In the deep midwinter of December 2021, artist Ruth Maclennan set out on a journey to and through the icy expanses of Arctic Russia. With temperatures plummeting, and storm clouds gathering as a result of an ominous geopolitical chill in the air, Maclennan’s intended destination was a tiny settlement in the taiga forests around Arkhangelsk. There, she had arranged to convene a meeting of a small group of artists, scientists and craftspeople from the locality and elsewhere, whose purpose was to consider a much wider threat to the stability of the region – the impending disaster of climate change. The far North is a frontline of planetary warming, an incontrovertible real-time barometer of its manifold effects. But it is also a repository of age-old knowledge and experience of living sustainably close to nature and with the renewable resources of the land. In this, the rich gift of wood, as building material and basis for countless domestic and artistic items, stands in stark contrast to the goldrush fantasies of mineral and fossil fuel extraction peddled by Putin and his crony oligarchs. The forest, in its unique way, is also a treasure trove of myths and fables – whose glints of hard-won wisdom, tellingly, often run counter to the rapacious reflexes of control and conquest of the contemporary Russian state.
‘This film was shot over two weeks in December 2021 in remote areas of European Arctic Russia. The northern winter is a time for gathering round a fire to find comfort and delight in sharing stories and food. The unfinished stories in A Forest Tale are collectively made, words in motion, fashioned by hand, voice and long experience, tales of a place through time. Time here is elastic, playing backwards and forwards, as people and forest hold out against present threats including climate change, industrial logging and political adventurism, working to survive and flourish in the future. The trees – larch, pine, fir and birch – and forests are the matter and world of these stories and lives, incarnate in the houses, tools, artefacts, food and heat.
While A Forest Tale was being filmed, Russia was assembling thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine, and a sense of foreboding was in the air. We spoke of our fears of what might be about to happen. But the film was finished before the invasion of Ukraine, and therefore it seems important to let the voices and places of that moment speak for themselves, and not distort them with hindsight. Something good happened in that little corner of Russia, though the war can make it hard for people to appreciate that anymore. A film, at least for its duration, replays that elastic time again, conjuring a ‘what if’ to replace the desperate feeling of ‘if only’.’
Ruth Maclennan 2022