KinoKultura: Issue 63 (2019)

A panorama of Russia’s ethnic cinema

By Sergei Anashkin

Russia is a multinational and multilingual state. This is reflected in the administrative division of the country: the structure of the Russian Federation comprises, along the districts (krai) and regions (oblast’) with a mainly Russian population, 26 national-territorial formations. Foreigners who see the Russian Federation exclusively as “a country of Russian culture” often forget about that, ignoring the variety and originality of traditions of ethnically Turkic, Mongolian, and Finno-Ugric peoples.

ferrumIn the Soviet era, there existed a concept of “multinational Soviet cinema”: the cinema of the republics was protected by the central authorities. In the new Russia, the federal departments tend to neglect the support of cinema in the national subjects, and the Ministry of Culture and the Cinema Fund refrain from financing projects from ethnic regions. The idea of “multinational Russian cinema” most likely fails due to contradictions in the current official concept of the “Russian civil nation,” which is seen by officials through the filter of conservative values: imperial ideology and Russian nationalism.[1]

The term “ethnic cinema” is not generally accepted. I interpret it thus: these are fiction films (short and feature) created in the national regions, which reflect concerns of the local audience, which offer a self-portrait of the culture in question, and which represent its behavioral stereotypes and value systems. Thus cinema becomes a way of self-reflection and self-representation of an ethnos. As a marker of “ethnic cinema” the local language is usually used. However, there are exceptions to the rule. Thus the “almanac of erotic shorts” by the Russian director Aleksei Fedorchenko with the title Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari (Nebesnye zheny lugovykh mari, 2012) was shot in ethnic regions and in the Mari language, but has no link to ethnic cinema; it is an example of global auteur cinema. In such films, the ethnic reality is mocked: at the expense of exoticism, the author is concerned not with discovering archetypes and categories of a concrete culture, but with presenting his ideas through the effective image of the Other. On the other hand, the mystical thriller of the Yakut director Prokopii Burtsev Ferrum (2015), though filmed in Russian, quite authentically displays the world of the Sakha people.

reshalaAlongside “ethnic cinema,” Russia’s national regions also boast of “regional cinema.” These are commercial films (where the genres of comedies and criminal dramas prevail), made in the Russian language. “Regional films” reflect to a certain degree local realities and bear an imprint of local color, but they are primarily designed to cater for the Russian-speaking mass audience, including from outside region; they are modeled on Hollywood movies or films of the Russian mainstream. Only a few reach the desired audience and success at a federal level. Largely thanks to YouTube viewings, the criminal drama The Problem-Solver (Reshala, dir. Roman Askhaev, 2012), which was shot in Buryatia, gained wide popularity. The film romanticizes the customs of the underworld. (Criminal romanticism is a serious problem for the youth of Buryatia and the adjacent Transbaikal Region).

In the different regions, ethnic cinema is developed unevenly. In Yakutia, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan small film industries have emerged, which are supported by grants from the local authorities and through regional distribution. In the republics of Khakassia and Altai, on the Yamal peninsula and in the Finno-Ugric regions of the Volga, ethnic cinema is the result of sporadic experiences of individuals. In the following I shall present an overview of the tendencies of Russian ethnic cinema (excluding the republics of the Northern Caucasus, with which I am not sufficiently familiar).


poslednii ugonBuryat cinema can brag with its solid background. Some directors of Buryat origin have worked at various Soviet studios in the 1960s–1980s. But only Baras Khalzanov (1938–1993) turned to national topics, making at the Sverdlovsk film studio three films with Buryat ethnic themes: The Last Theft (Poslednii ugon, 1966), an eastern about a shepherd set during the Civil War; and the dramas The White Horse (Belaia loshad’, short, 1966) and Bitter Juniper (Gor’kii mozhzhevel’nik, 1985). The latter tells about the everyday life of those self-denying workers who stayed at the rear during WWII, and it is most likely inspired by the director’s own childhood memoirs. However, it is hard to call these films full-fledged “ethnic cinema,” since they were made in Russian and adapted to be watched by the average Russian spectator (Soviet ideological clichés leveled out any ethnic specificity).

