arctic Finland.

Family chronicles, European history and ancient legends merge poetically in the sublime documentary Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest. Filmmaker Katja Gauriloff, a Lapland native and member of the indigenous Skolt Sami people, has not only uncovered delightful archival material about a nearly lost culture, but she also has created something that itself feels handmade and lovingly aged.

The title of her film refers to its two key figures: Kaisa Gauriloff, the filmmaker’s great-grandmother, and the little-remembered Swiss writer Robert Crottet, who lived with the Skolt Sami in the late 1930s and published several books on their lore, including The Enchanted Forest, a collection of traditional stories he learned from Kaisa. With its unusual subject matter, evocative vintage footage (shot by Crottet and his life partner, Enrique Mendez) and delicate charcoal drawings and animation, the pic could find an art-house welcome after its festival travels.

The Bottom Line

A fascinating historical chapter, inventively told.

Crottet’s connection to the Skolt Sami, a fishing, reindeer-herding, semi-nomadic people in the far north of Finland, went beyond the ethnographic to the mystical. It began before he knew anything about them: While recovering from tuberculosis, he had fever dreams in which figures from a “Tribe of Lapland” appeared. Compelled to find them, the young playwright made his way to Helsinki in 1938, and from there to the Arctic village of Suenjel, a place he described as the “threshold to eternity.”

Welcomed by the 30 families in the tribe’s winter settlement, Crottet forged a particularly strong bond with Kaisa. The Russian language was probably an entry point for their friendship; born in Russia, he was a native speaker, while Kaisa had learned the language as a monastery servant. By the time he’s conversant in her endangered tongue, it’s clear that they also share the language of metaphor, and a poet’s view of life. Asked by Crottet why she painted the neck of one sheep blue, she responds, “Blue is her favorite color.”

In the footage of Kaisa and other Skolts at work and play, fluently excerpted by Gauriloff and editor Timo Peltola, their affinity to nature comes through with quiet jubilance. Kaisa’s impish spirit is evident whether she’s singing, dancing with children or knitting.

But while the Skolts’ lives are peaceful and harmonious, their legends are filled with the bloody violence of all good fairy tales. Gauriloff weaves one such tale into the film, narrated by Kaisa and illustrated by Veronika Bessedina’s animated drawings, in black-and-white with subtle tinges of color (like much of the film). An origin story about the Northern Lights, it involves a forbidden forest, magic trees, marriage, murder and cannibalism.

And the historical saga that Gauriloff traces has its own dark undertow, as war takes its toll on the Skolt Sami way of life. (In a remarkable synchronicity that the film accentuates to eloquent effect, Mahatma Gandhi visited the asylum where Crottet was treated for TB, speaking of peace as Europe prepared for conflict.) After the Finns lost the 1939-40 Battle of Petsamo to the Soviet Union, the Skolts were forced off their land and relocated to another part of Finland, where they were regarded as Russkies and exposed to disease. Crottet, then in England and a published writer, jumped into action to help the people he loved and whose traditions he probably knew better than any other European.

Gauriloff doesn’t explain the Tibetan roots of the Skolt Sami, but through the lens of Crottet’s story and Kaisa’s storytelling, she captures the sense of the last years of their “golden era.” Her finely crafted film celebrates a lost world and a forgotten artist, and will likely send viewers searching for Crottet’s books.

For all its antique sensibility, the documentary is an ever-timely look at the struggle to maintain cultural identity in the face of political power. Today the Skolt Sami number in the hundreds, and most of them don’t speak their native tongue. But they’re not forgotten; in October 2015, the archive of the Suenjel Skolt Sami community, which encompasses documents from the 17th and 18th centuries, was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, joining such rarefied company as the Magna Carta and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Production: Oktober Oy
Director-screenwriter: Katja Gauriloff
Producers: Joonas Berghall, Satu Majava
Directors of photography: Heikki Farm, Enrique Mendez
Editor: Timo Peltola
Composer: Timo Peltola
Sound designers: Timo Peltola, Jukka Nurmela
Animation: Veronika Bessedina
Sales: Oktober Oy

Not rated, 80 minutes