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A boy wearing an animal-skin hat and holding a pointed animal horn gazes skyward.

Film still from Ogho kuiurduu turara (Boy fishing), directed by Prokopiy Nogovitsyn

  • Sakha Cinema: Worldviews from Northeastern Siberia on Film

    The Sakha Republic, a semiautonomous republic in northeastern Siberia, Russia, is often known for its wealth of natural resources and extreme climatic conditions. In recent years, the region (named for the majority Indigenous group Sakha, the northernmost Turkic speaking people) has also become recognized for its small yet vigorous Indigenous film industry, known as “Sakhawood.”

    These films are saturated in Sakha sociocultural contexts, presenting Sakha culture, history, and lived realities to an international audience. They convey messages that resonate worldwide, especially with other Indigenous filmmakers who emphasize language revitalization and maintenance, reclamation of storytelling, and narrativization of worldviews, folklore, and local knowledge. For such a small industry, films like Toyon kyyl (2018, directed by Eduard Novikov), Pugalo (2020, Dmitrii Davydov), and Khara khaar (2020, Stepan Burnashev) have been able to make huge international impacts.

    More than half of the Russian films made outside Moscow and St. Petersburg are made in the Sakha Republic. Throughout the Soviet era, the Sakha Republic (then the Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic) did not have its own “national cinema” despite having a rather robust system for distributing and screening Soviet films. In 1990, during perestroika (“restructuring”), Alexei Romanov, the first professionally trained film director of the Sakha region, established the Severfilm Creative Association. The distribution system had collapsed as well, so filmmakers turned to national television, which had been well established since the 1960s. Thus, the first Sakha films (made in the Sakha language and about Sakha) were broadcast on television.

    When the republic gained sovereignty with the adoption of the current Constitution of the Sakha Republic in 1992, then-president Mikhail Nikolaev issued a decree that established the national film company Sakhafilm. This coincided with various waves of linguistic, cultural, and religious revitalization efforts and a general desire to establish or unearth some form of collective identity. Sakhafilm’s goal was to use cinema as a platform for identity politics, and since its creation, the regional government has commissioned the company to shoot documentary and feature films spanning genres and drawing from Sakha literary classics.

    Sakha cinema is enmeshed in significant cultural, political, and restorative undertakings. The creation of Sakhafilm was the impetus for developing a “national cinema” that reflects all aspects of Sakha life: cosmology, history, worldview, customs, lived experiences, etc.

    Sardana Savvina, a producer and current head of Sakhafilm, describes the period of 2000 to 2011 as the kinoboom, or heyday, of Sakha cinema. The box-office success of films such as Khara maaska (2003, Nikita Arzhakov), Min eiigin tabtyybyn (2004, Sergei Potapov), and Kuot (2005, Konstantin Barashkov) signaled audience interest in movies in their native language, centered on familiar or relatable plots, shot in recognizable locations, and featuring well-known actors of the Sakha Republic. In this period, the transition to digital technology meant that film production costs could be lower. This led to an influx of young people, often not formally trained, making their own films, which in turn created a higher yield of local cinema. An average of seven to ten films were released every year during the kinoboom, with fifteen released in 2011. The kinoboom aided in the republic’s shift toward nonprofessional, self-expressive, and experimental films.

    Today, many recognize Sakha cinema’s development outside the Russian film industry system as a distinguishing characteristic. Russian cinema depends on federal support while Sakha cinema, for most of its history, has been made with regional funding and private investments or sponsorships. Directors often see film as a two-pronged tool to meet the demand of local audiences and to promote Sakha identity and culture, which is seldom known beyond Russia. Unsurprisingly, the idea of a booming film industry in an area of the world still bound in the colonial myth of an uninhabitable no man’s land is often met with astonishment. Sakhawood is not solely an industry but also a self-organizing, community-oriented entity that speaks to Sakha about Sakha from a Sakha perspective.

