Issue 72 (2021)

Dmitrii Davydov: The Scarecrow (Pugalo, Sakha, 2020)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2021

pugaloOver the last few years, the cinema from the Republic Sakha (Yakutia) has conquered festivals, both in Russia and abroad. In 2016, Dmitrii Davydov’s Bonfire (Koster na vetru) screened at Busan IFF and later won best feature at Toronto’s imagineNATIVE—the first film from Sakha to ever win an international award. In 2018, Eduard Novikov’s Lord Eagle (Toyon Kyyl) won the main prize at Moscow IFF. And in 2020, films from Sakha—Dmitrii Davydov’s The Scarecrow and Stepan Burnashev’s Black Snow (Khara khaar)—won the main awards at the two key Russian film festivals, Kinotavr and Window on Europe.

The journal Iskusstvo kino devoted its first issue for 2021 to the topic of Yakut cinema, or what is called “Sakhawood,” with contributions from a range of critics. They bring into play different arguments for the surge in filmmaking in the region and the interest in these films. The journal’s editor-in-chief, Anton Dolin, leads with an article that suggests ten reasons for the popularity of Sakha films: the use of their own cultural code; the absence of ideology; the link to the viewer; the lack of financial value (film not as “product”); non-professionalism; the readiness to study and learn; non-hierarchy; lack of format and standards; no stardom; and solidarity (Dolin 2021, 7-8). Although this list generalizes many aspects of filmmaking and reflects the perspective from an outsider, it is helpful precisely in that superior point of view from the center towards the federation’s (independent and yet dependent) subject and in highlighting the advantage Yakut films have both over the mainstream, commercial fare and ambitious arthouse films produced in Moscow and Petersburg, which Dolin pointed out elsewhere: “The Yakut cinema is both miraculous and alien for our glamourous and often fake industry” (Dolin 2020).

pugaloA particularly interesting contribution to the cluster comes from Liubov’ Borisova (2021), herself a filmmaker (The Sun Above Me Never Sets, 2019), who speaks of the myths that underlie the worldview of the Yakut people, in which the world falls into three parts, like the root, the stem, and the branches of a tree: the parental, material, and spiritual worlds. In Yakut cinema, the rituals associated with this worldview serve not as an exotic extension to the diegetic world, but as everyday normality. The revenge of nature for any pain inflicted by the people is reflected in a rupture of the unity between man and landscape, so that the expanse of the northern regions has an inherent and not a decorative role in the films. Like in Russian-made films, people are prone to lose their path or their direction, only that in the Yakut examples they do so because they have (morally) erred, they have gone wrong, they have made a mistake. Such concerns also feature in the films of Dmitrii Davydov, a schoolteacher and self-taught filmmaker.

pugaloDavydov’s debut Bonfire was set in a village. A young man has run over his best friend with a tractor after they both got drunk (alcohol is a recurring issue in these films); he is sent to prison and commits suicide. The real drama, however, begins here and concerns the fathers of the two men, who represent different ways of coping with tragedy. They stop talking with each other; one takes to drink, the other adopts a neglected boy and makes sure he gets on the right track. Davydov’s concern with the aftermath of a shake-up or tragedy is also manifest in No God Except Me (Net boga krome menia, 2019): a forester, whose wife has left the family, needs to take care of his mother, who suffers from dementia. The problem begins when the village community tells him to take her away, to the city, where he struggles to adapt. The traditional family is broken (the divorce) and the connection of man and nature is ruptured (men cut trees for profit); the “normal” way of life no longer functions. Davydov’s Scarecrow maybe is the filmmaker’s most outstanding achievement so far, not only because of the main award at the Kinotavr Russian Open Film Festival in Sochi, but also for the performance of the singer Valentina Romanova-Chyskyyray, who received the award as best actress at the event. The film stands out from the festival competition as a film not in the Russian language; likewise, film centers on a marginal character, an outsider, a woman without a name called “Scarecrow” (Pugalo), who lives alone, who is beaten randomly by the village lads and kicked out of the local shop, who is not respected. However, the people—starting with the policeman Ivan—need her for her special healing powers.

pugaloSeveral times in the film, including the opening shot, Scarecrow is shown drawing her energy from nature: she stands in a field and inhales/exhales the air, the wind, nature. Visually, she is at one with nature: she stands in a white, snow-covered field as immobile as a scarecrow, forgotten from the last summer. She is a mere black dot on a snowy road as she pulls firewood on a sledge, captured in a crane shot from high above. She is almost invisible as she embraces a birch tree, herself wearing not a single “colored” item but dressed entirely in shades of grey, beige, and black.

