Issue 55 (2017)

Dmitrii Davydov: Bonfire (Koster na vetru, 2016)

reviewed by Gulnara Abikeyeva© 2017

Bonfire, or Why Yakut Cinema is on the Rise

bonfire davydovA survey of international film festivals awards in recent months are testimony to the doubtless rise of Yakut cinema. First, the documentary 24 Snows (24 snega) by Mikhail Barynin received the Prize of Audience Sympathies at the 38th Moscow International Film Festival; then His Daughter (Ego doch’) by Tat’iana Everestova was awarded the Grand Prix at the 24th “Window on Europe” film festival in Vyborg; then My Murderer (Moi ubiitsa) by Kostas Marsan received the Grand Prix in his homeland at the 4th Yakutsk IFF; Sergei Potapov won the Prize for the Best Director for his film The Dyosegoy Deity (Bozhestvo D’esegoi) at the 12th IFF in Kazan; and just recently, the film Bonfire by Dmitrii Davydov was awarded the Grand Prix at the festival ImagineNative in Toronto. It is this last film that interests us in this review.

It is hard to believe that the film was shot by a man who has no training in film direction and who is generally speaking far away from cinema: Dmitrii Davydov is a school teacher from the small Yakut settlement Amga, who has recently became headmaster. He tries to make films together with his pupils: simple shorts on the topic of their everyday life. A few times he has visited the capital Yakutsk to show his films and to attend master-classes on film production. He wrote a script, re-mortgaged his house, took a loan and shot a film. And then everything turned out like in the Cinderella fairy tale: the film’s world premier took place at the Busan International Film Festival, the North-American premier in Toronto, and in November the director went to Brisbane, where the film has been nominated for the prize APSA-UNESCO.

bonfireNo doubt, the story is moving, but it is not just a story: it is typical for these places, a little bitter, and a little ridiculous. A young man runs over his friend with his tractor; they only just had a few drinks together. Therefore the man is first put in prison, and then he commits suicide. Yet the film is not about him, but about his father, an old man by the name of Ignat, who is utterly alone now in his old age. Rather, it is a story about two old men, the fathers of these two sons, the one who killed and the one who was killed. Brillante Mendoza’s Lola (2009) springs to mind, where two elderly people, two grandmothers, also clash over their grandsons, one a killer and the other a murderer. Like in the Filipino film, we see here too the infinite pain on both sides. The feelings of the father of the killed son are quite clear, when he runs to Ignat’s house with a gun to take revenge, but life puts everything in its places. By a twist of fate, he is the one to tell Ignat of his son’s suicide. Besides, film is not about this terrible tragedy, but how to live after it, how to find the force to get up in the mornings and do something.

bonfireOne old man gradually becomes an inveterate drunkard; the other, Ignat, picks up a ten year-old teenage boy from the street, who is begging for cigarettes from passers-by near the local shop. The boy is called Mogotoy, which in translation from Yakutian means “chipmunk.” This grumbling chipmunk is grateful to Ignat for shelter and food, because at his own house his alcoholic mother has not made him a hot meal for a long time. In their simple relationship lies the essence of life. The old man sets the rules: the boy should go to school, he should not steal, he should help in the house, and he should pray – no matter how and for what, as long as the prayer is before an icon. And the old man, in turn, prepares his food, teaches him woodwork, and protects him. Sometimes he has to shield him from his own mother, but when the moment comes for the boy to return home, he tells the woman that she must protect him, otherwise he might slip again onto the wrong path.

bonfire dopThe film is well shot, with exact frame compositions, a quiet color scale, and magnificent winter landscapes. What surprises is the professionalism of the filmic image, which at once lifts film to a festival level. The director of photography, Ivan Semenov, is a graduate from St Petersburg’s Institute of Cinema and Television; despite his youth, he has already filmed 14 full-length fiction films. The producer Sardana Savvina confirms that during April nobody from the film people can be found in Yakutsk, because they are all up in the forest for location shots 

The film is beautiful not only thanks to its slow rhythm and the natural landscapes, which harmonize with the people, but above all because of the people themselves, their customs and characters. Interestingly, all the roles are played by non-professional actors: the inhabitants of the settlement Amga. As the director Davydov explained, he advertised his project in the local newspaper and asked for old men of such and such age to come forward. Almost immediately Aleksei Ustinov responded to the announcement: a small, old man with a bit of a limp. The director decided to cast him in the lead role. He is an eternal old man from the taiga, who lives on the edge of permafrost; an old man with unchanged values and an unbending will to live. It turns out that the film is about a man who, after the son’s death, loses the ground under his feet, but who manages to become a support for the boy Mogotoy who has no base whatsoever. Again a comparison to Mendoza offers itself: he, too, makes films about strong people (Foster Child, 2007; Lola [Grandmother, 2009]; Trap [Taklub, 2015]; Ma’ Rosa, 2016) who get caught up in complex circumstances. Only for Mendoza these are Filipino women, for Davydov Yakut men. 

bonfire crewReflecting on the film Bonfire, I asked myself the more general question: why is Yakut cinema on the rise now? At a panel discussion at the Busan IFF, where the film’s world premier took place, the Russian film critic Sergei Lavrent’ev said that today, the most interesting films in Russia are made in the provinces and regions; and the most brilliant regional cinema is from Yakutia. Annually some 15 feature films are produced here, largely privately and mainly for distribution. Some 4–5 films make it into the festival circuit. For me there is only one answer: this is a mission, which always goes hand in hand with a rise of national consciousness. This is confirmed by the latest news from the region: on 24 October 2016, following the decision of the Constitutional Court of the Republic Sakha (Yakutia), “the recognition of the territory Sakha is linked to the native soil and the historical motherland of the Yakut people, its source of economic well-being and unique cultural and linguistic identity, and the constitutional-legal status of the Republic Sakha (Yakutia) is the socio-political and administrative organization as historically original national entity in the structure of the Russian state” (Ibragimbekov 2016). As a result of this decision, the word “Yakut” and “Yakutian” will no longer be used, but only the term “Republic Sakha.”

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Gulnara Abikeyeva

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Works Cited

Ibragimbekov, Musa. 2016. “Iakutiia ob’’iavila russkikh i chukchei nekorennymi narodami” EA Daily, 24 October.

Bonfire, Russia, 2916
Color, 84 minutes, DCP
Director: Dmitrii Davydov
Screenplay: Dmitrii Davydov
DoP: Ivan Semenov
Production Design: Sergei Sleptsov
Editing: Petr Struchkov
Sound: Innokentii Sivtsev
Music: Moisei Kobiakov
Cast: Aleksei Ustinov, Nikolai Soldatov, Radislav Zakharov, Mikhail Lazarev, Fedosia Ivanova
Producers: Sardana Savvina, Dmitrii Davydov

Dmitrii Davydov: Bonfire (Koster na vetru, 2016)

reviewed by Gulnara Abikeyeva© 2017