Supernatural beliefs are a difficult area to write about. A lot of contradictory assumptions are made – they’re dying out or they’re flourishing, they reflect experience or discussing them indicates no experience, they are exactly the same as artistic representations or artistic representations have changed them forever etc etc etc. All too often comments on belief are based on these preconceptions or, just as bad, are based on the assumption that commentator and original source had a common understanding of the concepts and entities being described.
One step towards overcoming these assumptions is just to go and ask people about their beliefs and experiences. (This seems obvious, but it also seems to need repeating). Problems still arise with interpretations, but at least you then have a starting point of people’s own testimony. It’s a real pleasure, therefore, to see such testimonies documented on film, and publicly available.
Across the Forest, dir. Justin Blair & Matthew Vincent, 2009 (79 mins) contains footage of interviews conducted in Romania. The interviewees describe their experiences of, and beliefs in, various supernatural beings. Many of these are stunning (‘binding’ a corpse to the grave by stabbing a nail through its heart), and informants are allowed to give their own accounts of experiences and belief (the man who insists ‘The dead do come back’ also states categorically that ‘without experiences people don’t believe’).
Blair and Vincent deserve credit for retaining the native terms here (strigoi, varcolaci etc), although these are often compared with English equivalents (vampire, werewolf etc). Strigoi are often compared to vampires: they have a lot in common with ghosts of the uneasy dead, but it would be forcing the issue just to translate the term, not quite accurately, by either word. They are strigoi, and we see here what this actually means. This is particularly important given how far notions of ‘Transylvania’ have shaped popular representations of supernatural beings, including the vampire of film and literature.
The film’s greatest strength is its refreshingly unflashy presentation of the interviews in extended sections. This is welcome for two reasons.
Firstly, it gives due weight to the speaker’s own account and interpretation of their stories. These unfold more fully than if they were implied in more heavily edited soundbites. This is not to suggest an absence of editorial direction, as I will discuss below, but it does place the emphasis on the interviewees. All of the interviewees are identified, but their names are listed during the end credits, a device more suited to the soundbite editing style eschewed here. Given the construction of the film it might have been better to have identified them as they appeared, but that is a minor quibble.
Secondly, the longer interview clips also give the viewer some idea of the narrative context for the stories. While most of the interviews are individual discussions, we do see some group storytelling contexts, and we hear about others.
This is significant, because one of the driving motivations for the film is the idea that ‘These beliefs are quickly dying out as the world modernizes around the tiny villages’. The evidence may be slightly skewed here, as the interviewees are mostly older people, so we do not see transmission of the stories to younger generations. However, family narrative traditions are revealed, and interviewees themselves do engage in some way with changing patterns of belief. It takes nothing from the interviews as evidence of individual positions to think that further work needs doing on how they are transmitted.
A related question is my biggest concern here. Blair and Vincent refer throughout to Transylvania. This seems a little too imprecise for the social context. One informant simply talks about being Romanian. There is evidence of social context within the interviews, including evidence of fluidity of labour across the region (one informant discusses a Moldovan indentured servant).
This may not be a big deal here, beyond flagging further questions for consideration in interpreting and analysing the testimonies here. Transylvania may just be intended as a general geographical term, but it needs a little more caution given its popular literary uses.
Perhaps I became more sensitive to this given the film’s one big weakness. The interviews are intercut with other footage. Most of the slideshows of establishing shots are unexceptionable. However, I found some strident soundtracking and night-vision footage of the filmmakers en route redundant. This left a slightly unpleasant aftertaste. This footage has no narrative significance, and the sub-Blair Witch night vision seems to be pointing to a literary and cinematic culture of supernatural representation somewhat different to the rest of the film. (Some of the slides fall into the same category). This felt at best like a slight loss of nerve, at worst like a manipulation of the interviews.
But this caveat should not discourage anyone from getting hold of this film. It is distracting, and points to areas for future study and consideration, but it does not undermine the remarkable interviews in this film. There is much to enjoy, savour and contemplate here, and it is worth your time
More information, and details of how to order the DVD, are at the film's website.