“Enchanting” is indeed the operative word for “Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest.” This documentary about a foreign visitor’s lifelong fascination with an isolated Laplander race, their mythologies and one storytelling matriarch in particular feels itself like an artifact from some remote, slightly fantastical culture. The result is as much like a Guy Maddin movie as an anthropological dig, with a goldmine of archival materials complemented by beautiful animated sequences illustrating Skolt legends. While the subject matter may be esoteric, Katja Gauriloff’s second feature is easily delightful and distinctive enough to attract specialized exposure beyond the fest circuit.
Robert Crottet had already had a somewhat stormy life — his mother died giving birth to him, he was raised by a grandmother after clashing with his new stepmum, then had to flee the Russian Revolution — when he was stricken with tuberculosis as a young man in the 1930s. His condition forced him to pause a successful playwriting career for a long-term sanitarium stay. There, with little hope of recovery, he experienced vivid dreams of a remote people whom he decided (after consulting an Arctic explorer) might well be the real-life Skolt Sami, an indigenous ethnic group whose lifestyle had scarcely changed over centuries.
Far from assimilating with the Finnish, Russian or Norwegian societies whose borders they lived near, they maintained their own language, and a semi-nomadic seasonal existence. They only truly lived together in a “winter village” during the harshest part of the year; the rest of the calendar the 30 or so families dwelt on their separate land plots, fishing and herding reindeer.
Crottet found himself instantly welcomed by the community and was especially taken by a woman named Kaisa, who’d learned Russian while working for a monastery in her youth. After he had a curious, friendly encounter by a purported “king of the reindeer,” she announced he’d been “chosen by the forest,” and could now be told all the stories and legends of her people. He found her a hypnotic storyteller who “played the roles of animals even better than humans.” He later compiled much of this material into a book called “The Enchanted Forest,” published when he found himself stranded in London during WWII. He also used the connections he’d made there to help the Skolts get back on their feet after the war robbed them of ancestral land and homes. (Sadly, however, their resettled postwar life ended many age-old traditions.)
Kaisa’s peculiar, whimsical, richly metaphorical way of speaking (her actual voice is heard here in recordings made during the 1950s) and Crottet’s sense that “you are in a sort of lost world” with the Skolts shapes the tenor of what’s largely a collage documentary, composed of various archival materials plus some discreetly slipped-in reenactment bits. The meandering, sometimes macabre story she tells that’s woven throughout the narrative (and which ultimately turns out to “explain” how the northern lights came to exist) is charmingly animated by Veronika Bessedina in a manner suggestive of lush vintage children’s book illustrations.
Crottet remained in touch with Kaisa to the end of her life in 1980 (he died a few years later). The photographs he shot, and film shot by his life partner/collaborator Enrique Mendez, show a woman with an impish humor and childlike nature (he called her “the happiest, sweetest and most beautiful child I’ve ever known”) despite a life whose many hardships included the premature deaths of nearly all her children.
There’s a willfully anachronistic, out-of-time flavor to “Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest” that lends a beguiling message-in-a-bottle feel. That very much extends to its finely tuned packaging elements, including a gradual late shift to color after primarily B&W content. The only false note is sounded briefly by some hammy voice actor contributions in a sequence about the British public’s debate over whether to help the Skolt Sami when they’d suffered so much loss themselves; however, principal voice actors (David Mauffret reading Crottet’s writings, Sirkka Sanila occasionally filling in for Kaisa) are fine.