Arc­tic art house: Re­mote Rus­sian re­gion nur­tures lo­cal film boom

The Phnom Penh Post - - LIFESTYLE - Maria Antonova

IN RUS­SIA’S re­mote Yaku­tia re­gion the film in­dus­try is boom­ing, de­spite shooting sched­ules be­ing re­stricted by some of the cold­est win­ters on Earth and direc­tors blam­ing “spir­its” for dis­turb­ing the pro­duc­tion crew.

Six time zones away from the coun­try’s film schools and with­out cen­tral state fund­ing for its film­mak­ers, the re­gion none­the­less pro­duces half of all Rus­sian movies made out­side Moscow and Saint Peters­burg.

“Every­body wants to make movies,” said Alexei Ro­manov, who turned his back on a promis­ing ca­reer as a film­maker in Saint Peters­burg three decades ago to re­turn to his na­tive Siberia.

“We have films with minis­cule bud­gets and hi­lar­i­ously small fees but they make more in the cin­e­mas here than Hol­ly­wood block­busters,” he said.

When the di­rec­tor came back to Yaku­tia, a vast ter­ri­tory that is home to fewer than a mil­lion peo­ple, the lo­cal in­dus­try con­sisted of just two cam­er­a­men.

Now, thanks in part to his ef­forts, peo­ple are “fight­ing for cam­eras” to fin­ish their projects be­fore equip­ment starts fail­ing in win­ter tem­per­a­tures that reg­u­larly drop to mi­nus 50 de­grees Cel­sius.

Ro­manov es­ti­mated an av­er­age lo­cal movie bud­get to be be­tween $40,000 and $80,000.

Most ac­tors ba­si­cally work for free on skele­ton bud­gets, hop­ing to even­tu­ally get paid from box of­fice rev­enues.

But do­mes­tic and for­eign au­di­ences are start­ing to no- tice t he re­gion’s out­put.

Last year, a Yaku­tian film The Lord Ea­gle about an el­derly cou­ple liv­ing with an ea­gle in the for­est, re­ceived the top prize at the Moscow Film Fes­ti­val.

South Korea’s Bu­san Film Fes­ti­val, one of the most im­por­tant in Asia, in 2017 showed a dozen Yaku­tia pro­duc­tions in a spe­cial ret­ro­spec­tive, prais­ing their unique cine­matic style.

Per­mafrost Zom­bies

Lo­cals jok­ingly call Yaku­tia’s movie in­dus­try “Sakha­wood”, de­rived from the re­gion’s other name, the Repub­lic of Sakha.

Yaku­tia’s un­ex­plored wilder­nesses steeped in folk leg­ends and shamanic tra­di­tions have piqued fes­ti­val in­ter­est, but Sakha­wood’s gen­res are sur­pris­ingly var­ied.

Re­cent pre­mieres have in­cluded Repub­lic Z, a zom­bie apoca­lypse sparked by a virus buried in per­mafrost.

An­other new re­lease was “Cheeke”, a crime com­edy about disco dance-offs, with a green-mous­tached hero.

Ro­manov – one of the founders of Sakhafilm, Yaku­tia’s main pro­duc­tion com­pany – said global art-house in­ter­est could be ex­plained by Yaku­tia’s mixed cul­ture.

“We’re Asians on the one hand, and North­ern­ers on the other,” com­bin­ing themes of sur­vival with Tur­kic her­itage, he said.

“Sakha cin­ema com­bines re­gional leg­ends and folk re­li­gions with con­tem­po­rary val­ues,” said Jin Park, a pro­gram­mer for the Bu­san fes­ti­val’s se­lec­tion com­mit­tee.

Pro­duc­tions show “au­then­tic charm that is rarely found in other re­gional films”, he said.

The re­gion’s re­mote­ness not only adds to its al­lure, it has helped keep its in­de­pen­dent cin­e­mas alive.

“We are lucky that we are so far away from ev­ery­thing and big dis­trib­u­tors never took over our the­atres,” said film­maker Lyubov Borisova, as she worked on sound edit­ing of her di­rec­to­rial de­but, filmed last sum­mer.

“Our iso­la­tion makes us unattrac­tive” to large chains, which favour Hol­ly­wood block­busters and shut out lo­cally made films across other Rus­sian re­gions, she said.

Pre­mieres in the re­gion’s main city Yakutsk are more com­mu­nity af­fairs than celebrity galas. Peo­ple of­ten turn up be­cause a rel­a­tive was in­volved in the film’s pro­duc­tion.

At the open­ing of award­win­ning The Lord Ea­gle, guests were treated to pan­cakes.

Hun­gry flames

Dis­cern­ing lo­cal au­di­ences use In­sta­gram now to is­sue their ver­dict, Borisova laughed. “Our view­ers are very capri­cious, and they know we read all the com­ments so they ad­dress us di­rectly: ‘Don’t film like that any­more!’”

Her movie about a young man sent to work on an iso­lated is­land in the Arc­tic has the work­ing ti­tle The Sun Never Sets and will be fin­ished in spring.

She said the crew worked on the coast of the Laptev Sea for a month, liv­ing in an aban­doned wing of a vil­lage clinic.

The pro­duc­tion team con­stantly heard “spir­its” in the build­ing, she added, which they had to ward off by “feed­ing the fire” – a Yakut tra­di­tion of of­fer­ing small pieces of bread to a fur­nace.

In his youth, Ro­manov stud­ied un­der Sergei Gerasi­mov, a leg­endary Soviet di­rec­tor af­ter whom Moscow’s fa­mous film school is named.

“He al­ways told me, don’t in­vent any­thing, film what you know and don’t copy any­body. And that’s what we teach our young film­mak­ers,” he said.

With that in mind, young direc­tors have found suc­cess wait­ing for them at home in Yaku­tia. “No­body wants to leave.”

Yaku­tian film­maker Lyubov Borisova works on her film in Sakhafilm pro­duc­tion stu­dio of­fice in Yakutsk.

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