In modern Buryat cinema we can detect two parallel streams: ethnic and regional; the production of Russian-language films develops more steeply.[2] The Buryats traditionally live not only in the republic Buryatia, but also in the Irkutsk area and Transbaikal Region, specifically in the Agin-Buryat Autonomous Okrug. The Eastern Buryats profess dual faith (Orthodoxy and traditional cults, such as shamanism), while the western Buryats follow Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism). The dialects of the various groups differ, co-existing alongside and as alternative with Russian, and modern Buryats have forgotten their native language. The problems of ethnic cinema are rooted in the dispersal of the target audience and the unsteadiness of “identity markers.” In the cinema of Buryatia such signs of identity are Buddhist values and the continuity of the patrimonial line (the motif of reverence of the ancestors).

steppe gamesThe most striking filmmakers of Buryat ethnic cinema are Bair Dyshenov and Solbon Lygdenov, both self-taught. Dyshenov began making short films, adapting Buddhist parables for the screen. Buddha’s Smile (Ulybka Buddy, short, 2008) is the story of requital for good deeds, while Mother’s Order (Nakaz materi, short, 2011) is about the power of faith which works wonders, and about the need to comply with filial duty. In his full-length debut Steppe Games (Stepnye igry, 2014) the director tried to combine multiple genres, clashing comedy with epos and comparing past with present through the temporal juxtaposition of the time of epic heroes with the everyday routine of the present (see Anashkin 2014).

bulagSolbon Lygdenov’s The Sacred Spring (Bulag, 2013) draws the grotesque image of a degenerating village: profound drunkenness destroys the family’s communication and ruins the traditional way of life. The recipe for purification is the same as in Dyshenov’s film: the return to the roots of national culture. Remarkably, both films end with a mosaic of faces, a metaphorical yokhor, a choral round dance of generations, a symbolical unification of the relatives of all ages and social groups.

Dyshenov has been working for three years on the film The Yellow Dog (Sharnokhoi, 2018). Taking the form of a mystical thriller, this is a story about how ancestral guilt can determine the fate of their descendants (a plot known from the tragedies of antiquity). The commander of a group of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) has shot a shaman while performing a ritual, and has thus brought doom on his own family. In order to release his yet unborn offspring from the spell, the hero—the murderer’s last descendant—accomplished the sacrificial act of expiation, thus breaking the fatal chain of cause and effect. The film’s message is obvious: the belief in continuity across generations should not be followed blindly and the respect for the ancestral heritage does not imply the unconditional acceptance of all cumulative experiences of the Soviet era (including the crimes of the authorities and their tragic excesses). Dyshenov’s drama metaphorically interprets the paradoxes of the historical fate of people and affirms the idea of a unity of all groups of the Buryat people, from Buddhists to shamans.

chaikiThe Buryat speak a Mongol language. Their close relatives are the Kalmyks, who have settled far in the West, in the European parts of Russia. The ethnic cinema in that region is not developed at all, but films on Kalmyk themes have been made by visiting directors working in the style of coarse exotic woodcuts (lubok), as is evident in Iurii Feting’s The Celestial Camel (Nebesnyi verbliud, 2015). From among the natives of the republic, Ella Manzheeva achieved huge popularity; however, she lives in Moscow. Her debut film Seagulls (Chaiki, 2015), though shot in Kalmykia, does not pretend to be ethnic cinema. It is a sufficiently high-quality art-house movie with a feminist subtext (equally abstract, esoteric and dull), and aimed at the taste of a European festival audience.

In the Turkic-language regions of Siberia film production relies on the enthusiasm of individuals; the local authorities are not eager to invest in film projects. Least lucky is the republic of Tuva, where there is no “madman,” or—to put it differently—no person who could find in himself the energy and the talent to venture into filmmaking. On the threshold of the 2000s and 2010s, some experiments were made by the prolific Rolan Oorzhak, whose works are inspired by Hollywood cinema, which remain, however, on an amateurish level. On YouTube one may find the works of other self-taught directors on a comparable level. At a push, one could identify as an example of Tuvan ethnic cinema the short film Wheel (Ochalan/Koleso, 2009), made by Vladimir Kopush during his study at the Film Institute VGIK in Moscow. This is a circular spell-bound parable inspired by the Buddhist representations of the circularity of fate and the inevitability of requital (Tuvans profess dual faith, Lamaism with a local variant of shamanism). After graduation Kopush focused on documentary cinema and never returned to fiction film, which is likely in poor demand by local audiences, because the core of Tuvan national art is throat singing, which has reached the level of an international brand, and Tuvans require no further means to manifest their originality.

