Issue 70 (2020)

Filipp Yuriev: The Whaler Boy (Kitoboi, Russia-Belgium-Poland, 2020)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2020 + Interview

kitoboiFilipp Yuriev studied at the Film Institute under Aleksei Uchitel’ and his degree film, The Song of the Mechanical Fish (Pesnia mekhanicheskoi rybki, 2011), screened at Kinotavr.Shorts in 2012. The short explored the existence of a fisherman in the remote north. It took Yuriev almost ten years to develop his feature debut project, Whaler Boy. Fascinated by the landscapes of the far north (Chukotka), where the earlier short had been filmed, he wrote a script that matured over time as he sought finance and a production team for a project that would, just because of the remote location, present a budgetary challenge for any producer, not to mention with a debutant filmmaker. It was his master’s studio, Rock Films, and producer Kira Saksaganskaya who realized the project in co-production with Belgium and Poland, and sadly without support from Eurimages. Nevertheless, the film will do well internationally, following the splash it made at the Venice Days (Giornate degli autori) in 2020, winning the main award in the section, and nationally with its Best Director and Best Actor awards at Kinotavr in September 2020.

Yuriev’s story is a little uneven, and a harsh eye will spot the various avenues tried and abandoned, while a kinder reading could focus on the line of the road movie or the fairy tale. In any case, this is not a film about motherland and fatherland, about home and abroad, and about Russia’s superiority over America, as the media (Q&A in Venice) were rash to comment, based on a phrase in the film where the protagonist comments on “Russia is the future, America is the past,” which refers, however, not to yet another political race between Russia and America overtaking each other but simply to the date line that runs between the Diomede Islands in the Bering Strait, and puts America a day behind the Russian shore. Alas.

kitoboiYuriev has finely absorbed the way in which the Chukchi live today, showing their connection to whale fishing, which is their way of life, and the respect they have for these animals—a respect rooted in the past. He plays with the modern way of life, such as motorbikes, which run out of petrol half way to civilization (the next town); and the internet, which has arrived in their world (subject to availability of self-generated electricity) and shows them a world far away, which they comprehend inadequately. To the young local population, the internet is like an illustrated book. Yet Yuriev shows the interest of the local people in that “other” world in a naïve manner by attributing its acquaintance of soft porn sites to the teenagers of the village: the best friends Leshka and Kolyan. They are raised with traditional values (help granddad die in the tundra), with the skills of whale fishers (the quite bloody dissection of the whale after a hunt), and with an aroused sexual interest that any normal teenager would experience. By choosing the period of maturation, Yuriev allows us to perceive the film as a journey to another land, the land of adulthood, where a border-guard and poachers will confront Leshka’s dream of travelling to Alaska and to “Ditroit,” where the porn star “Hollysweet” (played by Kristina Asmus) lives.

There are two failed “escapes” from the village of Lorino, the settlement where the film was shot. The first is on a motorbike, when the two friends are stuck half way as they run out of petrol and have to return; and a second, when the same happens to Lesha, escaping alone on the boat, as he drifts towards the Diomede Islands, the larger one belonging to Russia and the smaller to Alaska. There he is first robbed by poachers, of his provisions and his boat; then he is spotted by an American border-guard, who eventually takes him to “Alaska,” which is actually to the Russian shore.

kitoboiAfter a long delirious walk (presumably to Detroit), Lesha finds himself in a landscape filled with whale bones, as can be found on the shores of the Bering Strait. Yet these bones turn out to be not ancestry, but the material reality of the present: rusting canisters of oil, dumped in the northern landscape, like the nuclear waste left behind in Aleksei Popogrebskii’s How I Ended this Summer (Kak ia provel etim letom, 2010). What might appear heritage is an industrial wasteland, yet this is the present where Lesha lives, where he meets his friend Kolyan, whom he thought to have killed (an event triggering his escape); and where the grandfather wants to die and then decides that maybe he’s is rather hungry and could have something to eat? This is a barren landscape where the locals live in harmony with each other, with their past, with nature. They have little other choice.

The realization that this world is where he belongs requires Leshka to leave home and return here: the journey between this world and that world, between life and death, between here and there, Russia and America, and possible returns in a different quality are what characterize the fairy tale, and this film. We only appreciate home when we have nee away. Alongside, the film makes references to a road movie (except there is no car, but boats and motorbikes); and to an internet romance (except that it only works in one direction, the porn star never sees Leshka because he does not pay). And the fairy tale, too, is abandoned half way: Leshka never meets his Princess Hollysweet. But at the end all the characters continue to live: the grandad opts for life; Kolyan is still alive; and Leshka is back home. A happy ending.