    Inspired by the two Sakha-focused programs of this year’s Mother Tongue Film Festival, this playlist ushers you through some periods of the Sakha film industry’s history and gives insight into the Sakha world. This offering of films highlights seminal works, short film projects, box-office hits, and film festival awardees—all of which are passion projects. Please enjoy.

    Disclaimer: This playlist is firstly open access-oriented, meaning a film’s availability for streaming was as important as its significance. Sakha films are not widely available to rent on streaming platforms, and current sanctions have made it difficult to access even those few. Most of the films in this playlist do not have English subtitles, though some have Russian ones. The descriptions provide more context.

    1. Maappa (Sakha: Маппа / Russian: Марфа)

    Directed by Aleksei Romanov | 1986

    Ilja is a weary traveler lost in the winter wilderness. Nearly frozen, he suddenly finds himself in front of an ytyk mas (sacred tree). He prays to the tree for help and guidance to the nearest shelter. The tree guides him to a balaghan, a traditional Sakha winter homestead, where he meets Maappa, a beautiful young woman who inhabits the balaghan alone. Maappa helps Ilja regain his strength. After living together for a while, the two fall in love and wed. Only after the wedding does Maappa unveil the truth about her seclusion: the balaghan is her family home and where her parents had become ill and passed away. People in neighboring areas feared contracting their illness and thus avoided the orphaned Maappa. This loneliness and rejection drove Maappa to take her own life. However, because her body remains unburied, her soul is unable to pass on and continues to exist in the Orto Doidu (Middle World)—the realm of humans. At her request, Ilja buries Maappa’s body. Her soul passes on to the upper world, and Ilja, having regained strength, travels onward.

    Aleksei Romanov is a pioneering Sakha filmmaker, graduate of the prestigious Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, founder of Severfilm, and current artistic director of the Sakhafilm State Film Company. Maappa is Romanov’s thesis work and is considered the first film made in the Sakha language. The film is not only important as a seminal language film but also for its emphasis on Sakha traditional beliefs, which had been greatly impacted by decades of Soviet oppression and indoctrination. Maappa demonstrates the permeable and hazy boundary between humans and spirits—they can communicate, cohabitate, have relationships, etc. Further, different animate and sentient entities (e.g., Maappa’s üör—a restless ghost or spirit or the ytyk mas adorned with white ribbons and emeget (idol-amulets) which convey humans’ reverence and gratitude towards the sentient tree) are benevolent to those who treat them with respect. Unlike the inhabitants of the neighboring settlements who shunned Maappa and therefore likely saw her ghost as a haunting, vengeful spirit, the Ilja received compassion from her.

    2. Saiylyk (Сайылык / Летовье)

    Directed by Anatoly Vasilyev | 1992

    Anatoly returns to the village he once lived in and buys the house of his former neighbor. He ignores a neighbor’s warning that the house contains spirits and spends the night. He enters what he believes to be a dream and encounters üör (restless spirits), doomed to eternal limbo until someone buries their remains. As time goes on, Anatoly realizes he’s not dreaming—he is a üör, his body lying in a field after a sudden heart attack. His üör companions advise Anatoly to make sure his remains are found and buried so that his kut (soul) can move onto the next world, a paradise that takes the form a saiylyk, a traditional summer homestead in a bucolic valley where the souls of Anatoly’s ancestors and loved ones reside. Anatoly’s body is discovered alive and rushed to the hospital. To return to life, Anatoly’s kut needs to be reunited with his body, but now knowing the idyllic paradise waiting for him in the afterlife, Anatoly’s kut chooses to return to the saiylyk.

    Saiylyk is regarded as an iconic Sakha film created by great founders of Sakha cinema: director Anatoly Vasilyev; playwright, screenwriter, and director Semyon Ermolaev (Sien Ökör); and cinematographer Semyon Vasilyev. It was originally broadcast on television, due to the lack of distribution opportunities, which contributed to its popularity. This mystical thriller is a predecessor to later horror films that incorporate aspects of Sakha beliefs and mythology, demonstrating the extent to which shamanistic and animistic beliefs continue.

