On the run from the police, Hella and her father, who has killed in self defence, flee into the woods to live off the land. They set up camp beneath a shoddy tarpaulin where they build fires, set traps and trade stories. At times their hideout seems like an idyll, complete with a lake they can boat on and all the time in the world to play and swim, but tension soon surfaces as Hella gets bored and hungry easily, whilst her sombre father cares more about surviving than enjoying himself. Meanwhile, a social worker and a police officer are desperate to find them, convinced that the girl is being abused and needs to be taken away from her father.
Journeying into the woods is an enduring symbol of growing up, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Red Riding Hood and Alice in Wonderland. The forest becomes representative of change, a green space where you cannot enter without returning as a different person. However, in many of the traditional versions of this kind of story, the transition happens without the involvement of adults – if civilisation is the realm of grown ups, then wild and untamed nature is the domain in which, free from the gaze of older people, youths can undergo a process of self realisation. In Sanctuary, the woods are used for similarly liminal purposes, yet this time the transition is bound up entirely with the relationship between an adult and child.
A girl in the early stages of adolescence, Hella grows up swiftly over the course of the film. She’s dangerously ignorant at first, carelessly picking at any plant or fungus whenever she is hungry. Towards the end of the film, however, she has changed, crushing birds’ skulls beneath a rock to get dinner. During this time, she also has to learn about difficult things like suicide, and has her first period. For the most part, her father is there to guide her every step of the way, to teach and help her through this difficult transitional stage. Although they struggle to communicate effectively, they are obviously attached to one another, which makes it even sadder that he is clearly preparing her for a life without him.
Time stands still in these woods. An old lady who lives alone in a house there is trapped by images of her past, dwelling on memories of past beauty. She is unable to gauge Hella’s age – at first she asks if she has children before guessing that she is either ten or fifteen. It’s as though time is irrelevant. An underwater forest reinforces the ethereal, timeless nature of this landscape, almost supernaturally preserved beneath the lake. Director Fredrik Edfeldt captures the setting with a dour, muted beauty, a desaturated world for the most part, which makes the few glimpses of colour even more effective. He conjures up unforgettable images and uses slow motion to powerful effect on two particular occasions. The film has a unique aesthetic, managing to be both earthy and magical, just as happy to observe ants crawling over old food packaging as it is to capture the glimmer of sunlight on water.
Jakob Cedergren and Clara Christiansson, as the father and daughter at the core of the film, express volumes with little more than glances and touches. Christiansson in particular is fantastic, her big blue eyes brimming with emotion as she struggles to deal with issues far beyond her years. The two of them together form the beating heart of the film; a heart that is brought beautifully to life under Edfeldt’s camera in this gorgeous, moving drama.
Sanctuary is showing at Edinburgh International Film Festival 25 & 28 June