Birgit Beumers

Interview with Filipp Yuriev (in English), Venice, 8 September

I want to begin with a question that involves the Russian word rodina [motherland]: what does rodina mean for you?
I think that for me and my character it is a place that we often hate: you don’t agree with it, you don’t like your government, or the President, and I also hate how people behave, but at the same time you love it and cannot live without it: it is your home and there is no other place that can make you feel home like that. There are a lot of places in the world that I like a lot, that I like to travel to or where I like to live for a while, but they are not home. And for my character it’s the same.

kitoboiDo you think that he knows that, or in order to find out he needs to do something?
I think if you have a heart, it is natural to leave your own home and try to escape. This is the right time to do it, when you are a teenager. I also ran away from home three times, living in a small house, in the countryside, because I thought I never wanted to live with my parents or something like that. This is the age when you feel everything so sharp and sensitive.

Have you been thinking of the story at any time in terms of a fairy tale?
Of course. But at the beginning, when I started to write the script, I thought the story would be realistic. After some time had elapsed, I understood that it is some kind of fairy tale, that’s the right word, I like it: the story is not completely in reality, it is a tale where we meet with some characters and some spirits. Staying in Chukotka gave me this ability to make such a change, because in Chukotka legends, most stories are about some fool, a stupid guy, who travels all over the world and meets with some spirits and gods. He often disagrees, they argue, and the naïve guy is the center of this understanding of the world. That was close to my story, where a little man discovers the world.

kitoboiAnd Kristina Asmus (“Girl from America”) is she the fairy tale princess, who is unattainable?
Yes, she is some beautiful princess in a tower, and the guy cannot completely understand that she can’t see him, and he imagines the whole love story. This is not only what happens with guys in the far north, but we very often imagine love feelings, we image the beloved one. In this case, they are very teenage feelings, like first love.

A question about genre: there is some fairy tale, there is a bit of road movie. Where does the road go?
When I thought about the genre, it is very hard to describe: it changes its direction several times. At the beginning, it starts off with the boys as a light comedy about teenagers, how they live in the village; then suddenly the story changes after the killing of the friend and takes a new direction and acquires a different style. I didn’t think about genre, because it’s important that it changes. The film has no rules and you cannot predict what happens next. It is a living story that can change. I’m not a big fan of genre rules, because if a film begins like a romantic film it will be romantic until the end; but it could change and have a dark ending. The road movie: the road of this guy leads back to the place where he belongs, so his problem is that he is trying to find his place. You don’t see what’s happening near you, but when you leave the place that’s part of your heart you see what’s going on. Often, when we travel, we see differently what we have in our heart, even if the home does not change.

kitoboiThere is a very interesting moment in the film I wanted to ask you about: after a long journey Lesha arrives in a field with whale bones, but the image suddenly changes and the bones turn into disused oil canisters. What does this mean, what is the significance of that image?
I like it how the scene works, especially after having spoken with some viewers: some say that the guy met a spirit who saved him and returned him home; others say he got tired and now hallucinates before returning home; or that the police officer returned him. I like both versions, and also the version that the character dies and this is him after-life, the other world. I like all of that. Only at the beginning I had my own ending, but later I changed this ending, because I felt it was not right. This ending can have a mystical and a realistic meaning: either the police officer returns him home to save him, that’s the realistic way; or in the mystical way, that he was talking to the whale god, who is the main god for the Chukchi, who gives them food and life, and this is an important meeting in his life. It could be a way of something higher speaking back at Leshka. And since the character is a whale hunter and kills whales, meeting the whale god is something like redemption. The Chukchi believe they are not killing animals, but the spirit is giving them a present. The animal belongs to the spirits, and they respect the food very much and don’t treat it like a living animal, but killing a whale is some kind of shamanistic ritual.

Hence the belief that the world stands on three whales…
The whale is a most fascinating creature for me. I was obsessed with whales for many years, and it was hard to watch the whale hunting and killing in such bloody episodes, but for the people, this is something more important than killing animals. There is something equal for the people and the animals. I discovered that there are 15,000 whales left, and about 13,000 Chukchi, so they are also a disappearing species.

kitoboiWhat about the scene of the death of the Chukchi father?
In Chukotka tradition this ritual is very important, people call it voluntary death, like suicide. Any man can say to his son: I decided, I’ll die today, you must take me to the tundra. And the son won’t have the right to challenge this, because if he decided, you must help him. When I heard about this, it struck me as the main point of the relationship between grandfathers and grandchildren: my grandparents always say “I’ll die tomorrow, I feel this is my last day. We need to chat about some important things.” And for years we’d have conversations like that. I understood that this is a very common and cute relationship; and here too, the boy loves his grandad but he is also tired of his grandfather talking like this, and he has to obey. This is ultimately a very important episode for me, because I respect the story as it makes you understand life: maybe you won’t reach America, maybe you won’t reach Alaska, and maybe you won’t go to Detroit, but life is still beautiful. I like how this episode worked in the first screening.

