While scouting locations for his first feature film, director Kasimir Burgess got lost in the wild of the Yarra Valley. It lasted for all of 30 minutes, but the experience lingered. “It’s sublime but terrifying how minuscule a civilised and intelligent man can become in the space of half an hour,” he says.

After leaving audiences awestruck at the Sydney International Film Festival and then MIFF, Burgess’ film, Fell, is now screening at ACMI until September 27.

It’s perhaps an overstatement to say that getting lost was the defining seed for this raw, sparse film, but all the ingredients are there. Fell is populated with long, booming shots of falling trees, screaming chainsaws, lined faces and solitary human figures scaling the old growth. It’s a film about human fallibility and the wild cruelty of nature. It is also a tender portrait of the remorse and renewal of two men, played by Daniel Henshaw and Matt Nable, who are drawn into a deadlock in a small logging community by a tragic accident. The film is an exercise in understatement and tension, threatening to escalate into revenge.

But for Burgess, Fell is about subverting those expectations and letting the audience think for itself: “It was about creating a film that would allow people the space to find their own truth. The collective intelligence of an audience, in the cinema particularly, just boggles my mind.”

Burgess has developed something of a reputation across a dozen award-winning short films, including Lily, which won the Crystal Bear award for best short film at the Berlin Film Festival in 2011. That he has never attempted a feature-length film before is evidence he wanted to get it right. Fell was conceived as a collaboration with screenwriter and director Natasha Pincus, who is best known for her music-video work, including Gotye’s Somebody That I Used to Know.

“I never saw shorts as a stepping stone to features,” says Burgess. “I just love doing them. But eventually Natasha and I realised that the story we were looking at was too big for that length.”

The Yarra Valley is the real star of the film. “It just felt like a really good way to externalise what was happening within our characters,” explains Burgess. “The trauma and the violence of the natural world meant that we didn’t need to use as many familiar tropes, or dialogue or music.”

With this enigmatic approach, the forest operates as more than just a backdrop – it’s a catalyst for the emotional transformations of two men, and its authority pervades every shot. “To get to some of these places was a serious mission,” says Burgess. “We had to learn to climb the trees to get those shots. We had to know what we were after.”

Given Fell’s subtle, creeping effect on the viewer, it’s not surprising that the producers have chosen to subvert the usual release pattern. The film has had a deliberately slow release, from the Sydney Film Festival in June to the current run at ACMI. Viewers can also stream the film online for $10. For now, Burgess is content for it to slowly build a reputation and mystique.

“It’s a really gentle, quite clever way of testing the waters. And it democratises it,” says Kasimir. “More people can see the film and that’s great.”

For the full experience, though – the haunting, ornate sound design and existential unease of the wilderness – Fell will be playing for several weeks at ACMI. If you’re lucky, the cast and crew will be in the bar afterwards. “We’ve been doing that most nights,” says Burgess, “just making ourselves available to audiences. It’s been sparking some great debate and conversation.”

Fell is screening at ACMI until September 27 ($10, $7 concession), and is available to stream from the ACMI website. The cast and crew will be available for an informal chat with the audience following the 6.30pm screening this Thursday.