Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Across the Forest – review

dvdDirectors: Justin Blair & Matthew Vincent

Release date: 2009

Contains spoilers

It is easy to forget, as we indulge in film after film and novel after novel centred on the vampire, that in the past these creatures were a very real nightmare to many people and even easier to forget that to some they still are.

Of course the vampire of tradition is a very different creature to the vampire built from the imagination of filmmakers and novelists – but the vampire we watch owes its existence to its folklore cousin.

Bram Stoker, using the voice of Jonathon Harker, commented on Transylvania in Dracula, suggesting that “every known superstition in the world is gathered into the horseshoe of the Carpathians, as if it were the centre of some sort of imaginative whirlpool; if so my stay may be very interesting.” Over a century after Stoker published those words Justin Blair and Matthew Vincent created this documentary and I make no apology for quoting from a literary source that, frankly, has no place in the resultant film.

The documentary looks at the actual beliefs and superstitions of the people of Transylvania. Unlike many documentaries it forgoes dramatic reconstructions, bar a few beautifully realised illustrative plates, and eschews prescriptive interpretations. Instead the camera captures the heart of these traditions by having Transylvanian men and women tell the stories in their own words. We hear of strigoï – akin to the vampire we know – of vârcolac and pricolici – akin to werewolves – and of mama or fata Pădurii – a forest spirit.

Some of the tales seem like fairytales handed down from generation to generation. Others come from friends of friends. Others still are claimed as their own stories. We hear from a woman whose neighbour was, as she describes it, strange – the sort of person who would walk in the snow with no shoes. The neighbour died and the woman’s husband was digging the grave (as was custom) as she prepared the funeral food. A younger cousin came to her and claimed he had seen the neighbour walking in the barn. Her animals were becoming distressed and she realised the neighbour was strigoï. She then knew she had to hammer a nail through the corpse’s heart to stop it wandering. She improvised with a needle and log and, as the deed was done, the corpse’s mouth twisted and sneered but she was then bound to the grave.

Many of the tales have very familiar elements. We are told of a woman who knew how to deal with strigoï. She would discover the strigoï's graves by riding on a horse over the graves past midnight. She would take grave dirt and cast a spell on it before throwing it in the Mureş river. The spell would say that the strigoï could only return when they had gathered every granule of dirt.

The camcorder recording is perhaps, by nature of the equipment, not as sharp as it could have been with more expensive cameras. However it offers a closeness to the subject, helping us be drawn in to the stories we are told. The music includes songs by locals and pieces by Justin Blair and is truly haunting. The style of filmmaking allows us to hear what these people have to say and was filmed with a palpable level of respect. Ultimately it allows us to make our own mind up with regards their tales. This is essential viewing for the student of vampire lore and folklorists alike. You can discover more about the project and order the DVD from the film’s website (EDIT: the link ia apparently dead, please try the Facebook page). 8.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review, Taliesin! I haven't checked out many vampire documentaries lately, but I think I will need to look for this one.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

No problem Nicole. I watched one last week on the BBC - Vampires:Why they Bite - it was okay but just covered much the same ground as any other (though they made a huge mistake suggesting that Buffy introduced a secular vampire story. 1. it was far from secular and 2., well Nosferatu had no religous overtones!)

This one was something very special. It looked into an area not often explored and did so with such respect.

Anthony Hogg said...

Ah, they've got you too, Taliesin!

Is it ok if I crib that DVD cover image for my (eventual) review? Don't have a scanner, you see...

The Black Count said...

This doco sounds interesting. I'll keep my eye our for it and the other you mentioned.

Since I've been to Transylvania I can tell you that spirits and vampires are still much maligned even though the Romanians have started to embrace the tourist side of the vampire for the $$$ it brings but it's the most beautiful place on earth.

I even had an Orthodox priest scream at me in my 'goth' gear as I was in the Gara De Nord train station in Bucharest, he must have thought I was a Satanist or something.

They still revere The Day of the Dead Festival, and the further you get away from Bucharest the more less modern the country is.

People still use horse and cart (no tractors etc), and they don't use much tech whatsoever if at all. It's no wonder they still believe in ghosts and goblins, esp when on top of the hill in their town is a creepy castle (which was awesome by the way)

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Anthony - of course you can (to be fair, as well, they didn't get me - I got them and brazenly asked for a screener to review. Like yourself, however, I will only put what I feel about a film when I review it.)

Gabriel - many thanks for that, you might want to recall some of your annecdotes iro your Transylvania trip as part of your new blog... just a thought.

Christine said...

This sounds very interesting!
Goes to order copy to herself...

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Christine, I would say that I hope you enjoy it but I am sure you will.

Anthony Hogg said...

He's not kidding, Christine.

I finally gave it a viewing myself and here's my write-up on it.

Just don't expect and capes and fangs!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Cheers Anthony