Issue 72 (2021)

Stepan Burnashev: Black Snow (Khara Khaar, Sakha, 2020)

reviewed by Gulnara Abikeyeva © 2021

black snowThe new Yakut film Black Snow by Stepan Burnashev is borderline viewing, because for two thirds of the screen-time the viewer painfully watches how the main character fights for his life, overcoming intolerable pain and despair. The protagonist is a Yakut man by the name of Gosha, who travels alone a KamAZ truck across the icy desert to the city. On the way, he has to change a tire, and in a mishap his hand gets caught under the under heavy truck load. The outside temperature is –50C, night falls, and nobody comes along the road, so there is no help to be expected. I have never come across such story about humans, but people say wolves bite off their paw if caught in a trap. Here a man chews off his hand in order to free himself from his “captivity.” Not accidentally the film refers to the body-horror—a strange genre definition, but true in this case.

An analogy to the film 127 Hours (2010) by Danny Boyle springs to mind, where the main character also is trapped between boulders and, realizing that he will die in this canyon if he cannot free his hand, amputates it himself on the day six of his ordeal. But even setting those films and similar situations side by side, we understand how different these heroes are, their cultural and motivational codes. Although, of course, at the heart lies “the love of life,” both on the literary level and on the level of the everyday-life story. Of crucial importance is the phrase pronounced by the Yakut protagonist: “We don’t live here, we survive.” Therefore, if in 127 Hours we wait for the hero to come up with a solution—and in this sense his video-diary on the phone, the search for different tools, the water rationing over some days, etc. drive the plot—, then the Yakut film is not for the entertainment of the viewer. Due to the unimaginable harsh frost, the protagonist has no time: if he does not pull out his hand from under the truck trap within half an hour, he will freeze to death. He has no instruments or tools at his disposal, and on the cinematic level there is no time for retrospection, such as memories of his life, repentance, or such.

black snow“The Yakut horror movie has emerged around the same time as Yakut cinema: not as an independent genre but as an optical device most precisely suitable to design a visible national identity,” wrote Eva Ivanilova in her article for Iskusstvo kino (2019). So it is. In Sergei Potapov’s very first films, the story started with the arrival of spirits of the forest and the lakes, and likewise in While There is Wind (Pokuda budet veter, 2010) and even more clearly in God Johogoi (Johogoi Aiyy, 2016). Without a mythical connection, without a link to nature Yakut cinema is unimaginable. In Black Snow it seems there are no deities, and in short dream-like memories Gosha sees only people, but the sense of a divine providence, namely a revenge for his bad deeds, remains.

With a seemingly simple structure, the film Black Snow shows the basic lines of this special phenomenon that we call “Yakut cinema.” What are its main characteristics?

black snowMan is inscribed into nature and inseparably linked with it. This seems like a simple postulate, but in a century where urban civilization dominates, this feature really distinguishes Yakut cinema. The entire life, work, and way of life—hardships and pleasures—are connected with nature. Eduard Novikov’s Lord Eagle (Tsar-Ptitsa, 2018), which received the Grand Prix of the Moscow IFF, is of course the apotheosis of this subject. The protagonist of Black Snow is also inscribed into nature. His family lives so far from Yakutsk that planes fly there, but flights are infrequent. One of characters says that if he feels pain or is ill, he won’t have enough money to take a flight to the city, and he won’t make it by car. So there is a whole settlement that lives in these conditions, and not just one. But they love their nature, and respect it. “I have stopped liking the road,”, someone says as Gosha leaves.

black snowThe social aspect of the life of the Sakha people. Practically the first third of the film shows how the people in Sakha live in remote corners—without roads and without connections. The only “consolation” of the people cut off from the “mainland” is alcohol. The people turn into inveterate drunkards. That is the main tragedy of those left to the mercy of fate. In every other Yakut film this subject resonates: for example, in the film Bonfire (Koster na vetru, 2016) by Dmitrii Davydov, where the parents of a teenager are drunkards, and the young lad is rescued by a granddad who is not even his relative. In Black Snow Gosha is an angry demon, who gives booze to the people, and worse: it is fake vodka, from which people may get poisoning and—if they don’t die from it, it will impair their health. Therefore, Gosha’s father does not talk to his son, silently reproaching him for this “dark” business.

black snowA strong hero. This, it seems, is also one of the main lines of Yakut cinema. In this sense, the cinema of Sakha-Yakutia continues the traditions of classical Soviet cinema. This is shown in the title and meaning of the film There is No God Except Me (Net boga krome menia, 2019) by the same Davydov. Man is the measure of all things. If he is strong, he survives under harsh conditions. If he is morally upright, he is right. However, we might interpret Gosha as a representative of a nation that doesn’t want to surrender to the harsh circumstances, so he creates his business in the far north where “nothing is cheap,” everything is hard to get and expensive. Unlike his relatives, he does not drink alcohol. He tries to be helpful: he brings spare parts for a snowmobile, he agrees to take for the granddaughter of a villager an embroidered national handbag for a competition in town. Eventually, finding himself fatally trapped, he burns his truck, which makes us think that he has repented and won’t follow his business any more, the business that has brought punishment upon him. Therefore, the hero is not unambiguously negative, but he is definitely strong.

