Issue 63 (2019)

Eduard Novikov: Lord Eagle (Toion kyyl, Yakutia, 2018)

reviewed by Sergei Anashkin © 2019

A Cross over the Eagle’s Tomb

The film Lord Eagle (Toyon kyyl; Russian title: Tsar ptitsa) is about the painful change of cultural cycles, about the conflict of archaism and modernity, about the values of traditional cultures that enable man to live in harmony with nature.

lord eagleIn age-old times, the Yakut people avoided to pronounce the names of sacred creatures. About an eagle they would say allegorically: “toyon kyyl”—the master of wild birds; an eagle was respected and feared. The makers of the film Toyon kyyl preferred to translate the treasured combination of words as “Lord Eagle,” or the “tsar of birds.”[1]

Superstitious old men would lure stray eagles; they would bury their corpses in honor. The Yakut people know this story in the prose treatment of the writer and village school teacher Vasilii Semenovich Iakovlev (1928–1996). His story “The Larch that Aged with Me” (“So mnoiu sostarivshaiasia listvennitsa”) formed the basis for the film’s script. It was written in the second half of the 20th century and forms part of the Yakut national curriculum, but has never been translated into Russian. By its internal logic it is a typical, Soviet story about the clash of the old and the new; the action happens in the early 1930s. The bearers of traditional culture are bogged down by archaic prejudices and opposed to the heralds of the new life, the standard-bearers of progress and modernization, the young Komsomols. Curiously, this Soviet story is based on ancient legends that most likely reflected a real story.

lord eagleThe Yakuts’ traditional image of the eagle was marked by a certain duality. When the eagle appeared in human habitation, it posed a threat to the everyday order (it appeared to punish man for some offence). According to other views, “the master of wild birds” came to people when it felt its death nearing: the owners had to feed and then bury their guest. The killing of an eagle was considered a serious offence, which entailed inevitable punishment: the hunter or members of his household were overcome by misfortunes.

The makers of Lord Eagle turned to the genre of the Kammerspiel, or chamber drama. All their attention is focused on the interaction of the three characters: the old man Mikipper, the old woman Oppuos, and the willful golden eagle. The couple are first afraid of the unexpected visitor, but gradually they get used to the situation. Without trying to domesticate the wild bird, the old couple build a special relationship of good neighborhood with the bird: it is an equal partner, a creature of the same status. When the frosts grow stronger, the eagle settles in the heated ante-room (balahana, a wooden annex to the house) and thus shares the people’s space.

lord eagleThe film’s visual solution is built on the contrast of interior and exterior: the narrowness of the balahana and the open space of the Alas;[2] the twilight inside the house and the bright reflection of the snow outside; portraits and panoramas. Frames shot from a bird’s eye view look on terrestrial matter from a height, from the skies.

The scarcely populated drama is marvelously multilayered, and the authors manage to create a replete image of the traditional culture of the Sakha people.

lord eagleItems of the past are carefully reconstructed. The survival skills of the small family living in extreme conditions (there is not a soul for a hundred miles around) and the ancient way of managing the household are recreated: the specific ways of hunting, fishing, looking after the cattle.

The film presents the “dual faith” of the Yakut people: the whimsical combination of paganism and Christianity, the belief in spirits with elements of Orthodoxy. The owner of the house, Mikipper, carries out the ritual of feeding the spirit of fire as required. When the appearance of the golden eagle breaks the habitual way of life for the old couple, he takes from a hidden trunk an icon that has been hidden for a long time; the presence of saints is no obstacle to paganism. For an interpretation of the will of the heavenly deities, or aiyy, a shaman is called: only he can answer the question why the “master of wild birds” has been sent to the lonely Alas, to human dwellings. As ancient custom demands, the dead golden eagle is wrapped in birch bark before being buried. A simple wooden cross is placed on the burial place, like on the grave of a dead orthodox person.

lord eagleIn the grave next to the eagle lies the old man’s son Uiban (Ivan), who died as an infant. The dramatic path “changes the optics” of perception: behind the archetype of traditional culture appears the harsh lot of concrete and real people. The lonely old couple live up their days, because they have no heir and there will be no descendants: the patrimonial line has ended.

lord eagleA fervent Komsomol shoots the sacred bird in an act of mischief. It is remarkable that these men of the new order are no strangers to the household: one of the young men is a distant relative of the old woman. The youth of the 1930s is shown as a tragic generation, thinned out by Stalin’s Purges and the bloody fights of World War II. The context of Soviet history transforms the myth about the “eagle’s curse” that reaches its killer from a local superstition into a frightening metaphor. On the insolent reformers lies the burden of guilt for the destruction of the way of life of the whole century. But these enthusiasts also eradicated the constant diseases of the Yakut people (such as trachoma, tuberculosis) and formed the basis for the modern—domestic and spiritual—culture of the Sakha people. Now they themselves have become “esteemed ancestors”.

Lord Eagle is a well-made film, and the editing distinguishes it from the bulk of Yakut cinema, which may amuse inquisitive cinephiles with a nice unevenness and charming primitivism. Eduard Novikov’s fine hand in directing, Semen Ermolaev’s precise dramatic structure, and Semen Amanatov’s sensitive camerawork make this a cinematic event that suggests a new level of regional cinema. In Yakut distribution the films that make profits remain unappealing for wider audiences. Festival audiences in Russia and abroad require a different kind of film, with a simple story of common people, a chamber drama with a modest budget. Films such as Lord Eagle, which screened at the 40th Moscow IFF and won the main prize of St George, or Bonfire (Koster na vetru, dir. by Dmitrii Davydov, 2016), which screened at Busan IFF, reveal the wisdom and beauty of genuine Yakut culture to the outside world.

Translated by Birgit Beumers



1] For Russian culture this title has false associations—not to the majestic golden eagle, but to something cumbersome, awkward and useless, such as the Tsar Cannon (tsar-pushka) or the Tsar Bell (tsar-kolokol).

2] Narrow flatland with a lake, surrounded by a forest, typical for the permafrost-shaped landscape of Yakutia.

Sergei Anashkin

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Lord Eagle, Yakut Republic (RF), 2018
Color, 80 minutes
Director: Eduard Novikov
Scriptwriter: Semen Ermolaev
Production Design: Sargylana Skriabina
Composer: Andrei Gur’ianov
DoP: Semen Amanatov
Cast: Stepan Petrov, Zoia Popova, Afanasii Fedorov, Prokopii Danilov, Prokopii Ivanov
Producer: Dmitrii Shadrin
Production: Sakhafilm

Eduard Novikov: Lord Eagle (Toion kyyl, Yakutia, 2018)

reviewed by Sergei Anashkin © 2019

Updated: 2019