Issue 38 (2012)

Nikita Arzhakov: Sniper Sakha (Snaiper Sakha), 2010

reviewed by Chip Crane © 2012

sakhaSniper Sakha [1] follows Yakut (Sakha) hunter Semen Ardakhov (played by Spartak Fedotov and by Dzhulustan Semenov for the flashbacks), a former sniper living deep in the taiga with his grandson. The German Johann Reis was a child soldier in the Nazi army who spends most of his time in the hospital due to his failing health. When Ardakhov’s grandson is injured in a bear attack he reflects upon his time in the army in a series of flashbacks culminating in his duel with a sadistic Nazi sniper. And when Reis sees an interview with Ardakhov on the television in his hospital room, he recognizes the man who, in the final days of the war, spared his life. Reis sets out to find Ardakhov in order ask him why and to thank him. As Ardakhov is carrying his grandson to town, he encounters the ATV bringing Reis to his cabin. The two men are united and the boy is evacuated by helicopter.

sakhaOn a basic level, then, Nikita Arzhakov’s Sniper Sakha is a wartime melodrama mixing narratives of redemption and reconciliation with ostentatious displays of heroism by the protagonist and copious amounts of violence.[2] The film’s flashback structure and multiple plotlines inflate this further, whisking us in rapid-fire succession from one moment of extreme emotional impact to another—Ardakhov’s grandson is injured, Reis rises from his hospital bed, Ardakhov’s brother is killed in battle, Ardakhov falls in love, Ardakhov’s love interest is murdered by the Nazi sniper, and so on. Arzhakov’s directorial hand is most visible during these climaxes, which are punctuated by grandiose camera movement and swelling music (Shevelev’s melancholy score relies heavily on strings and a trumpet), spectacularly heightening the intensity of these moments. 

sakhaMore importantly, however, the film is an ambitious foray into national mythmaking. Produced by Sakhafilm, the state film company of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) on commission from the President of the Sakha Republic, Sniper Sakha is a tribute (released on the 65th anniversary of Soviet victory in the Great Patriotic War) to the 83 Yakut snipers who served in the Soviet Army—the film opens with a dedication to the war’s veterans and closes with a list of the most prominent Yakut snipers, headed by Hero of the Soviet Union Fedor Okhlopkov.

While the film is overtly nationalist in the celebration of its hero, the Yakut national myth produced by the film is, importantly, not at odds with the mythology of the Russo-Soviet State—Arzhakov even received a jubilee medal from President Medvedev for his commemoration of the war. The compatibility of these myths within the subject matter of the film is no coincidence: the Great Patriotic War was a watershed moment in the integration of the Yakut nation into the larger Soviet state. For the first time citizens of Siberian nationalities were not exempted from conscription, while at the same time the Soviet army ended its practice of segregating military units. As a result thousands of Yakut men served alongside soldiers gathered from all corners of the Soviet Union (Forsyth, 347-352).

sakhaThe Soviet Army is depicted as a utopian community of multi-national cooperation grounded in broad ethic equality. Ardakhov is treated with respect by his Russian and Ukrainian squad mates, he falls in love with a Kazakh nurse (they bond over the shared Turkic roots of their languages, which they discover have similar words for “water” and “the moon”), and he abates his homesickness by taking target practice with the other Yakuts stationed nearby. This harmony is never allowed to overshadow the sniper’s nationality, however. He longs for the flatbread of his home (a piece of which is procured for him by a Russian friend), he plays the khomys (a mouth harp), is occasionally saddened by being so far from home. The landscapes against which the action takes place highlight the stark contrast between the fields and birch groves of Russia, and the Yakut taiga. Ardakhov’s nationality is even implicated in the film’s climax: his victory over the German sniper is achieved through a near-superhuman trick that could only be carried out by a man of the north. Before their final encounter Ardakhov coats himself in a layer of fat, which allows him to dive under the ice covering a frozen lake to take an advantageous position against his rival.

sakhaArdakhov’s nationality, perhaps, enables this feat in another, deeper, way as well. In an interview, screenwriter Aisen Doidu remarked that one of the goals of his script was to explore the “spiritual condition” of a sniper (“Po stsenariiu…”).  The narrative logic of the film is subtlety dominated by an animistic mysticism that corresponds in important ways the revival of interest in shamanism in the Sakha Republic.[3] The film’s initial crisis—the bear attack on Ardakhov’s grandson—is preceded by an act of sacrilege: the grandson accidentally shoots a tree with a bear totem carved into it. Ardakhov scolds the child and prays to the Spirit of the Taiga, asking for leniency, but to no avail. After the attack Ardakhov turns to the spirit of Fire for help, wondering if it could be retribution for the deaths he caused during the war: “I may have sinned,” he reasons, “but I was defending the motherland.” It is this thought, brought on by prayer, that sparks his flashbacks. In the flashbacks Ardakhov turns again to the Spirit of Fire before pursuing the German sniper, and it is, perhaps, the Spirit of Fire that gives him the strength and cunning he needs to survive. The coincidence that resolves the film—Reis appearing in the taiga just in time to save the boy—is so extreme that it can only be satisfactorily explained as an intervention by these spirits, rewarding Ardakhov for the mercy and humanity he showed in his refusal to kill Reis, offering him water instead. The film seems to demand that we accept the efficacy of these spirits: this acceptance renders the exceptionally implausible events inevitable.  Through this mystical logic the national enables the melodramatic and the melodramatic enables the national. The film’s extremes are both demanded and justified by the spiritual causality underlying the narrative—a spiritual causality grounded in national tradition.

Sniper Sakha has been well-received at festivals. It was included in the Russian program of the 2011 Moscow International Film Festival, and won prizes for Best Debut at the 2011 “Golden Sword” festival of war film in Riazan' and at the 2012 Monaco Charity Film Festival. This success, and the attention that it has garnered, has convinced Sakhafilm to continue on the path laid out by Sniper Sakha; for their next major production they plan to release a film dealing with a Yakut artilleryman for the 70th anniversary of the war.[4]

1] I would like to thank Vladimir Padunov, Andrei Chelasimov, and Valerii Khaiznikov for tracking down a copy of the DVD of the film.

2] Special effects were added to a number of the battle scenes at Mosfilm Studios.

3] Sakhafilm’s logo s a shaman’s drum.

4] The films is currently called Hero Without a Star. (Uspekh “Snaipera Sakha”)

Chip Crane
University of Pittsburgh

Comment on this article on Facebook

Works Cited

Forsyth, James, A History of the Peoples of Siberia, Cambridge: CUP, 1992.

“Po stsenariiu Aisena Doidu snimaetsia fil'm o iakutskikh snaiperakh,” SakhaNews, 20 February 2009.

“Uspekh Snaipera Sakha podvig ‘Sakhafil'm’ na ‘Geroia bez zvezdy’,”SakhaLife 28 June 2011.

Sniper Sakha, Russia, 2010
Color, 80 minutes
Director: Nikita Arzhakov
Screenplay: Aisen Doidu
Cinematography: Dzhur Berezkin, Roman Sleptsov
Production Design: Petr Boriakin
Costume Design: Dariia Dmitrieva
Music: Konstantin Shevelev
Editing: Irina Kozhemiakina
Cast: Dzhulustan Semenov, Spartak Fedotov, Sergei Popovich, Viacheslav Molchanov, Nikolai Prostasov, Irina Kolosova, Anton Kotel'nikov, Vasilii Androsov
Production: Sakhafilm

Nikita Arzhakov: Sniper Sakha (Snaiper Sakha), 2010

reviewed by Chip Crane © 2012

Updated: 29 Oct 12