Film boom in Russian arctic region

Lyubov Borisova doing the sound editing for her directorial debut, about a man sent to work on an isolated island in the Arctic.
Lyubov Borisova doing the sound editing for her directorial debut, about a man sent to work on an isolated island in the Arctic.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

YAKUTSK (Russia) • 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 film-makers, the region produces half of all Russian movies made outside St Petersburg and Moscow.

"Everybody wants to make movies," said Alexei Romanov, who turned his back on a promising career as a film-maker in St Petersburg three decades ago to return to his native Siberia.

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

When he returned to Yakutia, a vast territory that is home to fewer than a million people, the 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 drop to minus 50 deg C.

Romanov estimated an average local film budget to be between US$40,000 (S$54,000) and US$80,000. Most actors work for free on skeleton budgets, hoping to eventually get paid from box-office revenues.

But domestic and foreign audiences are starting to notice the region's output.

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

South Korea's Busan Film Festival showed in 2017 a dozen Yakutia productions in a special retrospective, praising their cinematic style.

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 perma-frost. Another new release was Cheeke, a crime comedy about disco dance-offs, featuring a hero with a green moustache.

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 Mr Jin Park, a programmer for the Busan festival's selection committee.

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

"We are lucky we are so far away from everything and big distributors never took over our theatres," said film-maker Lyubov Borisova, as she worked on sound editing for her directorial debut, filmed last summer.

The region's isolation makes it "unattractive" to large chains, which favour Hollywood blockbusters and shut out locally made films, 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 award-winning The Lord Eagle, guests were treated to pancakes. Discerning local audiences use Instagram now to issue their verdict, said Borisova.

"Our viewers are very capricious and they know we read all the comments so they address us directly, 'Don't film like that anymore,'" she said.

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 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 film-makers," he said.

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


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2019, with the headline 'Film boom in Russian arctic region'. Print Edition | Subscribe