Issue 46 (2014)

Vladimir Tumaev: White Moss (Belyi iagel’, 2014)

reviewed by Vida Johnson© 2014

White Moss seems at first an unlikely “Russian” entry in the main competition of the 36th International Moscow Film Festival, considering that the majority of the film’s sparse dialogue is not in Russian, but in the native language of the Nenets people of the far North. Completed on the very eve of the festival, it was effectively a film no one had seen before it splashed on the giant screen at the October Cinema, where the competition screenings are held. It is likely that the festival’s program director, Kirill Razlogov, personally made the selection, saying at a press conference that the film represented a new direction—an artistic ethnographic study, reflecting the growing trend in world cinema of feature films (i.e. not documentaries) that depict the life of little-known peoples… This reviewer has to admit to looking on Wikipedia for a map of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (region) near the Polar Circle. The Nenets people seem not to be well-known even to Russians: one of the on-line film blurbs called them not “nentsy” but “nemtsy” (Germans)!

yagelThis film was perhaps also chosen as a counterweight to the other Russian competition entry, bad girl Valeria Gai-Germanika’s in-yer-face, directorial tour-de-force Yes and Yes (Da i da).  This film, too, had its own language, much of it foreign to this speaker and far from literary Russian: mat, that untranslatable, uniquely Russian, creative flow of swear-words over which even the festival’s President, Nikita Mikhalkov, waxed poetic as he defended its use at the award ceremony. Considering the fact, however, that the Russian government had passed a law banning mat in cinema, which came into force on 1 July, and moreover, in view of the shocking vodka-infused, violence-ridden, and at times downright disgusting behavior of the film’s characters (what a picture of Russia to show the West!), the festival programmers offered White Moss, where love and betrayal of Shakespearian proportions play out in the strikingly beautiful, snow-infused (and at times also vodka-infused) setting of the far North. While Germanika won the festival’s directorial prize, White Moss was chosen as the audience favorite. Why, then, did this late entry by a not-well-known director, with no stars, and no advance promotion, and really not even in Russian, win the hearts of the Russian viewers, and this reviewer as well? Viewers, it seems, still want classic storytelling, a psychological drama which demonstrates to us all that timeless human passions can play out in the farthest reaches of this world and in the harshest conditions of life. An exit interview with a regular spectator, not a film critic, yielded a clue: he said that the film’s final rescue was for him the most emotionally powerful scene in all of Russian cinema.

The film is based on two novellas by the Nenets writer Anna Nerkagi, but it is unclear how much of this work written in the 1980s survived in the film. Clearly, the cell phones which get almost no reception in the far North could not have been written into the story back then. In an interview at the Moscow Film Festival the director admitted to changes, but felt that he tried to be true to the spirit of Nerkagi’s work, especially her poetic ruminations on life in the far North. One blogger notes that the film’s perspective on the role of the Soviet government in the destruction of native cultures, which he seems to find in the film, represents the kind of negative criticism levied during the break-up of the Soviet Union, when Nerkagi’s work was written, and that it is not relevant today; for good measure, he adds that the story is seen through American eyes (, gost, june 29, 2014). The film does start with children being rounded up as they try to hide and keep from being sent to school in the “Big land” (Bol’shaia zemlia); the kids really do hide and don’t want to leave home when they are little, says the director, but the problem is then they fail to return home when they grow up. The parallel to children hiding in Schindler’s List (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993) notwithstanding, the film is not social or political critique, it’s not about the annihilation of a people or a culture, but deals with the larger themes of being true to one’s love and family, of retaining one’s humanity, way of life, and respect for tradition as technology and the siren-song of modern, urban life reach into the most distant of places. At the film’s center are individuals with their feelings and passions in their centuries-old struggle to survive in the harsh environment.  The director is a student of Marlen Khutsiev, whose films always focus on human emotions and struggles. In earlier films, such as his well-received Moon Dogs (Lunnye psi, 1995), Tumaev already showed his predilection for lonely, suffering human beings, in this case an HIV-infected girl whose only friend is a homeless mutt.

