Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Andrejs gets more than he bargains for in the forest. Ugis Olte: Getting back to that primal state of existence is always delightful, it's never dark.
"What could be silly in other hands, such as gnomic suggestions that "the river gose in circles here, generates a strange unease here, as Olte explores the psychological tricks a mind can play on itself."

The wild and primal qualities of nature are to the fore in Latvian director Ugis Olte's debut fiction feature, which playfully uses techniques and ideas from folk horror to reinforce its unsettling mood, while keeping the emphasis on the mythic rather than the manic. There's more than just the suggestion of threat indicated by the axe head that is slowly being consumed by a tree in this mossy, moist corner of Latvia - as we immediately see a kayaker getting into tragic trouble on a river in spate. Beyond the immediate threat to life, there's also the flicker of something else in the water - something whose mystery Olte carefully guards throughout the film.

The incident leaves kayak instructor and guide Andrejs (Igors Selegovskis) acutely aware of the dangers nature can hold, all of which means he's keen to help his social media influencer sister Mara (Elvita Ragovska) and her crew shoot a vegan sausage commercial out in the wilds. Mara, her co-star Matiaas (Rihaard Sniegs), videographer Oskars (Reinis Boters) and Ad agency project manager Eva (Inga Tropa) are considerably more laidback about the woodland and a spot of river kayaking than Andrejs - whose anxieties are only worsened by the locals, particularly the threatening park ranger Inspector Salins (Morten Traavik), who seems as though he might well have something to hide.

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Olte deliberately calls to mind films like Deliverance but he has subversion on his mind, with things getting increasingly murky after Andrejs finds himself frantically searching for the rest of the crew after they mysteriously disappear.

There is humour in the script, which Olte co-wrote with Bojana Babic and Lucas Abrahão, but it retains a sense of unease that springs from the primal nature of this wild space and the strange encounters that Andrejs has with locals including a woman (Mara Kimele) who he finds wandering in the woods and her oddly silent husband (Ugis Praulins).

What could be silly in other hands, such as gnomic suggestions that "the river goes in circles here, generates a strange unease here, as Olte explores the psychological tricks a mind can play on itself. The performances are gutsy all round, with the actors embracing the primal elements of their roles and the mood is further gingered up by Artis Dukalskis' eerie sound design often hovering halfway between the animalistic and the industrial.

The camerawork from cinematographer Valdis Celmins also emphasises the expanse of the woods in comparison to the smallness of the humans, with drone work - often overused these days - employed judiciously to further give a sense of humans lost in the bigger picture. While some may find Olte is ultimately more of a tease than they would like, the documentarian's first foray into fiction shows a keen eye for imagery and a strong handle on the way that, in the right circumstances, we're all more susceptible to the suggestion of the supernatural and mythic than we might think when we're safe within the four walls of our own homes.

Reviewed on: 22 Nov 2021
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A wilderness guide finds himself up against nature and his own anxiety after his sister and her film crew, who he is helping, disappear in the forest.

Director: Ugis Olte

Writer: Ugis Olte, Bojana Babic, Lucas Abrahão

Starring: Igors Selegovskis, Inga Tropa, Rihards Sniegs, Elvita Ragovska, Morten Traavik, Reinis Boters, Andris Akmentins, Mara Kimele, Elita Klavina, Ugis Praulins

Year: 2021

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: Latvia

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