KinoKultura: Issue 41 (2013)

Ivan Golovnev: The Taiga’s Activist Ethnographic Filmmaker

By Beach Gray (Pittsburgh)

Ivan Golovnev is dedicated to his art. He directs, shoots, and writes the script for his documentary films. He spends significant time in the taiga with the individuals portrayed in his films, and as a result these poignant works sometimes take years to make. His meticulous attention to detail and his provocative take on ethnographic cinema have garnered critical acclaim and prizes at international film festivals both at home and abroad.[1]

The overarching theme of his work has to do with the indigenous Khanty of Northwest Siberia and their struggle to live a traditional lifestyle in the contemporary world, where big corporate oil interests threaten to take away their land and way of existence. His films do not simply rely on established tropes of ethnographic cinema; rather, they function by playfully appropriating these tropes and calling them into question. The effect is a careful positioning of the Khanty in the specificity of their geographic location with a broader view as to how the subjects of his films are inextricably linked to a larger national and global context.

katerinaGolovnev’s films—especially his trilogy Little Katerina (Malen’kaia Katerina, 2004) Old Man Peter (Starik Petr, 2008), and Oilfield (Mestorozhdenie, 2012)—advocate a particular group of people and their plight over almost a decade. At the same time, though, they raise deeper questions about the human experience: man’s interaction and co-evolution with technology, the preservation of individual and group ethnic identities and histories, and the challenges of adapting to a rapidly changing world while maintaining traditions.

Golovnev’s work cannot be pigeonholed only to activist-oriented cinema about the Khanty. His ethnographic interests extend beyond ethnicity to include culture and religion as well. These concerns become apparent in his short fiction film with a documentary aesthetic, The Guest (Gost’, 2004), and in his documentary film Crossroads (Perekrestok 2006), which depicts the West Siberian village of Okunevo, a unique place where Orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism are practiced side by side.

Golovnev shows incredible poise and control as a filmmaker. He has received a wide-ranging education, with a degree in history from Omsk State University, in directing cinema and television from the Sverdlovsk Film Studio in Ekaterinburg, and in screenwriting and directing from the Higher Courses in Moscow, where he studied under Petr Todorovskii and Natal’ia Riazantseva. In addition to his formal education, he comes from a family of filmmakers. His father, Andrei Golovnev, is an ethnographic filmmaker and the producer for Ethnographic Bureau Studio, which funds the younger Golovnev’s films. In addition to this familial connection, Ivan Golovnev has long-standing relationships not only with the subjects of his films, but with the local organizations of historical preservation as well, in particular the Khanty-Mansi local museum.

Golovnev is integrated into the communities he studies, and in this way he shares a certain affinity with Robert Flaherty, the famed director of Nanook of the North (1922). This landmark film follows Nanook (played by Allakariallak), an Inuit in Canada, as he employs traditional methods to provide food, clothing, and shelter for his family. Similar to Flaherty, Golovnev is integrated into an indigenous population of “artic” people for long periods of time. Flaherty, however, tended to position his subjects into an idealized past—what Johannes Fabian refers to as the “denial of coevalness” (Fabian 2002). For example, he inserted the famous scene of Nanook encountering a gramophone “for the first time” and biting the record as if it were the first time Nanook had encountered Western technology. Golovnev does not portray his subjects as trapped in a prelapsarian past. They are intricately enmeshed in the contemporary world, and, just like many people, they balance the advantages of increased technology and heightened interconnectedness with the harmful effects of global capitalism.

In addition to this link to the beginnings of ethnographic cinema, Golovnev also comes from a long line of Soviet documentary filmmakers. An exemplary representative would be Mikhail Kalatozov, who made Salt for Svanetia (Sol’ Svanetii, 1930), an important film that documents the state effort to bring salt to the remote mountain region of Svanetia in Soviet Georgia. In contrast to Soviet filmmakers, whose project was to enter an indigenous community in order to “better” it with technology, Golovnev ingratiates himself into indigenous communities to document what they see as their own problems. Golovnev’s project, therefore, differs in approach from both the Soviet and “global arctic” (or early ethnographic) methodologies. Golovnev’s knowledge of and growth from both these traditions has produced a series of clever films that challenge the norms of ethnographic cinema. These works create a space to pose larger questions about the human condition in modern-day indigenous communities.

katerinaLittle Katerina is the first installment of Golovnev’s trilogy of films which also includes Old Man Peter and Oil Field. Each of these 20-30 minute works stands on its own, especially Little Katerina, which has won the most awards at international film festivals among Golovnev’s work. The film depicts the life of the young Khanty girl Katerina at four specific stages in her life—at the age of 2 years and 3 months, 2 years and 9 months, 3 years and 7 months, and 4 years and 4 months. Each stage of Katerina’s life corresponds to a specific season of the year, and each of the four vignettes portrays Katerina as she grows up with her nuclear family: father, mother, and older brother. The film depicts how these people live off the taiga through traditional methods of animal husbandry and hunting. The visual aesthetic of the film, however, represents Katerina’s perspective. The camera is usually positioned at her eye level rather than Golovnev’s.

