KinoKultura: Issue 48 (2015)
Buryat cinema is a new phenomenon. In the former Soviet Union, there was a strict cinematic table of ranks: only the Union republics had film studios, while the ethnic minorities within the republics were not supposed to have national cinemas of their own. There were Buryat film actors, beginning with Valéry Inkijinoff [Valerii Inkizhinov] who debuted in Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia (Potomok Chingiskhana, 1928) before emigrating to the West. Buryat director Arya-Zhan-Bato Dashiev made Buryat- or Siberian-themed films at Mosfilm: Three Suns (Tri solntsa, 1976); The Silent Scream (Krik tishiny, 1981), and so did Aleksandr Itygilov in Kiev with Bearskin for Sale (Prodaetsia medvezh’ia shkura, 1980) and Baras Khalzanov at Sverdlovsk Studio with Bitter Juniper (Gor’kii mozhzhevel’nik, 1985). Once in a while, Buryatia or Buryat characters would appear in films by Russian directors, such as Andrei Frolov’s The Herdsman’s Song (Pesnia tabunshchika, 1956), Vladimir Basov’s The Golden House (Zolotoi dom, 1959) or Sergei Gerasimov’s By the Lake (U ozera, 1969). The cinematographer and documentarian Anatolii Sidler chronicled life in Buryatia from the 1960s to the 1990s in his short subjects marked with poetry and a true artistic vision. On the whole, however, this vast territory remained largely unrepresented and unknown to outside viewers. In the early post-Soviet years, with their lack of funds and a general rush to discover Hollywood, an independent Buryat film industry did not stand a chance. Now the situation has changed. Easy access to digital cameras and computers has made it possible for indigenous cinemas to flourish everywhere from Nigeria to Yakutia. Buryatia has followed suit. The first feature films were the historic drama Genghis Khan’s First Comrade-in-Arms (Pervyi nuker Chingis-khana, 2006, dir. Saian Zhambalov and Erdeni Zhaltsanov), the interethnic romance Ulan Ude Story (Ulan-Udenskaia istoriia, 2008, dir. Anatolii Batorov) and the backwoods drama Echo (Ekho, 2009, dir. Zhaltsanov). The sweet, minimalist shorts Buddha’s Smile (Ulybka Buddy, 2006) and Mother’s Order (Nakaz materi, 2011, both directed by Bair Dyshenov) attracted audiences beyond the region. Since then, the floodgates have opened. This article looks at some of the more recent developments in this “new wave” of Buryat films. Time for a deeper analysis has not yet come, but a quick roll call is long overdue.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
Let us begin with the most recent hit, Steppe Games (Talyn Naadan, 2014, Bair Dyshenov). International film festivals, a gala premiere in Ulan Ude, admiring reviews—all pointed to a cultural event. It was also the first film made entirely in the Buryat language. The story seems familiar, initially, and we almost forget the portentous prologue of a Mongol warrior dying by his horse. A local boy returns from army service in the elite corps, festooned like a Christmas tree with all kinds of self-made decorations, to the native village on the Great Steppe. Helpful memory immediately suggests the Kazakh film Tulpan (2008, dir. Sergei Dvortsevoi) as the source of inspiration. Indeed, for a while we see the usual ethnographic detail, spectacular landscapes, and the vanishing way of life that the lovers of Asian exotica are accustomed to. We expect the prerequisite “battle between modernity and tradition,” but this does not happen in the way the Western arthouse filmgoer who made Tulpan such a big success settles down to. The film takes its time as the viewer is treated to a chain of breathtaking vistas of the plains and mountains that would do John Ford proud. Humans seem no more than dots in this otherworldly space, and their deeds do not amount to much. We laugh at the prank of a middle-age drunkard who manages to appropriate a bottle of vodka under the pretext that someone dear to him has died. Nothing out of the ordinary seems to happen.
The mood turns much darker suddenly, and the flashes from the ancient past become more insistent as the protagonist decides to visit the girl of his dreams who is having her wedding on that same day, with noble intentions but disastrous results. Repeated beatings, suicide and other kinds of mayhem follow, all somehow muted by the grandiose landscape, until the hero finds himself witnessing the wedding from behind the bars of a police car. In a reversal of the ancient legend, he is still alive but his horse is dead, shot by a corrupt local politician. The protagonist’s joyous homecoming has turned into tragedy within hours—one thing led to another mercilessly. His ancestors seem to look on, sympathetic but unable to help. Time has doubled back on itself in this eternal steppe.
