KinoKultura: Issue 57 (2017)

Native Cinema from the Arctic Circle

By Birgit Beumers

Every other year, starting in 2013, the Berlinale has been hosting an edition of “NATIVe: A Journey into Indigenous Cinema”. The first edition highlighted the cinema of Oceania, Australia, and North America, while the second edition in 2015 offered a cinematic journey across Latin America, from Zacatecas to Patagonia. The third edition in 2017, curated by Maryanne Redpath, focused on the regions of the arctic people: Greenland, Canada, Finland and the Russian Federation, showing the traditions and cultures of the Canadian Inuits and Alaskan Inupiats, the Sami people, the people of Sakha (Yakuts), the Chukchi, Khanty and Nenets.

native_24snowThe large contingent of ethnic groups on the territory of the Russian Federation thus formed a special feature within this wide program. From Sakha (Republic of Yakutia), Sardana Savvina, one of the founders of the Yakutsk International Film Festival and a producer for a number of local and international film projects, acted as consultant for the territories (her article on cinema in Yakutia features in this issue of KinoKultura). Apart from a presence at the European Film Market (EFM), the NATIVe program included lectures, presentations and discussions, hosted at the Canadian Embassy and focusing on topics around funding, producing and distributing films from the Arctic regions, but also addressing such profane issues as handling equipment at temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius, and dealing with questions of storytelling and the relationship of ethnic cinema to the mainstream. As Maryanne Redpath raised in the foreword to the NATIVe catalogue, the relationship between indigenous people and the state within which their land is located has always been tense and dominated by a discourse between colonized and colonizers, in which the voice and visuals afforded by cinema are used for protestation. 
Traditionally, they’ve been nomads, craftsmen, hunters, riders and herders, their identity steeped in culture and environment and their territories reaching far beyond state borders. Suffering from the effects of colonisation in the name of the church and the state, Indigenous peoples have been suppressed, languages eradicated and children put into residential schools. They have always raised their voices through their unique story-telling.

native_24snowIn this sense, placing a set of films from Russia’s newly emerging and revived regional studios—from Sakhafilm to Tatarkino—within a more universal context adds an extra dimension to the state of the film industry in the autonomous republics and regional centers of the Russian Federation. They operate, in effect, in similar conditions to filmmakers in other regions of the Arctic, and the fate of the ethnic communities is endangered in similar ways across the world. This moves into the foreground the concern, outlined in the quote above, with protestation and raising a voice, but also with preserving traditions by capturing the habitats on screen rather than engaging in searches of film language and aesthetics. The documentary form is thus of key importance to those cinematographies.

The move to the regions represents, for Soviet and Russian film history, the opposite direction of the kulturfilm in the late 1920s and early 1930s, produced to capture the backward civilization of the Soviet East and Central Asia and contrasting the indigenous lifestyles and habitat with the modernization and civilization brought by the Soviet colonizer. Oksana Sarkisova has demonstrated the force of cinematic images in consolidating Soviet power in her recent monograph, Screening Nationalities (2016). The kulturfilms, largely produced by the central film studio Vostokkino, asserted a centralized discourse over ethnic minorities that were about to perish under the Soviet system. Yet somehow such indigenous lifestyles survived the policy of assimilation under Stalin and beyond, into the post-Soviet era, where they are once again threatened by centralized policies and mechanisms of control. There is a clear danger to the traditions, especially of the peoples of the North, which is, however, less the result of political pressure than of the temptations of modern life and civilization that have become an alternative and an option—rather than an enforced way of life.

native_tundrabookThe primary concern with depicting a lifestyle endangered by civilization lies at the heart of The Tundra Book (Kniga Tundry, 2011), a documentary by Aleksei Vakhrushev with the subtitle The Tale of Vukvukai the Little Rock, which accompanies the family of the reindeer herder Vukvukai, an elder in the Chukchi community. Vakhrushev, himself of Yupik ethnicity and from Chukotka, studied and graduated from the State Film School VGIK in Moscow in 1996. He was thus well equipped to gain access not only to remote regions, but also to the clan he observes and whom he visits during winter and summer, tracking their lives over a year. The film is divided into twelve chapters, or twelve months, as Vukvukai narrates the tale of his people and their dependence on the tundra with its harsh conditions and beautiful landscapes, with its plain grass and rocky surfaces in summer and ice and snow in the winter.

The film is less concerned with folklore and rituals than with the everyday hardship of the people who depend in part on supplies and medical care delivered from the city via helicopter, and who have to part with their children at some point for them to be educated in urban boarding schools, to return only for the summer vacation. Once acquainted with the benefits of civilization, many of the children remain in urban areas and never return to the herd, to the pasture, to the family, whereby the entire lifestyle of reindeer herders is endangered. This is articulated in a matter-of-fact way by 72-year-old Vukvukai at the film’s end. The energy and the enthusiasm for the herding to a large extent depend on the elder: he is aware of the threat that the politics from the centre pose to the Chukchi legacy and traditions, but maintains a stoic position of perseverance. His extraordinary sense of humor certainly creates a bond with the people into whose lives the camera would otherwise visually intrude, instead along the spectator in and sweeping him/her along.

native_johosoiTwo films from the Republic of Sakha were presented in the program: first, Sergei Potapov’s God Johogoi (Johogoi Aiyy, 2016), made in documentary form and shot in black and white. The film follows a young horse herder who comes to the city and travels further for the Ysyakh celebration, the summer solstice celebration that emphasizes revival and rebirth. The god Johogoi of the title is a horse deity, and the herder believes he has been summoned by this deity to find the woman of his dreams at the event. The herder is full of excitement and tries to integrate with the others who have come to celebrate; yet his search for the dream woman somewhat obfuscates his perception of reality, which is blurred. Images tend to turn into dream-like sequences, allowing director Potapov to create a layer of symbolism that blends with the documentary mode. Potapov fuses also his experience with theatre and cinema in the film, a familiarity with fiction and documentary that he acquired with his cultural training received in his native land and the theatre background gained at the Moscow Theatre Institute.

The second full-length Sakha film in the program was 24 Snow (24 snega, 2016), directed by Mikhail Barynin, also shot in documentary form. Barynin is an established documentary filmmaker who studied at the Film Institute VGIK in Moscow under Sergei Miroshnichenko. His films have screened widely at international and national festivals. The film also focuses on a horse breeder, revealing in a more direct manner the hardship of life in a permafrost area. Barynin captures the landscapes and the horses in their free movement with an extraordinary sensitivity, highlighting their magnificence and their independence: the horse represents, after all, a deity and is therefore free to roam.

native_johosoiThe importance of the horse for the culture of the Sakha people binds them also to the culture of other Turkic peoples, including the Kyrgyz. Indeed, in Aktan Arym Kubat’s Centaur (Kentavr, 2016) which premiered at the Berlinale in the Panorama section, the horse representing a free spirit, a deity and a link to lost traditions stands as the heart of the film’s plot (reviewed by Gulbara Tolomushova).

In addition to these films from the Russian Federation, the NATIVe program showcased the short film Boy and Lake (Ogo kuyuurduu turara, 2003) by Prokopii Nogovitsyn from Sakha, and the feature co-production by Anastasia Lapsui and Markku Lehmuskallio, Seven Books of the Tundra (Seitseman laulua tundralta, Finland 2000) about the Nenets people.

Overall, it is a laudable initiative of the Berlinale to host the NATIVe program, which is closely linked to imagineNATIVE film festival in Toronto, the world’s largest presenter of indigenous films, whose artistic director Jason Ryle advises the Berlin initiative.

Birgit Beumers © 2016

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