yagelIn White Moss Tumaev presents us with an emotionally wounded hero. Alesha, a true hero (tall and handsome, hard-working, generous, respectful of his land and his elders), is pining away (an old-fashioned word, for an old-fashioned feeling) for his first love, Aliko, who, unlike him, did not return from their studies in the “Big Land.” It has been ten years, and he still cannot forget her. When his mother brings him a wife, for he must have a woman to tend the “chum,” the yurt they will live in as he looks after the deer, he obediently acquiesces, although cannot bring himself to touch his bride, whose beauty he does not even notice. When Aliko’s mother is killed by wolves (apparently not an infrequent occurrence that foreshadows the film’s ending), she returns home for the funeral, but from the moment she takes off, in close-up, her high-heeled boots and puts on the warm Uggs-like boots before stepping on the plane, we suspect how this story will end. Even with the more appropriate boots, but dressed in an out-of-place urban, down parka, she clearly no longer belongs here. She vomit the bloody raw deer liver ritually eaten at the funeral.  When the still-smitten Alesha tries to remind her of their long-ago promise to each other, she cannot even remember it. He is helplessly forced to watch as she calls someone (a man perhaps?) on her phone, from the only place with cell-phone reception, a high tower, literally in the middle of nowhere…. In the meantime, Alesha’s equally lovely wife, angry and tired of waiting for him to become her husband and stop pining for Aliko, prepares to leave.  In retelling, this all sounds like predictable melodrama, but the film is rescued from any superficiality or sentimentality by the natural, emotionally-nuanced acting of the hero whose suffering we witness, as well as of the women in his life. When Alesha fruitlessly chases on his snowmobile the receding airplane taking Aliko away, and then, in total anguish, screams her name into the empty, snowy wilderness, we do, in today’s lingo, “feel his pain.” The actors represent a cross-section of the multi-national, multi-ethnic Russia: he is an ethnic Kalmyk working in Kirill Serebrennikov’s Gogol Center in Moscow; several major roles are played by professional actors from the neighboring Sakha republic, and secondary roles are filled by Nenets locals.

There is also another, tragic plot line in the film, this one about fathers, children, and betrayal. Aliko did not return to be with her widowed father; she goes back, and thus leaving him totally alone. Another city daughter and son arrive on the same plane with Aliko, and shortly they will force their father to sell what they believe is their inheritance: the deer herd. This angry father slaughters the whole herd, thus signing his own death warrant: the deer are literally his life as well as his livelihood. What we have here is not Nanook, but King Lear of the far North. Perhaps the most powerful scene in the film shows the almost crazed father by the truck filled with a huge number of frozen deer carcasses slated to feed those in the “Big Land” and to fill the pockets of the Nenets living in the city, and the Russians who make this transaction possible. Yes, there is a complicated relationship between the tundra and the city, between Russians and Nenets, but it is not about one-sided exploitation and destruction.

And that final emotional scene that so affected the viewers and earned the film the audience award? Perhaps the ending was a bit too sudden and too pat, the filmmakers seemingly rushing to finish the film, but the harrowing fight with the wolves in which Alesha rescues and thus claims his run-away bride, is believable because the director has so carefully crafted, as he put it, “a severe and ascetic” film, filled with ethnographic detail of the harsh existence of humans and animals in the frozen tundra. Despite protestations from the cost-conscious producers who wanted to film in the countryside around Moscow, the director insisted on filming on location, with two consultants on every aspect of Nenets life, including a language teacher. A 30-minute trailer titled Cinema and the Nenets People (Kino i nentsy) chronicles the extreme difficulty of filming, and living in the “chum,” the yurts, in constant temperatures of –30 to –40C, with the danger of cameras and people freezing, and the difficulty of squeezing, during filming, some 20 people inside the “chum,” only 5 meters in diameter! With all the attendant technical difficulties, the cinematography is truly mesmerizing, not because it is original or breaks new ground in the language of cinema; it is classic and realistic, but at the same time poetic because of the dynamism of the camera: on dollies, on cranes and helicopters, the camera tracks and swoops in and out of the stark, monumental landscape, over the huge deer herds, or exposes, in close-up and mid-shot, in rich color, all aspects of daily life, giving the film a rare feeling of authenticity as the viewers find themselves not watching from the outside, but living inside this completely alien culture and landscape. The director clearly achieved what he set out to do, as he says, to learn more about his “gigantic” country, Russia. Valerii Kichin called the film a “heroic feat” (tvorcheskii podvig). I could not agree more.

Vida Johnson
Tufts University

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Works Cited

Kichin, Valerii. “Kupliu bivni mamonta,” Rossiiskaia gazeta 24 June 2014.

White Moss, Russia, 2014
Color, 110 min.
Director: Vladimir Tumaev
Screenplay: Valerii Bakirov with Savva Minaev (based on stories by Anna Nerkagi)
Cinematography: Dmitrii Kuvshinov
Art Director: Sergei Fevralev
Music: Sviatoslav Kurashev
Cast: Evgenii Sangadzhaev, Galina Tikhonova, Irina Mihailova, Petr Basnaev, Dolzhin Tongatova
Producers: Aleksandr Litvinov, Svetlana Dal’skaia, Vladimir Men’shov

Vladimir Tumaev: White Moss (Belyi iagel’, 2014)

reviewed by Vida Johnson© 2014

Updated: 04 Oct 14