Deep in Siberia, ‘Sakhawood’ puts global movie industry on alert
AMGA, Russia – After four heart-wrenching hours on a rutted dirt road, past a densely forested taiga and fields full of grazing horses, the 15-person film crew unloaded heavy bags onto snowy ground and toured the rural locality they had had traveled by car, hovercraft and four-wheeler to reach it.
A patchwork of single-story houses built on stilts carved deep into the permafrost, the village of Amga is the setting for films that have helped make the surrounding region of Yakutia, or Republic of Sakha, home to an industry booming Russian cinematography that wins international awards and accolades. .
The last production he hosted was The Illegal, a film about a young migrant from Central Asia and his struggle to assimilate. Its director, Dmitry Davydov, 36, is an Amga native and a rising star of what is affectionately known as Sakhawood – a nod to the many Hollywood imitators but also a sign of Yakutia’s ambitions of conquer the world stage.
“It’s the enthusiasm that drives us,” said Davydov, a former school principal who left teaching in January to devote himself exclusively to cinema, during a break from filming in the house he shared with his wife and three children. “We do art, not business.”
Enthusiasm can be crucial for any successful project, but in Yakutia, one of the coldest inhabited regions in the world and a place so remote it’s closer to Alaska than golden domes and skyscrapers from the Russian capital, it determines whether a project goes ahead. No one shies away from menial tasks: actors carry boxes of equipment, producers do the dishes, and the team rides in dilapidated Soviet-era cars carrying costumes bought from charity shops.
The budgets are just as modest. Davydov’s 2020 scarecrow film, which won the main prize at the Kinotavr Russian film festival, cost only 1.5 million rubles ($ 20,000) to make – although The Illegal, thanks to scarce funding from a Moscow-based producer, has a budget more than six times that.
Davydov’s actors are amateurs, sometimes local residents he has known from childhood, and he says he’s rarely able to afford his lead role over 300,000 rubles ($ 4,160) for a movie. One of the main roles in The Illegal is played by the father of Stepan Burnashev, another famous local director.
“Our people don’t come to make money, but because they want to be part of the creation of something special,” said Anastasia Pitel, an assistant director from Moscow who moved to Yakutia 10 years ago. after falling in love with a local actor and staying to work. in the film industry.
Of all Russian films made outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, the country’s two main cities, more than half come from Yakutia, a region that has five times the size of France but only one million inhabitants. Film festivals from Finland to South Korea have included special retrospectives on Yakut cinema in recent years.
The Republic of Sakha is richly endowed with diamonds and oil, and breathtaking mountain ranges that inspired the olonkho, traditional stories that the Yakuts have passed down from generation to generation, and which today inspire the films that ‘they realize.
“In 70 years of Soviet rule, our culture has been destroyed,” said Aleksei Romanov, a pioneering Yakut director who in 1992 founded Sakhafilm, a production studio based in the regional capital, Yakutsk. “Shamanism, our traditional faith and other customs have been banned. But now we’re bringing them back.
Many local directors see the cinema as a vehicle to promote an ethnic identity virtually unknown beyond Russia, and a part of the world too often encompassed in the vague and hazy notion of Siberia – a place rarely associated in the imagination. public to something other than extreme cold and endless space. The dialogue in Sakhawood’s films is almost exclusively in Yakut, a Turkish language that bears no resemblance to Russian.
“This place, socially and geographically, has never merged with Russia proper – it has remained a distant edge, capable of preserving its unique traditions,” said Anton Dolin, Russia’s foremost film critic and a Yakut cinema fan.
Most Russian films are “Hollywood imitations with idiosyncratic touches,” he said. But Yakutia has full-fledged comedies, dramas, and thrillers, and doesn’t hesitate to experiment with genres. And while Russian films often fail to break even, Yakut film budgets are so low that they often make a profit.
On a recent night out in Yakutsk, the Tsentralny (Center) cinema was packed with teens and young adults watching Agent Mambo, a slapstick comedy about an aspiring rapper called TruePak who moves to Yakutsk from a small village to get a name in the bustling city. The film broke box office records in Yakutia, grossing over 15 million rubles (over $ 200,000) there and leaving audiences giggling.
Far in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the films that usually fill theaters are mostly Western titles. In what Dolin and other critics say are clumsy efforts to tip the scales towards Russian productions, officials have suggested imposing a quota on Hollywood screenings and even banning some foreign films. The Culture Ministry has funded dozens of big-budget productions in recent years depicting epic stories from Russia’s past, but few have proven popular with the country’s discerning viewers.
Now a steady trickle of public funding is finally reaching Yakutia. In December, the regional government awarded its first annual round of grants aimed at strengthening the local film industry, distributing grants totaling 20 million rubles ($ 278,000) to seven directors, including Davydov. Next year 35 million rubles are up for grabs.
But the emergence of local talent is hampered by the lack of dedicated institutes. Out of a dozen Yakut directors whose films have been screened at international film festivals, none has had the opportunity to officially study the trade at home. Without a film school in Yakutia, the young directors, cameramen and aspiring producers of the region dream of enrolling at the prestigious Gerasimov Film Institute in Moscow (VGIK), the best film school in the country.
“Many see a VGIK diploma as a sort of entry pass into the world of cinema,” explains Sara Tarekegn, a 19-year-old director from Yakutsk. “This is where the producers, directors and actors who form the elite of Russian cinema work.”
For the majority who will never enroll in VGIK, the chance to work with local talent provides a hands-on education in the art of cinematography. Tarekegn was hired as a costume assistant on the set of The Illegal after writing on Instagram to a director she knew, who put her in touch with Davydov. Others put their foot in the door by offering to work as volunteers in exchange for valuable training they would be hard pressed to get elsewhere. Since castings are rare, social media can also be a way to land a lead role.
Directors like Burnashev and Davydov were bolstered by the recent success of South Korean film Parasite, which won four Oscars and became the first foreign production to win Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars. It made them realize the power of cinema to shed light on cultures and languages that the West too often neglects.
“Thanks to cinema, Yakutia has the opportunity to show the world that there is such a people, such a language and such a place. We can use it to familiarize the world with our culture, ”said Burnashev while filming in Yakutsk his latest film, Bihigi Kyhymmyt (Our Winter). “People all over the world are now watching Korean cinema. Why can’t they watch the Yakut movies too?
Davydov recalls being impressed, during a visit to a film festival in New Zealand in 2019, by how indigenous Maori used cinema to revive their endangered language from the 1970s. Indigenous peoples “are the original storytellers,” Maori filmmaker Taiki Waititi said when accepting his Oscar in February 2020.
Davydov thinks the maxim applies just as much to Yakutia as he hopes to be the next to shock the world. “We’re finally getting noticed,” he said.