Katerina is represented more as a miniature adult than a playful child. During the first episode Katerina is barely over two years old, but she does the work of an adult. The camera shows her accomplishing daily chores around the family’s camp in spring, and there is an implicit connection of the young Katerina to all of the young taiga animals. The episode is entitled “The Month of the Reindeer Calves’ Birth.” Katerina—in traditional fur clothing—stacks firewood and feeds the dogs. A metal ax and ladle are the most advanced tools these people seem to have, so that the lifestyle strikes one as pre-industrial.

As each vignette unfolds, it becomes clear that the story of Katerina is an allegory for the supposed history of man’s “entrance” into civilization. In each successive episode, Katerina takes on greater responsibilities, and more evidence of the contemporary world gets revealed. The second vignette features Katerina at age 2 years and 9 months during winter, where she helps her family do things that require a higher level of human advancement than her previous tasks. She gathers water in frozen temperatures, bakes bread, and helps to herd reindeer. In comparison to the last episode, this vignette includes more evidence of the domestication of animals and agriculture. As Katerina grows older, the family gets temporarily closer to the current moment, but the film is placed into a contemporary global context only by the end of the episode. As the family eats reindeer meat together on the floor of their cabin, a diegetic radio news announcement can be made out faintly in the background. There is a mention of “terrorism,” a catchword that throws these peaceful people into the complexity and turmoil of global conflicts.

The third and the final vignettes proceed much more rapidly than the first two, which established the family’s life in the taiga in spring and winter. They are significantly shorter in duration—they total to only 4 minutes of this 24 minute film. In the third episode Katerina is squarely shown in contemporary Russia, where she takes a helicopter ride over the region. Non-diegetic music occurs for the first time, and its wordless and ominous tone foreshadows the final episode. An inter-title reads that Katerina has reached the age of 4 years 4 months and “the season of the high waters” has come. This fourth vignette marks a firm stylistic alteration by abandoning the perspective correlating to Katerina’s eye level that dominated the previous three vignettes. Instead, a camera with a bird’s eye view looks down at stumps of freshly cut timber and then tilts forward to feature each member of Katerina’s family individually in medium close-up. As the camera zooms out from an angle that shows them standing in front of their tent, an oil rig is revealed in the background. An inter-title then confirms that this oil rig has been erected next to the family’s summer camp.

Golovnev literalizes the ethnographic trope of infantilizing the other by shooting almost the entire film from Katerina’s perspective. The aesthetic break in the fourth part explodes this trope and reveals it to be mere artifice. The effect is that the normal documentary style in this last part comes across as a more direct and pressing address than it would have had the entire film had been shot in this way. The film challenges this spectator to confront the seriousness of this family’s position and to realize the film’s own connection to a pro-filmic reality.

old peterOld Man Peter exhibits many of the techniques and themes of the first film in the trilogy. Peter Sengepov is an 87-year-old Khanty man who lives by himself in the taiga in accordance with tradition. Similar to the family in the previous film, the film begins by showing Peter as he goes about his daily routine. The ethnographic tropes in the film—especially the emphasis on “primitive” or indigenous technologies and the Khantys’ harmony with nature—almost reach to the level of absurdity. The beginning of the film features Peter as he strips bark from a birch tree. He then shapes and cuts the bark to form a traditional mask. Close-ups of his hands feature the skill with which he accomplishes his task. Peter lives in a traditional tent in a camp on the Kazym river. His only companions are the pets that crowd his domicile. At one comic moment, a reindeer calf that Peter is feeding bread suddenly decides to go after the old man’s cookies.

But Old Man Peter is more than just a Dr Doolittle or a cartoonish representation of an ethnographic Other trapped in the distant past. There is a complex layering in his relationship to the taiga and personal history. In addition to his domestic skills, he is an accomplished fisherman and hunter who has “taken in” eighty-nine bears in his lifetime. Moreover, Old Man Peter is one of the few practicing shamans left in the taiga, and thus has a spiritual connection to the land. As the film unfolds, it becomes apparent that Peter has had to bear much emotional pain in his life—from the purging of shamans in his childhood during the 1930s to the loss of his wife and son, an event which is mentioned but remains shrouded in mystery.

