Issue 67 (2020)

Liubov’ Borisova: The Sun Above Me Never Sets (Min urduber kyun khahan da kiirbet, Sakha, 2019)

reviewed by Katherine Bowers © 2020

nado mnoiu posterThe film industry in Yakutia has recently come into the international spotlight with a series of festival successes, among them last year’s Moscow International Film Festival winner, Eduard Novikov’s The Lord Eagle (Toyon kyyl, 2018). Yakutia, or the Sakha Republic as it is officially called, comprises a vast sweep of Siberia and the Arctic; it is sparsely populated with just under a million inhabitants spread over more than 3 million square kilometers. The film industry there—sometimes called Sakhawood—is a recent and fast-growing development; the region’s main production company, Sakhafilm, was founded in 1992. Films made in Yakutia tend to have lower budgets, in part because they do not receive the RF’s financial support, and their production teams are composed of locals engaged in the film industry, some professional and some who have become involved in film production but are trained in other professions. The films’ quality, depth, and production values are invariably high. The Sun Above Me Never Sets [Russian title: Nado mnoiu solntse ne saditsia] is the directorial debut of Liubov’ Borisova, who has forged a career with Sakhafilm since 2011.

nado mnoiuThe Sun Above Me Never Sets tells the story of Altan (played by newcomer Ivan Konstantinov), a young city-dweller who accepts a temporary position tending to an Arctic fox farm on an island in the Laptev Sea, in far northern Yakutia, while its usual caretaker, Gosha, gets married and goes on his honeymoon trip. The site is remote and Altan, an aspiring internet video creator and filmmaker, is out of his depth when he first arrives on the farm site. He meets an old man named Baibal (played by Stepan Petrov, the star of The Lord Eagle) who lives in a structure near the farm site. Baibal asks Altan for a favor: to bury him next to his wife’s grave after his approaching death takes place. Terrified, Altan is unable to cope with the request because of lingering grief related to the deaths of his own mother and grandmother. Baibal tells Altan the story of his wife’s death in a boating accident, in which his small daughter was lost at sea. This story inspires Altan to use the internet and his filmmaking knowledge to create a social media campaign aimed at reuniting Baibal with his lost daughter, if she is alive. As the film progresses, the young man grows to care for the old man and eventually agrees to grant his request. The film’s focus is on this process of opening up, of reciprocal communication, and of coming to terms with death and grief.

nado mnoiuIn an interview (Bezzubikov 2019), Borisova notes that The Sun Above Me Never Sets has two sources: Yakut writer Nikolai Luginov’s novella The Stone Cape (Taas tumus, 1979-80; in Russian: Kamennyi mys) and a song called “Photographs” (Khaartyskalar) by Moisei Kobiakov with lyrics by Aleksei Ambrosiev Jr. The former provides Baibal’s family history—the circumstances of his wife’s death—while the latter serves as inspiration for Altan’s family conflict related to the deaths of his mother and grandmother. For Borisova, the film’s accessibility is an important consideration. She observes that the film “seems like it should be an arthouse film” because of its source material (the Luginov novella) as well as its northern setting, few characters, and emphasis on dialogue. Borisova deliberately disrupts the arthouse potential of the film she perceives by undercutting serious moments with humor, music, and inspiration related to representing human relationships. Kobiakov’s song aids in this process; the song describes looking through old photographs and the warm memories they hold of a mother and grandmother who have passed away. In a poignant moment of reconciliation in the film, Altan sings this song while accompanying himself on the ukulele in a streaming broadcast addressed to his emotionally distant father.

nado mnoiuThe Sun Above Me Never Sets is a film about boundaries and ways of connecting in spite of them. The most obvious boundary is that between generations. At first, Altan is unable to connect with his father and fears Baibal, but as he grows closer to Baibal, he finds a means of communicating with his father. The generational divide is visibly evoked in national terms. Baibal’s memories of the Arctic fox farm are of its heyday during the Soviet period, and he treats his Soviet medal with pride. The hammer and sickle medal that Baibal wears over his right breast pocket contrasts with the small Russian flag patch that decorates Altan’s camouflage army jacket. Later in the film, Baibal remembers that medals should be placed on a red pillow after death, and Altan prepares for this by cutting up a red t-shirt, stuffing it, and sewing it up.

nado mnoiuMedia play a central role in the film as a means of both connection and alienation. In some ways the film could be called a media Bildungsroman: the story of the hero’s media education through experience. At the beginning of the film, Altan communicates almost exclusively through media: he texts with his friends, video-chats with Timur, his streaming video collaborator, and curates his life through selfies on Instagram. He first considers the trip north in terms of its potential for getting some interesting images for his social media brand. When he arrives on the island, his arrival is shown as an Instagram video. One of his first actions when he is by himself is to take a selfie by the sea and post it to social media. While media connect Altan to the world, they also distance him from his surroundings, as he is never completely present. In the north, media demonstrably bring people together across vast distances, and moving to the north prompts the shift in Altan’s consciousness. On the island, his source of internet connection is a satellite dish powered by a generator that requires fuel. The first night, Altan uses almost all his fuel for the month by streaming videos before bed and falling asleep with the generator running, demonstrating to him the fragility of the connection. Luckily, he receives more fuel from passers-by who have come to visit Gosha. Altan checks in daily with the farm-owner on WhatsApp and Gosha’s friends celebrate his wedding with him over video-chat. When Altan video-chats with Timur, he becomes aware of the divide between the way Timur imagines the north to be and the reality of it. Inspired by Baibal’s tragic history, Altan decides to use his Instagram channel to help, but Timur deletes the first video because it doesn’t fit his “brand.”