Mythologized consciousness. I mentioned this concept at the beginning: Gosha sees neither gods nor monsters; he doesn’t pray and doesn’t apologize; but there is one detail in the film that makes us understand that there is some faith in him. When he, already one-armed, burns his truck and departs into the night, hoping to find people, he carries around his neck the bag which he promised to give to the villager’s granddaughter—a bag with an embroidery of a national pattern. That means, he believes in his God or a deity, which gives him the strength to survive. The viewer does not forgive him, but he sympathizes with him: what thirst for life must a man possess to go through all the things he has suffered.

black snowFidelity to horror films. Burnashev is one of the founders of modern Yakut cinema and he has more than anyone else understood that horror is that kernel from which their national cinema has emerged; therefore, he stays faithful to himself. Since the first film Quagmire (Kuta, 2013), in which there mysterious things happen on the hunt, continuing in Evil Spirits (Khara d’ay, 2016), where four ominous stories based on national legends take place, and ending with Z Republic (2018) which tells about a world epidemic of zombie viruses that start apparently from Yakutia (Z and Ya sit on the computer keyboard on the same button, changing with language switching), Burnashev creates a field of horror movies written into the general Yakut cinema.

The cinematic dialogue. In my opinion, this is an important characteristic of a cinematic “wave”, when films appear in answer to works of colleagues. Certainly, Black Snow makes a remark in relation to the film The White Day (Belyi den’, 2013) by Mikhail Lukachevskii. There, too, a trip takes place in the white icy desert when the sky merges with the earth. There, too, passengers become hostages of an accident and the cold. It was one of the first Yakut thrillers on a similar subject where the horror lay in nature’s whiteness as hopelessness. Here Burnashev shows a situation when snow becomes black, from the night, from blood, from the fact that the hero gradually loses consciousness.

Professionalism. This extremely important quality wonderfully takes its place in Yakut cinema, where the budgets are modest and specialist film training is not frequent. Burnashev, for example, graduated from Yakut University in Applied IT and Economy. That did not stop him from making so many successful films, one of which is First Love (Pervaia liubov’, 2015) which has been released in France. Also, he is the editor of Davydov’s films There is No God Except Me and Scarecrow. Therefore, we can speak of a high professionalism of the director and other crew. How else could one hold attention during an almost hour-long shot under a truck, so expressively filmed by the cameraman Semen Amanatov (he also filmed brilliantly God Johogoi). The music of composer Andrei Gurianov is expressive as he sets from the very beginning the mood of a light horror. And, of course, we must mention the leading man, Fedot L’vov, a simple little man at first sight, but an improbably hardy and expressive actor. I repeat, it is hard to watch the film, but having done so, the viewer involuntarily reflects on his/her own will to live. A will which is often not strong enough. 

It is not surprising that Black Snow has won the Grand Prix and the Prize of the Guild of Producers of Russia at the film festival “Window on Europe” in Vyborg in December 2020.

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Gulnara Abikeyeva
Turan University, Almaty

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Works Cited

Ivanilova Eva (2019). “Uzhas belogo lista: istoriia iakutskogo khorrora,” Iskusstvo kino  27 December.

Black Snow, Sakha/RF, 2020
Color, 84 minutes
Director and Scriptwriter: Stepan Burnashev
DoP: Semen Amanatov
Production Design: Sergei Sleptsov
Composer: Andrei Guryanov
Cast: Fedot L'vov, Irona Nikiforova, Kirill Semenov, Vasilii Borisov, Ivan Popov, Iurii Afanas'ev, Vladislav Portniagin, Aleksandra Sofroneeva, Dmitrii Baishev, Ekaterina Khoiutanova
Producer: Stepan Burnashev
Production: Saidam Baryl
Premiere: 11 December 2020 (Okno v Evropu), release 29 January 2021

Stepan Burnashev: Black Snow (Khara Khaar, Sakha, 2020)

reviewed by Gulnara Abikeyeva © 2021

Updated: 2021