In contrast to the previous film, in which the four stages of Katerina’s life function as an allegory for man’s entrance into civilization, Peter’s life is fully contextualized in a painful Soviet past and an uncertain future in the Russian Federation. It slowly comes to light that Peter is a lonely man trying to survive in the taiga, who faces big oil interests that force him onto an increasingly small plot of land.

At one point in the film, a helicopter arrives in the taiga to bring Peter to the closest town to vote. Just as in the previous film, the helicopter functions as a literalized metaphor of the entry into the modern world. At the ballot station he makes a speech in his native Khanty language that reflects his vulnerable position. He speaks not only to the appropriation of traditional lands, but also to the way in which elderly people such as himself heavily rely on government pensions. Thus, his concerns resonate not only with indigenous people, but with an aging Russian population as well.

old peterIn Little Katerina, Katerina struggles throughout the film to speak and usually pronounces inarticulate sounds. Her voice is expressed through the imagery, especially with the stark look at the end that reveals the desperation of the family’s situation. In Old Man Peter much of the information is provided by subtitles for his speech in Khanty, but Peter directly addresses the camera to express his dismay about the way his lands have been limited. The question of who has the right to speak for whom is a complex one (Alcoff 1991-92), but Golovnev is careful in his editing to exclude auditory narration: he only provides subtitles and images. Thus Peter’s voice comes across more dramatically, especially since the old man speaks directly to the camera about the issues that most concern him. The theme of speaking is developed further in the last film of the trilogy, Oilfield.

The final installment of this powerful trilogy opens shockingly, even comically, when compared with the first two films. Golovnev’s cinematic method involved ethnographic ways of seeing in the first part of the trilogy; he then upset these ways of seeing to garner the audience’s attention and sympathy for the subjects. This work, however, explodes ethnographic tropes from the beginning. After only two minutes, a Nenets man by the name of Vasilii Piak speaks on a walkie-talkie about the movement of the reindeer herd. The footage cuts to a woman identified as the Khanty woman Svetlana Piak. She responds on a walkie-talkie where the herd is headed. The exchange between the two and the point at which it occurs in the trilogy are telling: these people live in the modern world right from the film’s start and are not trapped in an idealized past. Unlike the representation of Nanook and his encounter with the gramophone, these two people know how to use technology effectively, to make their traditional animal husbandry easier. Later in the film, they are shown giving shots to sick reindeer as well.

oilfieldGolovnev’s film, therefore, makes a subtle point. It is not technology and an inability to adapt that harms these people and their lives, but big oil corporations and their relentless pursuit of profit. The work shows how these indigenous people practice a sustainable mode of living, while subtly suggesting that the oil companies do not. The theme of the victimization of the poor is specific to the Khanty-Mansi region, but also applicable to mankind at large. The message extends not only to indigenous populations, but all people who attempt to live independently and self-sufficiently, utilizing the wisdom of past generations, but adapting to a modern world positively through appropriating technology.

The film foregrounds this use of technology before it offers a more detailed look at the life these two people lead, where an oil company set up base on their land. Just as old man Peter had more of a voice and personal agency in relating his story to the camera than Katerina did, Vasilii interacts even more directly with the camera, which shows him and his wife struggling to make a living by animal husbandry. In a cruel twist of irony, Vasilii regretfully takes a job with the oil company to earn enough to survive. He eventually decides to leave the job because, as he tells the camera in simple, yet beautiful poetry, the reindeer and the land provide everything that he and his wife need in order to thrive and be happy. Thus, the film suggests that their lifestyle is not only not “backwards” but perhaps even forward-looking. Similar to the shaman Peter, they are stewards of the land and traditions. Despite these positive associations, the dark tone of the film and the open-ended conclusion suggest that, despite the positive aspects of their lives, Vasilii and Svetlana will be pushed out of their mode of existence if nothing is done on their behalf.

oilfieldThe English title Oil Field masks a complexity and double-meaning in the Russian title of the film, Mestorozhdenie, a word which literally relates to the source of the oil, but it can also mean “birthplace.” For the two characters in the film it is not only their personal birthplace, but also the birthplace of their respective Khanty and Nenets cultures.