The pioneer of ethnic cinema in Khakassia is Iurii Kurochka, a Russian director interested in the traditional culture of the local population. He has made some hybrid, documentary/fiction films about the history of the region and about ancient Khakassian rituals, guided by the “reconstructive” canon of the BBC (whose short-term courses he attended). In fiction film he debuted with the short film Hunter (Okhotnik, 2016), where the motive of an individual’s survival in extreme circumstances is presented from the point of view of traditional (animistic) views of the Khakassians, with the obvious aim of initialization. His first feature film Mumiyo (2018) is based on a folklore plot: a creature from the other world, a mountain spirit in female guise, is attracted by a mere mortal and stays close to him by means of charms. The hero meanwhile aims back to his native village, where his earthly beloved is waiting for him. A shaman comes to the aid of the captive. The film combines adventure with mystical cinema. The images of the Khakassian nature—the virginal landscapes of the taiga and the mountains—are a significant semantic element: the director obviously accentuates the ecological component. Curiously, Evgenii Tatarov, a director of Khakassian origin living in St Petersburg, prefers to make average Russian cinema (and until recently did not reflect on his national roots or the value of cultural traditions acquired during childhood). A Russian director makes Khakassian films, a Khakassian director caters for the Russian spectator—such are the paradoxes of personal choices.

trikoA graduate of the St Petersburg State Institute of Cinema and Television (SPb–GUKiT), Mikhail Kulunakov returned to his native lands, becoming the only filmmaker of the Republic of Altai (also known as Altai Mountains). He makes short films in documentary and fiction form, because neither the local authorities nor the federal departments are inclined to finance his feature projects. Kulunakov’s films broadly rely on the basic motifs of Siberian ethnic cinema. The metaphorical drama Native Soil (Jerim/Rodnaia zemlia, 2012) is a story about the journey of a young townsperson to his father’s land, about finding a link to the native language and the ancestral grounds. The short film Coward (Triko/Trus, 2014) is about maturation: how a teenager becomes a person through the process of initiation (a path preserved by the ancestors). The Fence (Izgorod’, 2018) reflects the traditional beliefs of the peoples of the Altai. In the agony of death, an old man sees his children and must answer for himself the question: has he raised his sons and daughters in the right way, will they continue the family line worthily? Death is treated as a transition to another reality (a reunion with the ancestors) and as an integral part in the chain of a continuity of generations.

The cinema of Sakha (Yakutia) has been in the center of attention in recent times: retrospectives of Yakut films have been organized at the Cinemathèque of Seoul (2016) and at the festival in Busan (2017), and a volume on Sakha cinema, titled The World of Magical Nature and Myths and edited by the author of this survey, has been published in English and Korean. Moreover, the NATIVe section at the Berlinale (2017) has shown a number of films from Sakha and the Arctic, and a survey of Sakha’s cinema appeared on KinoKultura 57.

lord eagleThe cinema in Sakha is a stably operating “small industry,” the most developed of all the national cinematographies in Siberia. The republic boasts of a state studio, Sakha-Film, and a set of independent companies are also at work. In domestic distribution the profit comes from films in the mass genres: comedies, horror films, and melodramas. The festival audience in Russia and abroad demands another cinema, the “simple stories of common people,” chamber dramas with a modest budget. A turning point for the region’s cinema was the triumph at the Moscow IFF of the film Lord Eagle (Tsar-ptitsa, dir. Eduard Novikov, 2018). The award of the Grand Prix of this major festival to a Yakut film made a big splash and caused a wave of euphoria at home (indeed, a prize at a foreign festival might have had lesser impact, because the Yakuts see an important sign of recognition of the federal center in the MIFF award). Yakut cinema is a closed system, wherein lies both its strength and its problem. The filmmakers of the republic recognize that in recent years the inflow of fresh blood has stopped: the youngest debutants are aged 30 plus.