In order to gain followers and likes to publicize Baibal’s video plea, Altan works with the old man to plan a media strategy. Together they create a curated vision of self, which includes discussions of life’s meaning, musical performances, the demonstration of skills such as duck hunting and cooking, but also the fulfillment of fantasies, like Baibal’s childhood dream to become a pilot. When a news team appears on the island to interview Baibal, Altan protects him from their prying cameras; the moment when Altan realizes that he has changed is when he punches the Channel 14 cameraman. Through creating the Instagram channel with Baibal and generating content for it, Altan learns about real relationships and forges a genuine connection with Baibal. In curating a public self on social media, Altan discovers his true self. This enables him to forgive and reconnect with his father, a reconciliation that happens over streaming media.

nado mnoiu The themes of media and connectivity contrast with the film’s spatiality. The film is set on a remote island on the shores of the Laptev Sea and, as a result, most of its shots take place against a limited rotation of backdrops. The beautiful landscape changes as light and weather change, but the view remains the same. As Altan arrives, the boat is surrounded in the shot by water and sky that blend together, as if to sequester off the island, disconnecting it from modern life. The film’s soundscape also ties it to the land: background music is minimal and the only sounds are often those of wind and waves. Altan plays the ukulele and sometimes makes music himself, but, aside from these episodes, music only intrudes a few times when Altan experiences something he equates with the cinematic; for example, when, after hearing a ghost story, tense music reminiscent of the horror film enters the soundscape, leading up to the moment Altan sees Baibal’s face at the window and is terrified. The musical interludes in the soundscape seem to be tied to Altan’s feelings as, elsewhere, memory flashbacks are connected to specific pieces of music.

nado mnoiuA boundary that is frequently and easily crossed in the film is language. The film opens with a camera pan across a kitchen that clearly evokes a Soviet space, first in historical paintings, and then in its focus on young Altan sitting at a table with a samovar, a sharp contrast with the modern kitchen in the next scene. The film’s languages are Yakut and Russian, and characters code-switch seamlessly between the two. The dialogue begins in Yakut, but Altan’s sister Veronika, who is school-aged, speaks predominately Russian; her family replies in Yakut. Later, when he introduces himself, Baibal begins in Russian, but then switches comfortably into Yakut. When Altan and Baibal begin their Instagram video project, Altan tells Baibal to speak Russian because they will get more viewers. Both Altan and Baibal then always speak Russian in the videos and always speak Yakut together.

Language becomes an emblem of the film’s vision and Sakha cinema more broadly. The film’s director, Borisova, has said that one of the reasons for the growth of Sakhawood is that Yakut viewers like to see films in their native language (Starinova 2018); about 40 per cent of Sakha’s residents speak Yakut natively. However, the corollary to this is what producer Sardana Savvina has observed: “Our country [Russia] is multinational, with many people and cultures coexisting here, and I think it would be better for everyone if we learn more about each other … the viewer needs to be gradually trained so that he can watch Russian cinema not only in Russian, but also in other languages of our country” (Bezzubikov 2019). Language in the film seems arranged in a series of concentric circles, each expanding the film’s cultural scope exponentially: Yakut to Russian, Russian to the post-Soviet, and the post-Soviet to the global.

nado mnoiuThe Sun Above Me Never Sets is a film, ultimately, about happiness and love; it explores themes of communication, understanding, acceptance, and compassion in depth. Meaningful questions emerge from this exploration that speak to our present moment: what is our relationship with technology and with other people? What is the value of knowledge about the land and the past? In an interview (Eremeeva 2019), Borisova spoke about her motivation for creating the film: “In truth, we are not working for the red carpet, although going down them is nice, of course. And not for the sake of money, especially because there is no money in our film industry anyway. For me, film is a cauldron into which you throw your time, your soul, and your love, and each member of the crew does the same. When the film is released, the viewer feels this love.” In this latter goal, the film succeeds admirably. Whereas media can serve to separate and alienate characters in the film, their incorporation breaks down the boundary between film and viewer, forging, as with language, a film that has the ability to touch viewers around the globe.

Katherine Bowers
University of British Columbia

 

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Works Cited

Bezzubikov, Aleksei. 2019. “Liubov’ Borisova i Sardana Savvina: ‘Vsem budet luchshe, esli my stamen bol’she uznavat’ drug o druge’.” ProfiCinema 19 April.

Eremeeva, Kiunnei. 2019. “Liubov’ Borisova: My rabotaem ne radi krasnykh dorozhek. I ne radi deneg.” Iakutskoe-Sakha Informatsionnoe Agenstvo 7 May.

Starinova, Iuliia. 2018. ‘“My govorim na odnom iazyke so zritelem’ V chem sekret kinobuma v Iakutii, vyiasnialo EastRussia.” EastRussia 15 March.


The Sun Above Me Never Sets, Russia (Sakha), 2019
Color, 108 minutes
Director: Liubov’ Borisova
Screenplay: Liubov’ Borisova
DoP: Liubov’ Borisova, Semen Amanatov, Anatolii Kirillin
Music: Moisei Kobiakov
Cast: Ivan Konstantinov, Stepan Petrov, Anatolii Kirillin, Innokentii Lukovtsev, Elena Markova, Veronika Maksimova, Spartak Larionov
Producer: Dmitrii Shadrin, Sardana Savvina
Production: SakhaFilm

Liubov’ Borisova: The Sun Above Me Never Sets (Min urduber kyun khahan da kiirbet, Sakha, 2019)

reviewed by Katherine Bowers © 2020

Updated: 2020