pugaloThe cinematic narrative begins with several deceptions. Equipped with torches, several men walk fast through an empty, nocturnal village; more men join and follow, some from the side. As the size of the group grows, they could pose a threat, but it transpires that their mission is peaceful: they get into a van and drive to a building, having found “her.” “She” does not belong with them: she is an outsider, maybe a victim. She is taken to the police station not for a crime, but to help. From the conversation with the chief of police it emerges she is not inclined to help: she is in a position to say no. Yet his request to help cure an injured woman is one she cannot decline: she is compelled to help, even if she bears the (physical) consequences and suffers.

pugaloA woman has been shot in the stomach, and the young female doctor is helpless. Taking the injured woman to town means to get headquarters involved; there they would check out the village. Moreover, the victim’s drunkard husband would get to look after the two children while she is away. A lose-lose situation. The policeman “Ivan” (more of a label as “policeman” than a name) implores Scarecrow to help. She refuses, claiming she has no energy left, but hearing the story and seeing the helpless doctor, she does. Chasing everybody out of the room, Scarecrow “sucks out” the cause of injury or harm: she absorbs the disease, and cures the woman. Afterwards she is sick and has to purify herself, both by vomiting and “disinfection”—with vodka that she buys with the money the policeman gives her as he tells her not to spend it on booze. Her alcohol consumption, it seems, has less to do with the healing than with her own trauma, of which later.

pugaloOver the course of the film, Scarecrow heals several patients, and every time the process is the same: she obviously heals with her mouth (she spits, vomits, rinses her mouth with vodka afterwards) but the procedure is never seen on screen, never witnessed by others, who are always chased away or leave by themselves when the procedure starts. First, a couple arrives, Liuba and Iura. The woman unpacks a bag with food for Scarecrow. She cannot get pregnant and explains that her husband’s “apparat” is not working, and would Scarecrow please fix it. A family comes with grandma, who does not want to be treated. Scarecrow threatens that she’ll make her give birth to a dog… and the family leave the house. In the next frame, Scarecrow leaves the house in one direction to be sick by the shed, and the family walk off with grandma (who previously had to be carried). Next, a villager delivers firewood for Scarecrow and asks her to see to his boy’s stammer. One patient’s treatment is a variation to the pattern: Scarecrow is called to help a woman give birth, although the woman’s husband, Stepan, had previously beaten her up for an uncareful remark after she’d jumped the queue at the hospital. Having cut herself, Scarecrow needed professional medical help: her healing powers do not work on herself.

Thanks to careful camera work we hardly ever see the faces of the patients: the woman who has been shot in the stomach remains invisible except for her body on the stretcher; the boy with the stammer and Scarecrow both have their heads outside the frame; the impotent man stands with his back to the camera; and for the final act of healing, the patient is seen in bed through a mirror, and only once she is cured does she stand on the porch in her pyjamas.

Indeed, Scarecrow’s final act of healing apparently costs her life: the girl’s mother had come to ask her for help before, but she refused: Scarecrow knows the price. The girl has been in a coma for two years. Bringing her back to life means giving her own life, but maybe also paying off a debt: that of having abandoned her own daughter. She knows the meaning of this act: she goes to the house, wearing a flowery dress over her trousers, her hair neatly tied up. Before the visit, she has also returned the kyryympa (a kind of Northern violin) that she had borrowed from Stepan.

pugaloIn general, Scarecrow drinks excessively, eats like a pig, and lives in a house that is a mess. A dead mouse merely signals the utter squalor echoed by boxes of unpacked clutter in a corner and the general disorder and piles of dirty dishes. Her only friend is a stoker. The character is on the one hand a reference to Davydov’s previous film, No God Except Me, where the protagonist takes a job as a stoker in the city to earn some money so that he can look after his dementia-suffering mother; on the other hand, it is a reference to Aleksei Balabanov’s The Stoker (Kochegar 2010), featuring in the main part of the “Yakut”—like Scarecrow, a character without no name—Mikhail Skriabin, an actor from the Sakha Theatre. Like Scarecrow, the stoker is an outsider. He offers her company without asking any questions.