Before our eyes ethnic cinema has emerged from the Yamal peninsula. The well-known Khanty writer Zinaida Longortova debuted as director with the feature film The Way from the Ob (Khon yush, 2018). Even though in the credits the film is attributed to the local broadcasting company Yamal-Region, this project was actually realized on the filmmaker’s personal savings. The story concerns the burden of the war years when men were called up for the army, and craft and household matters were placed on the shoulders of women. The film is built around a multi-layered composition and distinguishes itself by its epic scope. An important element in the plot is the openness and kindness of the people of the north, who adopted orphans, independent of their national origin.

longortovaWhile making The Way from the Ob Longortova relied in many respects on the experience of the her fellow country-woman Anastasia Lapsui. This Nenets woman has lived in Finland since the 1990s with her partner Markku Lehmuskallio. But she makes her films (documentary and fiction) on her native peninsula, in tandem with Lehmuskallio. Yet Lapsui’s formally ethnic films are not Russian: indeed, Seven Songs from the Tundra (Seitsemän laulua tundralta, 1999), was submitted for the Academy Awards by Finland. Nevertheless, they are known in Russia and have been shown in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug and at various festivals devoted to the culture of the Far North. A comparison of the films of Longortova and Lapsui brings to light some obvious parallels.[3] Both in Lapsui’s and Lehmuskallio’s Pudana, Last of the Line (Sukunsa viimeinen / Pudana, posledniaia v rodu,2009) and in Longortova’s The Way from the Ob moments of active action alternate with showstoppers, representations of traditional culture and the reconstruction of (family and shaman) rituals, the demonstration of crafts and household practices (processing of skins, sewing, preparation the fish preserve jukola). The attitude to Russians in both films is ambiguous: on the one hand, the Soviets eradicated ancient knowledge, oppressed shamanism, imposed alien rules of life on the ethnic people; on the other hand, they gave the natives certain privileges and opened new horizons (in the context of global cultures).

bely yagelA case in point is the incident of White Moss (Belyi iagel’, 2014). This film intended for nationwide distribution was shot on Yamal by the Moscow filmmaker Vladimir Tumaev. For the roles of the reindeer breeders he invited actors from Buryatia and Yakutia, whose anthropological type is noticeably different from the Nenets. The traditional dress sits inconvenient on strangers, and the way of the northern nomads is alien to them. Local people appear only in mass scenes. Soviet cinema did not care about the authenticity of characters: the roles of natives from the Arctic regions were usually played by actors from other regions, primarily Kyrgyz, Kazakh, and Tuvan. Nowadays such an approach to the national facture and texture is deemed outdated, because it deprives the film of visual and behavioral reliability and authenticity.[4]

The Volga Region

In the European part of Russia, in the territories along the Volga basin, the indigenous peoples of two linguistic groups are settled: Finno-Ugric and Turkic. The most advanced development in cinema, both ethnically and regionally, has occurred among the Turkic groups of the Volga region, in the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.

At present, the cinema of Tatarstan develops most dynamically. A “small industry” was launched in the 1990s. At the time, in various regions the process of a search for a cultural, ethnic and local identity became topical, hence in Tatarstan, Yakutia and Bashkortostan film production took off almost simultaneously. Until recently feature films were made on an irregular basis, but since the middle of the 2010s local cinema experiences a real industrial boom.