    According to traditional Sakha belief, the human soul (kut) is comprised of three parts: Iie kut (mother soul), buor kut (earth soul), and salgyn kut (air soul). Salgyn kut can leave the body during sleep and roam, collecting information, and conveying this information to the human via dreams. It also leaves the body during death and shamanic rituals, when it journeys to other realms to seek answers. In the immediate dissolution of the USSR, the spiritual and physical importance of saiylyk takes on additional meaning. Prior to forced collectivization, many Sakha were semi-nomadic agropastoralists who moved between various seasonal pastures and homesteads. The saiylyk was the summer residence.

    3. Tüüngngü kyys (Түүҥҥү кыыс / Девушка-видение / Dream Girl)

    Directed by Gennady Bagynanov | 1999

    A young man named Keese goes haying one summer and in his dreams meets a young woman, dressed in traditional Sakha clothes, named Kylbaara. Keese gradually falls in love with Kylbaara as his dreams of her continue. Eventually, he must decide whether he wants to further pursue their relationship and thus spend his life as a hay worker in his native village or go to Yakutsk, the capital city, to take his university entrance exam alongside Tamara, a fellow villager. He decides to go to Yakutsk with Tamara, but he daydreams of Kylbaara when crossing the Lena River on their way. Keese and Tamara pass their entrance exams, and Kylbaara fades from Keese’s thoughts. The two meet one last time to say goodbye.

    Director Gennady Bagynanov was born in Moscow to Zoya Bagynanova—now a renowned actor of the Sakha Drama Theater—and actor Gennady Sivtsev, who were then students of the Shchepkin Theater School. Gennady Bagynanov also trained as an actor and graduated from the All-Russian Institute of Retraining and Advanced Training of Cinematography Workers. Tüüngngü kyys, his second feature film, is another story about love between a human and a benevolent spirit and further emphasizes the indistinct boundaries between worlds and the ability for a human’s soul to take on a life of its own during dreams. This film is distinct in its setting in then-present day and its focus on contemporary issues related to rural-to-urban youth migration.

    4. Yyt miigin doidubar (Ыыт миигин дойдубар / Отпусти меня на родину / Send me home)

    Directed by Semyon Ermolaev (Sien Ökör) | 2002

    In the hustle and bustle of urban life, we sometimes do not know our neighbors and would not recognize them in passing. However, in the village, everyone knows each other and lives with the joys, troubles, and worries of their neighbors. Nikolai Filippovich, a busy man living in Yakutsk, has a strange dream about his youth and homeland. He meets Pyotr Malakhov, a young man who claims to be Nikolai’s kin from his hometown. The two spend time together, which triggers in Nikolai an increasingly powerful feeling of being beckoned home. Nikolai is ultimately overcome by the grief of being away from his homeland and insists it is better for him to die and return there in spirit.

    Semyon Ermolaev (Sien Ökör) is a playwright, screenwriter, director, and graduate of Saint Petersburg State University of Film and Television. Fifteen plays have been staged and ten feature films produced based on Ermolaev’s works. Yyt miigin doidubar was his film directorial debut and is very heavily influenced by theater in its style. According to Sakha tradition, people need to visit their birth or ancestral homelands (doidu or alaas) often to maintain identities, relationships with ancestors, and physical and spiritual wellbeing. However, if you have not returned for too long of a time, you should not return because going home can kill you—unless you have a rock with a hole in it, through which you must first look at your homeland to protect yourself. The main character of this film is too caught up in urban life, removed from his community, and has forgotten his roots.

    5. Ogho kuiurduu turara (Оҕо куйурдуу турара / Мальчик на озере / Boy fishing)

    Directed by Prokopiy Nogovitsyn | 2003

    A young boy travels to a distant lake to fish (kuiuur). He clears a small patch of snow, cuts through a thick ice crust, and only catches a few fish in his net. The boy tries again, desperate to catch more fish so that he can eat and sell some to continue his studies. He remains unsuccessful, weakened by hunger and disappointment. He asks the ebee (grandmother spirit of the lake) to help him and give him fish, but he soon loses consciousness. He meets his ancestors, booturdar (epic heroes) on horseback who help him fish. When the boy regains consciousness, he has a huge catch and can return home. Surprisingly, we follow him home to the city.