Scarecrow’s chip on her shoulder appears to be a trauma connected to her daughter, but the event is never identified and no direct link is suggested between her present behavior and her past, thus avoiding a cause-effect interpretation. She abandoned her daughter as a baby, and now she is searching for her. As a teenager, the girl had been sentenced to two years in prison for theft, has since been released, but never returned home; she is working as a prostitute in town. To find her, Scarecrow gets help from Ivan who finds her an address in town, where “Anzhela Ustinova” works: yet the mother does not recognize her “baby.” In despair, she gives away her coat, her hat and her money before returning home for her last and final mission: to heal the girl in the coma, after two years—exactly the term her daughter served. She “replaces” her daughter, who is beyond rescue, with the comatose girl. Her self-sacrifice may then be her redemption for abandoning her own child.

pugaloSymbolism is rather sparse in the film, but there are two items that stand out in their own way without protruding excessively; they literally stand in front of porches. First, there is the kyryympa, the violin. Scarecrow first sees it in the hands of a boy waiting for his mother and talks to him about the instrument, until his mother comes and takes him away abruptly. She sees another kyryympa at the house of Stepan and borrows it—something he cannot refuse after she has delivered his child. She cradles the instrument like a baby and it obviously has a significance for her, one we never quite know about. Second, there are the felt boots: one of her boots is broken, as she discovered when chopping wood in the forest. She repairs it with some extra felt, but now she has a grey and a black boot. When the family with their grandma have left, the woman returns and leaves new boots on the doorstep. Yet Scarecrow does not accept them, but returns them to the shop. Both the violin and the boots are wanted items that do not belong to this, to her world: the boots are never worn, the instrument never played. They mark aspirations of a different life, of comfort and beauty.

pugaloThe camera frames those abandoned objects like paintings, and on thresholds. Doors and windows also play an important role: they separate worlds, of inside and outside, of life and death. Most impressive is the role of the camera, which never watches directly any of the healing acts; it either leaves together with the observers or looks aside, at character’s backs or bodies, but never faces: “Coming into contact with the sick or injured, she [Scarecrow] chases away everybody around, including the cameraman” (Dolin 2020). The camera is an intruder, and that is also the case in Scarecrow’s house. The camera shows the squalor in photographic stills rather than a panorama or zoom shot; it hides under tables and behind chairs, looking at Scarecrow from under the table, as if ashamed of its presence, as we see her legs shuffle around the room. Scarecrow knows of the camera’s presence and of being watched; she stares sideways at the camera when she is being filmed while eating. The camera watches her, as do the villagers who stop and stare through her windows, which she has permanently covered with curtains (and only occasionally glimpses out to check). She dislikes the camera and being watched. The camera captures her precisely in the first frame: in harmony with nature, whence she apparently draws energy.  

As Maria Kuvshinova has stated, there is something unique in the film’s simplicity of this diegetic world that sits between life and death, between male and female, between the binaries that we are so accustomed to use to divide a world that maybe is indivisible.

Nowhere in federal cinema have I seen examples of such a harmonious merger of social and existential issues, such a humanist intonation stripped of any false tones, such a recognition of the importance of human life and such an acceptance of loss. (And, returning to the constant issue of gender balance: in these films with male and female characters there is nothing that would remind us of the established misogynous views of our federal authors, maybe because in the space of an organic humanism there is no sexism) (Kuvshinova 2019).

The rise in ethnic Yakut film production thus comes for a good reason at this time. On the one hand, it serves the local and national box office; Sakha films represent Russia on the national and international festival circuit; and the films boost the decentralization of film production, less so on the grounds of exotic fare but for a simplicity in form and content. On the other hand, films such as Scarecrow speak of harmony, its loss, its price, and its value.

Birgit Beumers

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Works Cited

Borisova, Liubov'. 2021. “Iakutskoe kino: magiia i mify.” Iskusstvo kino 1-2: 32-37.

Dolin, Anton. 2020. “‘Pugalo’—misticheskaia drama o iakotskoi kol’dune. Znakharku vse boiatsia I obkhodita storonoi, no tol’ko ona mozhet pomoch’, kogda prikhordit nastoiashchaia beda.” Meduza 15 Sept.

Dolin, Anton. 2021. “Khrebty inogo mira,” Iskusstvo kino 1-2: 5-9.

Kuvshinova, Maria. 2019. “Iakutskoe kino dolzhno byt’ predstavleno na glavnykh festivaliakh Rossii i mira.” Kimkibabaduk 8 October.

Scarecrow, Russia/Sakha, 2020
Color, 72 min., 1:2,35, 5.1
Scriptwriter and Director Dmitrii Davydov
DoP Ivan Semenov
Production Design Tamara Ivanova
Music Sergei Iarmonov
Editing Stepan Burnashev
Cast: Valentina Romanova-Chyskyyray, Anatolii Struchkov, Artur Zakharov, Nikolai Ivanov, Anilena Gurieva
Producer Dmitrii Davydov
Production Bonfire, with support of the Sinet Sakhavud foundation

Dmitrii Davydov: The Scarecrow (Pugalo, Sakha, 2020)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers © 2021

Updated: 2021