Issue 62 (2018)

Milko Lazarov:Ága (2018)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2018

Aga berlinAccompanied by performances of Yakut folklore, Ága closed the Berlinale 2018, one of the major film festivals to consistently demonstrate, through its biannual NATIVe program, an interest in and support for native cinema, following the magnificent collaboration with Toronto-based imagiNATIVE festival in 2017 (see KinoKultura 57). However, this film is not just “native” fare: albeit shot in Yakutia (Sakha in the native language), the film is an international co-production led by a Bulgarian producer and directed by Bulgarian director Milko Lazarov, making only his second feature.

The exotic setting, the emphasis on native traditions and rituals, and the impressive landscapes captured by cameraman Kaloyan Bozhilov are not all that the film has to offer: in addition, this is a fine story about the persistence of love, which makes the portrayal of native traditions secondary and lets the film speak on a more universal level. This, I would suggest, is one of the advantages of a co-production, forcing local actors and scriptwriters to speak to and with their foreign director and co-scriptwriter in order to achieve a high level of communication and understanding that seeps into the connections the film establishes with its audiences, local and global. The opening scene of the film misleads us thoroughly: the film begins with the image of a Sakha woman dressed in a traditional, colorful outfit and playing the mouth harp: this looks like a performing for tourists, or for the viewer, as she stares into the camera and bows out. Yet she is not a character of the film; she is a reminder of what may be left of the native cultures if the story that follows replicates itself, and the erosion of nature and traditional lifestyle is not halted: a performance, a hollow ritual. She takes us from that world of the onlooker onto the exotic and opens the view onto the authentic.

AgaThe authentic story which follows has indeed the feel of a documentary: the filmmaker observes, with an anthropological interest and attention to detail, the everyday routine of the reindeer hunter Nanook (Mikhail Aprosimov) and his wife Sedna (Feodosia Ivanova ) in the tundra. They have no connection to the outside world, apart from a young man, Chena, who comes and visits occasionally on his snowmobile to bring essentials—and news from town and from their daughter Ága, an engineer in a diamond mine. Even though we do not see Ága until the end of the film, a contrast is created not only between the colorful performance of Sakha traditions and real life, with Nanook and Sedna clad in brown and grey fur and leather clothes to protect them from the elements, but also between the warmth of the hearth in the yurt and the cold of the industrial processes in which the daughter is engaged.

AgaWith a documentary eye Lazarov and Bozhilov follow the couple’s daily routine: their physical closeness in the yurt, and their self-reliance when doing their chores during the day, Sedna at home and Nanook on the hunt or fishing. The procurement of food, he complains, is getting harder; what he brings back after fishing in ice holes is deplorable, and hunting for reindeer is a vain exercise; even setting up traps is quite unproductive. Their habitual set of resources is running low as the seasons change and spring comes earlier, and life in the tundra gets harder with every day, with every year, while the couple ages and their strength weakens. Yet Nanook (for the Inuit, the master of bears, but also a reference to Robert J. Flaherty’s legendary documentary Nanook of the North, 1922) and Sedna (the name of the Inuit sea-goddess; see Young 2018) know no other way of life. They stick together, supporting each other with stories of the past whilst hardly ever speaking about the present. And this present contains the only point of disagreement between Nanook and Sedna: the estrangement of their daughter Ága, the reason for which we never explicitly hear, but one may assume that it is her departure to the city rather than continue the traditional way of life. Sedna’s attempts to reconcile Nanook and the daughter lead nowhere: Nanook remains harsh and stubborn.

AgaSedna and Nanook share everything: the joys and the difficulties of life, the food, the hardship, the small space of the yurt. However, Sedna keeps her pain and illness hidden from Nanook. Knowing that she will die, she makes a gift for Ága—a special fur hat. It is a sign of her affection, and she is always prepared for a visit—from or to her daughter; but it is also an object that serves to build a bridge and provide an excuse for Nanook to visit Ága after Sedna’s death. Sedna’s quiet hope for reconciliation reflects her belief in Nanook’s potential for forgiveness, and her unreserved love for him. In this sense, the film tells a powerful love story in very simple terms. That story has a tragic ending, powerfully—in the words of some reviewers, too powerfully—underlined by Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (Weissberg 2018).

AgaBut there is also the story of a rift between generations, and this is not just in the daughter’s departure to civilization. Chena is a sign of the inevitability of progress infringing on Nanook’s and Sedna’s life: they need his support (kerosene and firewood) delivered on a snowmobile; a truck eventually takes Nanook from the tundra to the city; and Nanook certainly enjoys his radio. Yet this rift between old and new, past and present, is a two-way process: Nannok and Sedna depend on Chena to connect them to the outside world, but that outside world is what makes their survival without those extras impossible. The deterioration of their living conditions is clearly linked to global warming, which in turn is a consequence of industrialization: there are fewer reindeer (they remain images on old-day photos), spring comes too soon (the ice is melting on the way to town, making it dangerous for the truck to go across the frozen river Lena), there is less fish and stronger storms. The threat to the native population, to its tradition and culture is making life in the tundra almost impossible. And this is what we see at the beginning of the film: the performance of a once alive and thriving culture, with the woman facing the camera for a performance of a tradition that is (almost) extinct.

AgaThe life of the Inuit people, the threat of climate change, industrialization and urbanization to their life style, is no doubt a topic that attracts attention. However, Lazarov does something more here: he uses these well-known comments on native cultures to contextualize the love story of Nanook and Sedna, and to emphasize the importance of family: after all, Nanook finds and reunites with his daughter. Indeed, visually she too is in an uninhabitable space: her diamond mine is a multi-layered crater, just as white as the snow of the tundra. Yet whilst the snow in the tundra covers a flat and even space, one that can be surveyed by the human eye (and Bozhilov’s camera), the mine has the form of a downward spiral, beautiful from the outside (or rather, the bird’s eye view), but terrifying when seen from the bottom, where Nanook has to descend reunite with his daughter: it is like a descent into hell—the hell of industrialization, of the earth’s exploitation, or modernization—, only that its color is white, and the breadth of the tundra has given way to the narrowness of a downward spiral.

Images courtesy of Berlinale, copyright Kaloyan Bozhilov

Birgit Beumers

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Works Cited

Young, Neil. 2018. “Bulgarian writer-director Milko Lazarov’s sophomore feature brought down the curtain on the 68th Berlinale.” Hollywood Reporter 28 February.  

Weissberg, Jay. 2018. “Berlin Film Review: Ága.” Variety, 23 February.

Ága, Bulgaria/Germany/France, 2018
Language: Sakha (Yakutian)
Color, 96 minutes
Director: Milko Lazarov
Screenplay: Milko Lazarov, Simeon Ventsislavov
DoP: Kaloyan Bozhilov
Editor: Veselka Kiryakova
Music: Penka Kouneva
Sound Design: Sebastian Schmidt
Production Design: Ariunsaichan Dawaachu
Costumes: Vanina Geleva, Daria Dmitrieva
Cast: Mikhail Aprosimov, Feodosia Ivanova, Galina Tikhonova, Sergei Egorov, Afanasii Kylaev
Producer: Veselka Kiryakova; Co-producers: Eike Goreczka, Christoph Kukula, Guillaume de Seille, Alexander Bohr, Sevda Shishmanova
Production: 42film, Halle (Saale); Arizona Productions, Paris; ZDF/Arte, Mainz; BNT, Sofia
World Sales: Beta Cinema

Milko Lazarov:Ága (2018)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2018

Updated: 2018