Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Guardians of the green

NATURE / Follow the journey of a Finnish grassroots movement advocating for stricter forest protection.

We are in a forest. The trees and the ground are covered with snow. A group of policemen are approaching a group of forest activists protesting the logging in the Finnish forests. «Will you leave so the men can work?» asks a policeman. Silence. «No,» replies Ida, one of the main characters in the film. The dialogue is somehow friendly, and it seems both parties understand each other. At least when they are being filmed. The policemen carry the protesters into a van. This is a scene from the documentary film Once Upon a Time in a Forest by Finnish director Virpi Suutari.

Once Upon a Time in a Forest Virpi Suutari
Once Upon a Time in a Forest, a film by Virpi Suutari

The most trees in Europe

Finland is the country in Europe with the largest number of forests. In 2022, 90% of these forests were in commercial use. A new grassroots movement is starting to demand stricter forest protection. Ida and Minka are two of the young people in the activist group the film follows. They love nature, are dedicated, and believe that action can make a difference.

The camera observes five people walking on a trail. An image that gives thought to David and Goliath: Three tall men and two small women. One man, a representative of the UPM Forest, explains that they were baffled to hear that the activist movement had proposed this forest for protection, seeing no reason for stopping the logging as the forest is only 74 years old. Ida is calmly listening to the representatives’ arguments, no interruption, no screaming – just arguments: «The point is that we have no untouched forest in South Finland, so to have undisturbed natural areas while solving the major issues such as making the forest ecological, we must also protect younger forests.» The men disagree. Ida concludes, in a friendly way, that they will never find a common ground. Commercial against more diversity.

They love nature, are dedicated, and believe that action can make a difference.

Throughout the film, we get closer to the movement’s way of planning its actions and the way it communicates. They have a lovely way of using their hands when showing if they agree or disagree with the person who is speaking. They listen to each other no matter how long you have been involved in forest activism.

Ida attends a meeting and confronts the minister of Agriculture and Forestry with the goals he failed to reach in 2020, asking him what actions he will take to succeed this time. This is the first time we understand that Ida is studying Forest Science. Now, it makes more sense that she knows all the Latin names of the fungi in the forest when she collects them.

Once Upon a Time in a Forest Virpi Suutari
Once Upon a Time in a Forest, a film by Virpi Suutari

Two years

In Finland, there are official criteria for protected forests. A forest surveyor explains how they monitor a forest, and if they, for example, find endangered species, it is a good argument for protecting the area. The viewer is on a beautiful tour with the environmentalist, getting closer to small lives, birds, leaves, trees, and other things that generally live in a forest. Especially the close-ups of nature and the fact that these young people simply enjoy it, and all its magnificence is captured beautifully.

For two years, the director Virpi Suutari followed the movement. She gained the trust, and as she said after the world premiere at CPH:DOX, «I needed to find out what the movement was actually doing» And indeed, Suutari gave the audience an insight into what today’s grassroots movement is doing and how they are it, not by swords and spears, but with arguments, nonviolent protests, and happenings. One such incident ended with a lawsuit, but nothing has happened yet, and it will soon expire. Ida adds that she is not afraid of the lawsuit as it will only encourage her to do more, and that way, they will get more media attention.

The filming is done by one of Finland’s leading nature photographers, and it is a real treat to experience what Mother Nature has provided. The sound and music complete the film.

All people should be environmentalists, says one of the activists. And it is difficult not to agree.

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Helle Hansen
Helle Hansen
Documentary film consultant, and regular critic in Modern Times Review.

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