Shadows of forgotten ancestors also appear prominently in The Sacred Spring (Bulag, 2013, dir. Solbon Lygdenov), another visually stunning film. It could even be called a manifesto of Buryat cinema, had the director not denied the existence of such cinema in a recent interview. His position is clear: Buryat films exist, but many of them are below par, both technically and artistically, and the whole is less than the sum of its parts. That may be true, but the critical [sic!] mass has been reached: more than twenty films in just five or six years. They may not constitute a coherent whole, but there is a unity of time and place that marks the beginning of something new.
The Sacred Spring demonstrates an impressive range of directorial and technical skills. The critics who were raised on the notion that films coming from remote parts of the world should proudly bear their lack of funds and lack of slickness as banners of authenticity may almost regret its professionalism. The film falls into three distinct parts. Part one is a hyperrealistic depiction of life in a Buryat village crippled by the absence of jobs and heavy alcoholism. When two Russian men make the mistake of stopping by and letting themselves be drawn into the daily life of the village, which consists of one never-ending drunken orgy, we feel for them and cheer them on to escape. They do, but the viewer stays in the village. Slowly the protagonist Viktor is set apart from the rest. He is a former schoolteacher who has become a heavy-drinking bum. The story takes a violent turn when Viktor and his gang are offered 10,000 rubles each—in 2013 you could buy 100 bottles of vodka for this sum—for stealing slabs of jade from the nearby quarry heavily guarded by paramilitary commandos. The slice-of-life drama becomes a rousing but rather implausible action movie which ends as abruptly as it started. Even in the action part, mythological overtones begin to creep in—ancient legends, wood spirits—that take over the third part completely. After the incredible adventure, the hero is safely back home, sleeping off another drunken bout. This time, however, he has gone too far. He has visions of his ancestors who finally impress on him the necessity of kicking the habit. The irony is that the noble anti-alcoholic message is delivered in an alcoholic stupor. Color bleeds into the previously severe, though beautiful, landscape. Time-lapse photography reigns. The hero mends his ways, mends fences, and most importanty, restores the sacred spring of the title, where the whole community come for a cup of clear water and moral renewal. In other words, the film, in the pursuit of a certifiably positive message, undermines its own rigorous rules for the sake of a happy ending that is just too sweet to be believed. What helps the film at the last moment is a slide show of old photographs—married couples, Buryat and Russian—that restore a sense of reality and ground the film in history which is always stranger and richer than human flights of fancy.
Comedy, Buryat Style
Buryatia, like many Russian regions, has its own KVN (Klub veselykh i nakhodchivykh, an amateur comedy show) team. It is natural that the team members were among the first to try their hands at a new medium. Buuza (Buuzy, 2013, dir. Zhargal Badmatsyrenov) is an attempt to make a youth comedy with a local flavor. One good thing to come out of it is that it may sparkle an interest in the eponymous Buryat national dish (steamed meat dumplings) outside of the area. Otherwise, there is not much to recommend it: broad humor, amateurish acting, and situations that come straight from the “reckless 1990s.” “Didn’t they all die out in the 90s?” a character asks about a particularly unsavory type. Apparently not, and neither did the movie clichés of the time. One recurrent joke has the protagonist, a Russian guy who wants to open a Buryat buuz restaurant, laughed at in his face. However, we are told from the beginning that he will succeed, and so what little suspense the movie might have is gone. In the end, the viewer is left hungering for something more appetizing than this serving of reheated dumplings.
Buuza was not the first Buryat comedy. That distinction belongs to Chainik (2010, dir. Evgenii Zamaliev). In it the four unlikely and unlikable friends— Slava (the nerd), Ivan (the jock), Alik (the playboy) and “Shtyr’” (the chav)—are trying to raise money to buy a Toyota Chaser (the “chainik” of the title). It is hard to imagine these four men even talking to each other in real life, let alone as collective car owners. As a teen comedy, the movie pleased its target audience with a string of sophomoric jokes, the street talk and the images of Ulan Ude today, but is an ordeal for more mature viewers. This critic hopes to be forgiven for having skipped the sequel to Chainik, as well as the first “adult” comedy which premiered in November 2014, Taxi in Our City, which is simply unwatchable. There is a limit to every critic’s patience.
Destination: Baikal (Na Baikal, 2011, dir. Mikhail Kozlov and Sergei Nikonov) and its sequel, Destination Baikal 2: The Takeover (Na Baikal 2: Na abordazh, 2012, dir. Mikhail Kozlov) are just as sophomoric, but surprisingly watchable and funny. Likable characters, snappy dialogue, judiciously inserted images of Ulan Ude and Lake Baikal, easy-flowing story. They are not masterpieces, but they give hope for local comedy. A couple of Putin jokes in the sequel are particularly welcome. You cannot get this kind of humor from “federal” Russian cinema or TV these days. The vacation comedy series continued with Vacation in Thailand (Kanikuly v Tailande, 2014, dir. Iurii Botoev) showcasing the now popular destination for the emerging young, hip Buryat middle class.