There are several factors which have stimulated this surge. The major reason is the presence in the region of technical experts. For five decades, a newsreel (chronicle) studio has operated in the Tatar capital Kazan; it was disbanded in 2014. Its former employees continue to work in the private film-sector and teach at Kazan’s State Institute of Culture where, at the faculty of film and television, directors, cameramen, sound producers, and producers are studying, thus ensuring a steady flow of new creative talent into the industry. There is no state film studio in the republic, but a set of private studios. The financing of projects is allocated through the state organization TatarKino, which combines the functions of producer and distributor.

vodianaiaTatarstan is a multi-ethnic republic with a large proportion of Russian-speaking population. There coexist (cross over and cooperate) two lines of cinema: ethnic cinema shares a space with regional cinema, Tatar with Tatarstani, and rural with urban. Russian producers and directors from time to time address ethnic themes; however, their films are intended for the average national audience, as for example Aleksei Barykin’s children’s fantasy Water Spirit (Vodianaia, 2018), which is a loose adaptation of the magic motifs from Tatar fairy tales.

A key issue for Tatar cinema was and remains the blurred and muddied picture of ethnic identity, formed by a behavioral code instead of a museum set of exotic accessories. The consciousness of local intelligentsia oscillates like a pendulum between two plusses: the “Turkic heritage” and the “precepts of Islam.” At the same time, educated Tatars think of themselves as Europeans, as part of the global cultural context. The national specificity is quite often substituted by a religious one, the syncretism of national traditions replaced by the “correct” treatment of the laws of the Koran.[5] Thus, the protagonist of the film Mullah (Mulla, dir. Ramil’ Fazaliev and Amir Galiaskarov, 2018)—the new imam of a mosque—in an act of self-denial approves the rules of piety in a modern Tatar village. He is not afraid of clashing with a criminal group and fights for the ideals of Islam.

predstavI had the occasion of familiarizing myself with the scripts submitted for the competition of projects to TatarKino. The majority of scriptwriters associate local identity with belonging to the world of Islam, and only singular exceptions would link this concept to the native language or the national cuisine. The practice of the peaceful co-existence of two world religions drives the plot of a short by Il’shat Rakhimbay, Imagine (Predstav’, 2017): two brothers who were separated as teenagers turn into an orthodox priest and a mullah, but they never forget about their blood relation. The theme of conflict between secular and religious values is mentioned, but dealt with in a sketchy manner in the Russian-language drama of maturation titled after the girl protagonist, Halima (dir. Iuliia Zakharova, 2017).

The umbilical cord that links Tatar cinema with national theater (which remains popular among representatives of all social groups) has not been severed. In local films, the stars of the Kazan stage play as they know best: with broad strokes, so that the spectators sitting in the last rows can catch their message. This manner may be appropriate for television serials, but because of the lack of such requirements and insufficient nuances looks inappropriate on the big screen. The standard social masks and ready-made character types filter into contemporary scripts from the repertoire of the national classics, from plays written many decades ago, during the Soviet era. In the modern context the “picturesque types” from the last century are anachronistic. These theatrical roots feed the basic genres of mass cinema: the “popular” comedies and village melodramas.

A remarkable paradox: for a long time the most convincing national character was the female image from a film by a visiting director:[6] the village grandma Bibinur, the heroine of the folk film of the same title, embodies the distinctive features of Tatar psychology: she is amenable, good-natured, a little naive, but wise and quite crafty. The bearer of traditional culture senses the secret signs of fate that come in the form of dreams and omens (the mythopoetic reality for her is inseparable from everyday routine).

In contemporary Tatar cinema there is a new hero: a person who is ingenuous, of pure soul and devoted to ideals. The elderly outsider from the metaphorical drama Baigal (dir. Il’dar Iagafarov, 2018) accomplishes a spiritual feat (he follows the path of self-renunciation and anti-corruption) to expiate his guilt before the son who has grown up without a father.[7]

neotoslannye pismaIn recent years Tatar filmmakers have been preoccupied with the search for a national style. Two melodramas about rural life, the short Aisylu (2015) and the feature film Unsent Letters (Neotoslannye pis’ma, 2017) by the young director Rustam Rashitov (b. 1989) reveal a cinematic language suited for a target audience: the consumers of television serials (which are shown regularly on the republican channel Tatarstan New Century). A curious development concerns the creativity of Salavat Yuzeev. After such convoluted and elaborate art-house dramas as Kurban-Novel: History with a Victim (Kurban-roman: istoriia s zhertvoi, 2014), where characters act without obvious ethnic characteristics (the musicians of a symphony orchestra and a ballerina), he turned to the genre of short comedies, making a series of eccentric episodes for Tatarshorts (Tatarometrazhki, 2017), whose fervent and paradoxical humor stems from the folklore jokes, “dabs.”