At first, I had a very dark ending, it was not a good and happy one; but as the years went past, it changed. I think we must leave something good to the people at the end. Originally the ending was quite different: the police officer turns somebody in, or Leshka shoots him, then Leshka goes home but thinks he is in America, or he is taken to prison, and still he dreams of the girl and his life gets worse and worse. After some years of thinking about the script and going through some difficult moments in my life made me see it differently; sometimes you think you have a most powerful ending, and then you gradually understand that the ending cannot be dark, because this is a story about teenagers and their feelings, and it should be about miracles, because they believe in miracles. I very much like the Chukotka and the mythology, it is the same like Ivan the Fool, the guy who never understands how things work, but who can argue with it and learn from the gods.

kitoboiHow do you learn about Chukotka mythology?
I’m not a fan of learning about traditions, I’m not an ethno-guy or a fan of ethnic films. In fact, these people are living the same life as me and other people. When we were shooting, there arrived a nice-looking man from Slovakia, who was lost. He had come to write a book about the ancient Chukchi, their traditions and beliefs and shamanism. He was asking where he could find traditions, and it was funny because he was surrounded by kids on motorbikes, smoking, and laughing about him. I wanted to ask why he wanted to stay in the history which is dead instead of looking at the living thing, what happens here and now. For me it was that: I wanted to tell a story about what is happening today in Chukotka and this village. I was also talking to people who know about their culture and tradition, and hearing some stories that were quite strange. These are not like our fairy tales, which have come closer to the people all the time. These stories are really strange, they are crazy and cruel, say, about a woman who had sex with a whale and gave birth to one. These are not entirely comprehensible tales, and they are quite unique to these people; but they show the people’s way of thinking. They were surrounded by animals, who were the main source of life: the whale that gives them everything and was holy to them, like a walrus, like a killer whale. They help them attack whales and are like their brothers; there are stories how they speak to them and communicate with them. And they leave the skulls…

In the same way, the culture in this place is dead, many people don’t remember their gods and their ancestors, because the Soviet Union destroyed their culture. This village, Lorino, appeared in the 1950s, when the USSR merged several settlements, so it is not a traditionally grown village. Then people were not allowed to hunt whales the traditional way, but it became a big industry, and native hunters had to abandon their ways and work for the Soviet whale industry. And alcohol came to these places. They forgot their language, their traditions, how to survive. And then, in the 1990s, the Soviet Union crashed, people had no food and no work. Then people turned to the old folks and asked them to show them their hunting weapons, boats and techniques. They started slowly to return to their old way of life and hunting, and received some rights and permissions. So, the place is very connected with its stories. I didn’t want to show the whole story, which is impossible, but to make the film close to Chukchi way of thinking. I spoke with some hunter, who said that he was fishing, then went back to the tundra and met a spirit: it was not a special part of his life, but just an everyday event, not strange but common. And this should be like a meeting with the ancient ways of the Chukchi.


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The Whaler Boy, Russia, 2020
Color, 94 minutes
Scriptwriter and Director Filipp Yuriev
DoPs Mikhail Khursevich, Yakov Mironchev
Production Design Georgii Kolotygin, Artem Kuz’min
Costume Design Boris Kukol’kin
Music Krzysztof A. Janczak
Sound David Vrancken
Editing Karolina Maciejewska, Aleksandr Krylov, Filipp Yuriev
Cast: Vladimir Onokhov, Kristina Asmus, Vladimir Liubimtsev, Nikolai Tatato, Arieh Worthalter, Maria Chuprinskaia
Producers Aleksei Uchitel’, Kira Saksaganskaya
Production Rock Film Studio, with support of the Ministry of Culture of the RF and the Foundation for the Development of Modern Cinematography Kinoprime, and with participation of Orka Film (Poland) and Man’s Films Productions (Belgium)
Distribution (RF) Rock Film
World Sales Loco Films

Filipp Yuriev: The Whaler Boy (Kitoboi, Russia-Belgium-Poland, 2020)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2020

Updated: 2020