The youth film market does not live by comedy alone. Inevitably, the crime genre began to develop, fueled as much by the local youth gang subculture as by Western film models. Sometimes comedy and crime commingle as they did in the rather funny if inconsequential Touring Con-Artists (Gastrolery, 2014, dir. Sergei Nikonov and Evgenii Zhamtsuev), sometimes they go their separate ways. Here are a few recent examples of Buryat crime drama. Genghis Khan’s Gold (Zoloto Chingis-khana, 2012, dir. Baiar Baradiev) is a medium-length flick made in Chita and featuring a number of Buryat characters. Its creators are obviously big fans of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. The story of the guy who finds a bag containing 75 million rubles dropped by bank robbers leads to a predictably disastrous finale. Wishing for a twist in the end, the filmmakers come up with an inane frame story which is more contrived than Bollywood, but who cares as long as everyone involved has a good time? That joy is evident in the prolonged outtakes and bloopers that run during and after the end credits, but can hardly be shared by viewers.
Boom Gate (Shlagbaum, 2013, dir. Dmitrii Tuprin) is a very different "kettle of omul." This is, perhaps, the most divisive of all youth films made in Buryatia so far. It is fascinating in its attention to detail, especially the language, though you may not want to meet its protagonists in person. Three gopniks (juvenile delinquents) from Ulan Ude go to Lake Baikal to make quick money by setting up a toll booth and charging tourists for passing through. The interface of the movie or computer screen allows one a comfortable distance of eavesdropping on the young hoods’ interactions without having to communicate with them. The usual vodka, frolicking with the girls and splashing about in the lake ensue until a drunken altercation with a previously friendly local gang turns into a bloody tit-for-tat and lands one of the trio in jail. Once out, he shoots his former buddies. Buryat rap (yes, it exists) tries to romanticize the characters’ plight, but an unkind thought creeps into the viewer’s mind: let these buggers eliminate each other, the place will be cleaner without the lot of them.
Rap music permeates The Problem-Solver (Reshala, 2012, dir. Evgenii Zamaliev), too. The creator of Chainik and Ulan Udance (2011) this time takes his cue from Western and post-Soviet crime films (such as Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother [Brat, 1997] or the endless bandit television serials). The protagonist is the smart brother of a low-life scum. Time and time again, the hero has to save his brother from all kinds of trouble, small and big. The film moves at a brisk pace, and is believable in its dialogue and characterizations, but again, the question arises: Is this what Ulan Ude has turned into? Just when we thought it was safe to go back in the Baikal water again, the film tells us that this is a city ruled by criminals riding around in cool cars. Incidentally, many of the new Buryat films reflect the locals’ passionate love affair with the automobile. The creators of The Sacred Spring and Chainik in particular should have received a nice paycheck from Toyota for the generous endorsement of that company’s cars. Destination: Baikal does a parody of ostentatious product placement in one scene. In The Problem-Solver and its ilk, the “reckless 1990s” begin to look like a walk in the park compared to this brave, new Ulan Ude. We know that decent people exist, but they are nowhere to be seen on the screen. The impression is depressing. The hero dies in the end, but only days separate us from the release of Problem-Solver 2 on April 16, 2015. Will the thug become the title hero? Will the dead brother come to life?
Perhaps the most ambitious crime drama project now in production—its creators advertise it as “the grandest-scale film in Buryatia”—is There Is No Death (Smerti net, dir. Nikolai Buduev). Drawing on the long history of the youth gangs of Ulan Ude, the filmmakers have set to tell a story covering the period from the 1950s to our days. With the construction boom of the early 1960s and an increased rural-urban migration, Ulan Ude became a battlefield between several ferocious gangs claiming their turf, brutally punishing “trespassers” and staging big battles, sometimes in the city center. The filmmakers take this piece of local history very seriously—searching for the exact car makes, clothes and apparel of the Soviet era—in order to faithfully reconstruct the details of the time, which is laudable. However, the film’s slogan, “the story of our parents’ youth,” raises eyebrows. This sweeping statement alienates the viewers whose parents were not metal pipe-wielding thugs in the 1960s. It is another example of how honest, hard-working people, whose lives in the tumultuous twentieth century were indeed dramatic, are marginalized today in favor of superfluous outlaw chic.