aisyluIn the neighboring republic Bashkortostan operates a state studio and some independent studios, whilst grants for the support of film-projects are allocated by the government. The short form prevails here, and feature films appear at irregular intervals. The Bashkirs are close to Tatars in terms of culture, religion, and language, which does not exclude interethnic contradictions. However, in the Bashkir spiritual experience the archaic, pagan element plays a greater role: this is the heritage of the nomadic ancestry. As a marker of identity acts not only the Koran, but also the Kurai—an ancient wind instrument, the voice of traditional music. The self-consciousness of the local intelligentsia is influenced by the folk epic “Ural-Batyr,” whose plot combines heroic and etiologic motifs, while mythological sources have been lost in ancient times. A bewitchment is reflected in the local cinema, with its steadfast attention to folklore, ancient customs, and “relics” of rural customs.

A radical way of representing traditional culture has been chosen by Aisyuak Yumagulov in the musical spectacle-féerie Yetegan (2014). The director took the path of “renovation.” The plot of an ancient legend forms the basis for a series of clips that create a universalized image of an epic archaism (it is filmed in the style of a glamorous fantasy), and folklore songs are arranged in the style of world music.

The historical fresco by Bulat Yusupov, Babich (2018), is a tribute to one of the “esteemed ancestors,” Shaikhzade Babich, a classic of national literature, an ideologue of identity, a fighter for Bashkir autonomy. The young poet-idealist (1895–1919) perished in the bloody strife of the Civil War. In his honor, the republican prize is named; it is awarded annually to young writers, artists and cinematographers. Yusupov received the award for his debut short The Glass Passenger (Stekliannyi passazhir, 1996), which was the first fiction film project of the film studio Bashkortostan. The director has accomplished a difficult path from formally traditional “village dramas” to a stylistically eclectic collage film. Babich mixes the conditionality of different genres and different epochs: the theatrically-declamatory manner of the acting with special effects, romantic pathos with the dramatic takes of Soviet biopics (the representatives of the progressive intelligentsia, independent of the real attitudes, are grouped in a uniformly friendly circle).

dikarIn terms of a red thread that may run through Bashkir cinema, one refrain is the idea of the continuity of generations. The spiritual unification of teenagers and old people is presented in local cinema as a social norm: Leaf (Listok, dir. Leonid Pozhidaev, 2014); and An Out-of-class Lesson (Vneklassnyi urok, dir. Ruslan Yultaev, 2018). In the psychological drama Savage (Dikar’, dir. Farzana Utarbaeva, 2016) the motive of the return to the roots is transformed into a story about the “return of the prodigal son,” about a reconciliation with the mother, and about the expiation of guilt before her.

The most promising young director of Bashkortostan is Ainur Askarov, who until recently followed the standard patterns. In the village comedy about a naughty little boy Yenmesh (short, 2011) the conflict of generations is not shown at all; in the mystical thriller Let the Wind Carry my Words... (Pust’ veter uneset moi slova, short, 2015), the theme of dissonance between fathers and children is announced but all personal barriers and family disorders are overcome in the end. An adjustment to this position is also shown in his feature debut, From Ufa with Love (Iz Ufy s liubov’iu, 2017). The film, which has become a regional hit and has even appeared in nationwide Russian distribution, has provoked fierce debates in the press and social media. The author intentionally breaks down borders of regional and ethnic cinema. The romantic comedy was made in Russian, but Ufa’s landscape is presented as distinctive and comfortable urban space (attractive for tourists). However, the basis of the dramatic conflict lies in an ethnic collision: the tradition of an arranged marriage. The theme of “return to the roots” clashes quite obviously with the theme of emancipation. The film confirms that young Bashkirs have the right to choose: to wield their fate independently and find a partner and a home (whether in the village or in the big city). They have to decide what is relevant for them from their ancestral heritage, and what has become outdated and needs to be relegated to oblivion.