Thus the trope of birth evolves from the beginning of the trilogy, with Katerina at 2 years and 3 months, to the time of the “birth of the reindeer calves.” The tone has become quite ominous by the end of the trilogy, though. Furthermore, the trope of the larger family, which is disconnected, becomes apparent in the way that the first film featured a nuclear family, the second an isolated individual, and the last a couple without children. The message is clear: the past has been painful at times, and the future (even in the literal sense of procreation) remains uncertain. Since low birthrates are a perennial problem in the Russian Federation in general, the issue not only concerns the Khanty, Nenets, and other indigenous peoples of Russia, but ethnic Russians as well. In this way, Golovnev once again presents specific problems in local contexts that resonate with people throughout the country and the world, as it faces economic structures of power and conflicts over the control of natural resources.

guestThe Guest is Golovnev’s only fiction film. Just like his other works, it is less than thirty minutes long and has a documentary feel, especially since it is shot on a DVCam, as are all of Golovnev’s films. It is also set in the taiga and concerns the conflict between indigenous people living off the land and big oil interests. An older and venerable-looking ethnic Russian, Boris, with a white beard flies into the taiga by helicopter to visit an indigenous Siberian man, Mikhail, who lives alone with his daughter Polina. At first it appears that Boris and Mikhail are old friends, as Boris greats both Mikhail and Polina warmly and showers them with a few, simple gifts: candy and a handkerchief for the young woman. As the film unfolds, though, it becomes clear that the older, yet still very active Russian has come to get the oil rights to the land on which the two indigenous people live.

guestBoris wants not only the right to the land, but the attractive young Polina as well. As he travels on skis through a sacred part of the taiga, ostensibly protected by a spirit, he believes to see her. He pursues her, only to put himself in a dangerous position on literally thin ice. The image of the young woman doubles before him, then doubles again to present him with four versions of the same person. The man eventually falls through the ice, and is saved by local shamans who rescue him and nurse him back to health.

Thus the film balances the representation of the Khanty as hospitable with the taiga as an unpredictable mystery. It emphasizes the importance of respect for the land and its complex history. The representation of the ethnic Russian who intrudes without understanding and honoring the taiga is implicitly contrasted with Golovnev’s position. The connection is made most clearly by the way Boris wants to photograph Mikhail and Polina as if they are museum exhibits. Unlike the protagonist, though, Golovnev enters the area with respect and a desire for greater understanding rather than the aim of exploitation.

crossroadCrossroads is, perhaps, Golovnev’s most experimental film. It features an individual, Pavel Merlis (who also goes by Puran), and wordlessly follows him as he participates in the rites of the Hindu, Islam, and Orthodox Christian faiths in the Siberian village of Okunevo. Pavel fulfills all of the rituals with what appears to be sincere investment. Towards the end of the film Pavel explains the way in which he came to practice so many faiths. In total darkness, an image of Babaji appeared in front of him; he asked what the one true religion was. Babaji answered by splitting into an image of itself and an image of Jesus Christ. Pavel tells the camera how he interpreted this sign: as an assertion that all gods are different representations of a single faith and truth. According to him, the differences in religions will disappear over time.

crossroadIs this an investigation into an individual or does the film carry social repercussions? While Golovnev is careful neither to advocate directly or criticize Pavel’s position, the mere choice of making a serious film about this individual is a move towards greater cultural understanding. In a post-Soviet space where religious authorities are gaining more political clout, and where divisions of faith are becoming more pronounced, the film is striking for its sympathetic portrayal of this individual, the principles he believes in, and the Russian village that makes this possible. Once again, Golovnev opens up a space for thinking through complex questions about ethnic and religious identity without necessarily providing hard and fast answers. And he does this precisely by giving his subjects a diegetic voice to explain to the spectator the issues most important to them.

Golovnev is a filmmaker who has integrated himself in the communities he films. His work carefully respects these people and recognizes that they live in a contemporary world. Golovnev does not try to reject or eliminate ethnographic tropes in his work altogether; rather he continuously plays with these tropes to develop his own discourse for a sympathetic portrayal of the Khanty. Golovnev’s work provides a voice for greater cultural and class understanding in a post-Soviet space where these concerns are becoming increasingly marginalized despite the “freedoms” promised by the current regime and economic system. His films are not merely a call for action; they are beautiful expressions of the complexity and beauty of the taiga, of Siberia, and of the people who live there. They are meditations on how Siberians relate to their own land and traditions, and the importance of preserving cultural identity while advocating cultural understanding.

Beach Gray
University of Pittsburgh


1] For more detailed information on the awards these films have won, see Ivan Golovnev’s page on the Russian Anthropological Film Festival website

Works Cited

Alcoff, Linda Martin, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” Culture Critique 20 (1991-2): 5-32.

Fabian, Johannes, “Time and the Emerging Other,” Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object, New York: Columbia UP, 2002, pp. 1-35.

Beach Gray © 2013

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Updated: 14 Jul 13