What else is in the pipeline? Quite a few things, it seems. Bair Dyshenov’s Buryatkino Studio is working on the mystical drama Yellow Dog (Sharnokhoi) and the screenplay for Forward, Buryats! (Uragshaa Buryaduud!), touted as a “film about and for Buryats.” A blend of narrative and documentary cinema, A Touch of Wind (Prikosnovenie vetra, directed by Olga Veremeeva), is nearing completion. Mystical Buddhist overtones take over again. Some sporting dramas and more criminal mayhem lie ahead, and even a horror movie or two. There are casting calls for the war film The 321st Siberian (321-ia Sibirskaia) and the family drama Shards (Oskolki). In the meantime, Evgenii Zhamtsuev has quietly become a star of Buryat comedy—an actor you remember when the story is forgotten.
What are the issues of Buryat cinema? They are numerous, but two stand out. One is lack of professionalism and experience. This can be rectified by practice. No one has to go through the Film Institute VGIK or some other hallowed Moscow institution to be “anointed” as a film director in Russia any more. This is a good and deeply satisfying thing. The other problem is financing. For all the accessibility of digital equipment, filmmaking is still an expensive business, especially if one is not content to film exclusively within the walls of one’s own apartment. In July 2014, the government of Buryatia announced a program of support for local cinema. The total amount of funds allocated, to be divided on the basis of competition, was 1.5 million rubles (about $30,000 at last fall’s rate). This news was greeted with bitter laughter by the Buryat filmmakers. Buryatia does not have any big studios; all films are produced by small, independent companies which have a hard time surviving and largely depend on the help from families, friends and enthusiasts of Buryat cinema.
There is a third issue, just as serious. The films under review, dramatic or comical, arthouse or mass-market, have too many things in common. Almost all of them showcase the sights of Buryatia—its natural wonders, Lake Baikal, and the new architecture of Ulan Ude. If a particular film looks as if it were sponsored by the local tourist board, it probably was. In a more serious vein, they all struggle with the issues of identity and opposition—Buryat and Russian, past and present, rural and urban, poor and wealthy. Buryatia is a multicultural place, complicated by growing social divisions. It is challenging to find a subject that would appeal equally to different ethnic, religious and social groups rather than address a particular audience segment, be it Buryat cultural revivalists or multiethnic urban youth, and maybe it is not necessary. As critic Sergei Anashkin recently noted, “One should begin to differentiate between the two notions—Buryat cinema and cinema of Buryatia. They are close but far from identical.” Well said. Unfortunately, he contradicts himself by discussing exclusively ethnic Buryat subjects. In reality, most Buryat filmmakers—Buryat or Russian— are trying to produce films that would be all things to all people, but they seem to be running out of ideas. You cannot have an interethnic love story or a gang battle in every film, and the scenic beauty will wear thin soon, too. It is perhaps time the filmmakers stopped being self-conscious about the representation of Buryatia—Wow, we’re onscreen! Let’s stick it to Warner Bros. and Mosfilm!—and began telling stories that resonate deeply for them. Only then can they find a national and international audience.
What prompts optimism is that all these films, good or bad, are putting Buryatia on the cinematic map of the world, and even more importantly, they are creating a cultural discourse within Buryatia. The discussions in the social networks these days run into hundreds of pages and can be quite heated. We now have a series of points of reference that we can talk about, sometimes identify with, sometimes argue about and even hate, but the process has been started. If we have a strong vision of the place where we were born and grew up and which we care about that is drastically different from the visions presented in these movies, we should stop complaining. We simply have to step in and tell our own stories on film or at least on paper. Everyone can be a filmmaker now, one way or another.
P.S. This article was completed before the author could watch two new films that do indeed show signs of maturity in Buryat cinema. Reputedly based on a true story, Anonymous 03 (Anonim 03, 2014) is directed by Aleksandr Frolov, a star of Chainik and The Problem-Solver who graduated to social drama in this story of a single mother kicked out of her apartment by her calculating and treacherous family; while finding a way out of her predicament she meets many ordinary people who do not only leave their mark on her life, but in fact make the modern history of Ulan Ude in their unassuming, everyday fashion. The black-and-white drama Live On (Zhivi, 2015, dir. Bair Uladaev) offers another story ripped from the headlines: that of a rural newcomer to Ulan Ude whose illegally built house is demolished by the authorities. With all their shortcomings, these films confirm the cautious optimism expressed above. They do for the urban setting what Steppe Games and The Sacred Spring did for the village by getting away from picture-postcard views and looking at the people. The untidy, unglamorous reality gains a firmer footing in Buryat cinema, and it is very welcome.
Sergey Dobrynin © 2015
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