In modern Chuvash cinema there is no figure who could reach the talent of Ioakim Maksimov-Koshkinskii (1893–1975). He stood at the cradle of national theater, and at his initiative the studio Chuvashkino (which existed from 1927 until 1931) was created. During the silent era, fiction films were made in different corners of the Volga region, but usually by visiting directors from Leningrad and Moscow.[8] Chuvashia was the only national region of Russia with its own film production. From the fiction films of Chuvashkino only one has been preserved: The Sacred Grove (Sviashennaia roshcha), made by Maksimov-Koshkinskii in 1931. The film tells about the struggle of the old with the new in a Chuvash village: for the sake of an increase of the areas under crop, the Komsomol decides to eradicate the sacred grove where the locals perform pagan rituals.[9] Maksimov-Koshkinskii’s work is a worthy example of silent cinema of the mature period, thanks to the virtuous editing that in no way lagged behind the studios in the capital. The greatest value of this visual document from the turbulent 1930s are, strangely enough, the images of the “old” way of life, depicting the village and national characters. Unfortunately, The Sacred Grove is practically unknown outside of Chuvashia, and the film has dropped from the field of vision of historians of Soviet cinema.

khorloThe quality of modern Chuvash films leaves much to be desired. Regional films are produced on an artisanal, amateurish level: criminal comedies or instructive dramas about teenage problems. Films in the native language are largely rural comedies and melodramas, and they are archaic in form, like television serials of the Soviet time. An intermediate position between ethnic and regional cinema is taken by Marat Nikitin’s works. His film Khorlo (2015), which screened on the federal channel Kul’tura, is best known. The mystical drama is full of significant allegories and symbols, written and produced by an ethnic Buryat who lives in Moscow.[10] The action takes place in a conditional place, some nature reserve in the back of beyond (Chuvashia or Siberia). The traditions and customs of the inhabitants are designed by the director: this is no authentic ethnography, but a collective ethnos. The short film Iuman (dir. Elena Riabtseva, 2018) is shot in Russian. In her own manner, the author interprets the theme of a “return to the roots”: a young townsperson experiences a spiritual catharsis after having met an elderly Chuvash woman who “recognizes” her late son in the accidental visitor.

In the Finno-Ugric republics fiction films are a great rarity. I asked the local directors about the reasons for this situation. Two versions were mooted: the first refers to the features of national psychology and argues that the Finno-Ugric people are by the nature introverts, and therefore not used to demonstration but try to keep their internal life away from the eyes of strangers (just like strangers are not allowed in the sacred groves). The second argument is more humdrum: the regional authorities do not deem it necessary to allocate funding for the production of films, since they do not see cinema as a means of ethnic self-representation.

uzy boryThe Udmurt comedy Berry-Strawberry (Uzy bory, 2011) was shot with a local creative team by the Polish director Piotr Pałgan. It is a romantic comedy about the love of a rural guy for a star of the Udmurt variety stage; it does have its charm, but it is made quite roughly. The short film Mother (Anai, 2015) combines fiction and documentary approaches. An old rural woman plays herself, but she acts in the “given circumstances:” she potters about the house, expecting the arrival of her son from the city. The director Denis Kornilov is a professional ethnographer. He dreams of making fiction films on national material, but his projects do not find financing in Udmurtia.

In the republic Mari-El several village comedies have been made, all on an amateurish level. They were created at the peak of Fedorchenko’s Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari, which was mostly negatively seen by the Mari audience who accused the stranger-director of distorting local traditions and customs. Because of their poor quality, the “correct” Mari films have remained in limited local distribution.

azorWith a touch of adventurism, the Republic of Mordovia has undertaken an attempt to create the first film in the Ersya language (Ersyan and Moksha are two ethno-cultural groups of the Mordvins). Azor (2018) is a historical legend about the valorous ancient Ersya knights; it was made on private money of two musicians, Viktor Chichaikin and Aleksandr Uchevatkin. The result is not convincing. The debutants, unfortunately, do not possess the professional skill and competence. The first Ersya film may be of interest for a local audience, above all as a “monument to the native language.”