    Prokopiy Nogovitsyn is an ethnographer, local historian, and teacher at the Oyskaya School in Khangalaas. This short film was based on a classic story of the same name by renowned Sakha writer Platon Alekseevich Oyunsky. Nogovitsyn has made several other short films based on stories that emphasize the world from children’s perspectives. Kuiuur is a traditional method of catching lake fish (often sobo or Crucian carp) in early spring. To kuiuur, one must cut a hole in ice almost two meters (six and a half feet) thick in an area where fish are clustered, which requires intimate knowledge of weather patterns. It’s a communal activity and often one of the first hunting experiences young boys partake in with their older male kin.

    6. Khara jai (Хара дьай / Нечисть / Misfortune)

    Directed by Evgenii Osipov and Stepan Burnashev | 2016

    This film consists of four vignettes based on tübelte (scary stories). In the first story, a group of friends gather in an apartment to use a Ouija board and tell fortunes. In the second, two buddies are out hunting in the remote taiga and are watched by a strange man. In the third, a rude and apathetic young man travels to the village for a job. In the last story, a Russian man steals a car. All these stories with unfortunate endings take place during a specific sacred time of year: Tankha.

    Cinematographer Evgenii Osipov made his directorial debut alongside Stepan Burnashev with Khara jai. Burnashev is a director, producer, screenwriter, and editor with no formal background in film, having graduated from Yakutsk State University in 2006 with a degree in computer science and economics. His film studio, Saidam Baryl, has released twelve feature films. Khara jai centers on events occurring during Tankha, a sacred period from late December through mid-January when syulyukyuny (devils or beings from the lower world; from Russian shulikuny) come out of ice holes and roam the middle world. According to Sakha beliefs, syulyukyuny are introduced by Tankha Aiyy, the god of fate, and therefore they hold knowledge about everyone. Historically, many Sakha would go to rivers or lakes at night and wait near ice holes to ask syulyukyuny what laid in store for them. During this time, a human had to be wary of the syulyukyuny, who might invite you to live with them. The beliefs and practices of Tankha are a mixture of traditional Sakha animism and Russian Orthodox Christianity, which is why practices like fortune-telling (through sifting snow, divination with an awl, eavesdropping on horses’ conversations, or throwing a spoon) were incorporated into Tankha observance.

    7. Strashilki Severa (Страшилки Севера / Horror Stories of the North)

    Directed by Akella Animation | 2016–present

    This ongoing animated series of tübelte tells more scary stories. Each episode focuses on a specific entity in lore such as derietinnyik (a devouring demon), Khara Bekir (black demon), deva t’my (maiden of darkness), or a true story about cursed dwellings and shamans’ graves. Derietinnyik is an animated corpse possessed by evil spirits, often due to the body not being buried. They roam and devour human flesh. A shaman who allows his body to be used by abaahy (demons) for various nefarious deeds can be devoured by powerful demons and become a derietinnyik. Khara Bekir is a demon that comes out at night. Ötökh, though not all necessarily cursed, is a term generally used for abandoned homesteads and ruins, and specifically for ones that became uninhabited in the pre-Soviet period. Sakha generally believe that ötökh are inhabited by spirits of some kind.


    Want to experience more Sakha cinema? The 2023 Mother Tongue Film Festival includes two Sakha programs: “Youth & Language Revitalization: Sakha Media School in Russia” on February 24 and “Nomokhtookh sir: Legend and Landscape” on February 25.

    Katya Yegorov-Crate is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a Sakha American independent researcher specializing in contemporary Sakha identity formation, cultural and linguistic revitalization, and (de)coloniality in northeastern Siberia. She received her MA in Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies from the University of Texas at Austin and BAs in Russian and international studies from Indiana University Bloomington.

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