Several general themes can be discerned in the ethnic cinema of different regions of Russia. On a regular basis occurs the motif of a “clash between town and village.” The village is the reserve of traditional values, while the city is conducive to global trends. Authors and characters aspire to overcome the cultural gap. Therefore one of the most widespread “vagrant plots” is the love story of a rural guy and a city girl (or the other way round). Another refrain reverberates in the theme of the “return to the roots.” The protagonist comes to his native lands in search of his identity. A variant is the meeting, in a vision or a dream, with a worthy and valorous ancestor who becomes a model for imitation for the descendant. The authors of ethnic cinema (re)-construct the legendary past, seeing in the imagined way of life the standard of existence, a cultural beacon for their contemporaries.[11]

Translated by Birgit Beumers


1] Thus is the definition of the academician Valerii Tishkov (2001): “Civic nations are multiethnic formations with a different level of cultural and political consolidation. The overwhelming majority of the nation includes some, often dozens and hundreds of ethnic communities speaking in different languages and adhering to different religions (for example, the nations of America, India, Canada, China, Malaysia, Nigeria or Switzerland). Usually the language and culture of the more diverse ethnic communities acquire a lead (sometimes official) status in the civic community-state, while the culture of the smaller groups or groups of the émigré population, called minorities, are subjected to assimilation attempts and discrimination.”

2] There is no state studio that would be controlled by the local authorities. Films are produced by small private studios. Technical staff (cameramen, sound engineers) are usually invited from the neighbouring Irkutsk.

3] Even though the territories of the Nenets and Khanty people border on one another, these people belong to different linguistic groups. The Nenets people are Samoyedic, while the Khanty are Ugric people.

4] Certainly such a substitution was possible only when the image of a lost culture had to be reconstructed. This is the case in Piebald Dog Running Along the Shore (Pegii pes, begushchii kraem more, dir. Karen Gevorkian, 1990) where the director reconstructed the lost tradition of Sakhalin’s Nivkhi. Or when some collective ethnos is created, as in the film Aga (2018) by Bulgarian director Milko Lazarov, shot in Yakutia with local actors; it tells of the way of life of an imagined northern tribe that, in many ways, resembles Inuit traditions.

5] Tatarstan has become a showcase of moderate Islam (Sunnite) for the federal authorities.

6] The film Bibinur (dir. Iurii Feting, 2009) is based on the script of a local writer and filmed by a Petersburg director, who would later make an exotic film based on Kalmyk material.

7] The title refers to the name of a huge mythical fish, which lived allegedly in the Volga river and whose encounter always means luck.

8] Three films from the silent era are available online: the adventure film, based on Tatar historical material, Bulat Batyr (dir. Iurii Tarich, 1928); the melodrama about the intrusion of a consumer cooperative in an Udmurt village titled Rivals (Sopernitsy, dir. Aleksei Pel’-Dmitriev, Lenfilm 1929); and a social drama about the difficulties of collectivisation, filmed in the Kalmyk steppe and titled Ochir (dir. Dariia Shpirkan, 1933).

9] Only a small part of the Chuvash population has retained the pagan beliefs of their ancestors; the majority confess the Orthodoxy faith. The Chuvash speak a Turkic language, but consider themselves closer in mentality to the Finno-Ugric group (in the ethnic genesis of the people the Mari were involved).

10] Aleksei Tenchoi is a writer, film producer and a Buddhist lama. The film is called Khorlo, which means in translation from Buryat a circle or a wheel.

11] The milestones of the local past do not coincide with the main points of the federal (imperial) concept of “historical memory.” The intersection of the logic is rare and quite extraordinary: common for the entire ethnos of Russia is the traumatic experience of Stalinist repressions and of WWII.


Works Cited:

Tishkov, Valerii. 2001. Etnologiia i politika. Nauchnaia publitsistika. Moscow: Nauka.

Anashkin, Sergei. 2014. “Oskolki eposa. ‘Stepnye igry’, rezhisser Bair Dyshenov.” Iskusstvo kino 9.

Sergei Anashkin © 2019

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Updated: 2019