Over the past decade, local cinema has made a great progress in Yakutia. More than in Yakutia, films in Russia are shot only in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Local cinema finds its fans around the world. Last year, the film of the Yakut director The Lord Eagle won the Moscow International Film Festival. But despite all the success of recent years, our cinema has not yet been able to break into the Russian market. About this, and in particular about the horror genre, RussoRosso was told by the young Yakut director Kostas Marsaan whose last film My Murderer was nominated for the Golden Globe. Now Kostas is preparing to release his Ichchi horror story about a family of farmers and ghosts from the past.
Evgenia Ivanilova: Would you agree with the statement that horror is a key genre of the Yakut cinema?
Kostas Marsaan: To my mind, horror films are that little seed from where the tree of the whole Yakut cinema grew. The first Yakut films that began to enjoy real mainstream appeal were shot in this genre (film adaptation of tubelté, folklore stories about the mysterious and terrible). These tales of yore were not just entertaining, scaring or shocking, they were purely functional: they passed on from generation to generation information about how people should behave with Nature, with the Earth, and how to build special diplomacy with the invisible world. Through tubelté, images of correct behavior and observance of certain rituals were conveyed, they embodied the principles of the worldview and philosophy of the Sakha people, painted their picture of the world. Violation or neglect of the unwritten laws of the universe led to sad consequences, which was described by tubelté.
The first Yakut horror films, such as Mappa, Saiylyk (Summer camp), Setteekh Sir (Cursed Land), Tүүҥҥү kyys (Phantom Girl), albeit without the amusement and entertainment of the western horror very accurately reflected the atmosphere, and were able to authentically convey the essence of the ancient tubelte through cinema language. These films are united by a special unhurried style of narration and a feeling of frozen air, the impression of a fine line between the worlds when another is visible through this world. It seems to me that this stems from a special sensation of time in the North. Unlike the West, where time is linear, and the East, where time is cyclical, in the North time is frozen: the past, present and future are equally present here and now in the same plane, influencing each other. Maybe such a special sense of time arose because of the long cold winter, but in folklore there are often plots when a traveler, having gone astray, imperceptibly finds himself in the world of the dead, and then he comes back, and discovers that instead of one day a year has already passed, or even a century.
Somehow, the first Yakut horror makers immediately managed to find a very thin nerve that resonated with ancient culture. Plus, then there were no role models, horrors rarely were released, and in the USSR this genre was not developed at all. But then the first directors did not pursue entertainment, the audience knew how to read the context without standardized tricks, and the Yakut cinematography has not yet turned into a business. It is this feature that makes the early Yakut horror a particularly valuable source for studying the nature of the dreadful in the philosophy of the North.
E.I.: Now, local horror is as popular among the Yakuts, as it was in the middle and end of the 00s?
K.M.: Since the 00s, the style of the Yakut horror began to change gradually. First of all, because the audience had seen enough of Western and Japanese horror films. It was necessary to follow the changing tastes of the audience in order to ensure good grosses. The Yakut theatrical distribution began to take shape. Directors began to imitate or apply techniques from popular horror films. This, of course, made the films more entertaining and cutting-edge, more understandable for a wide audience - not only Yakut-speaking one. But at the same time, unfortunately, authentic narrative techniques and styles of escalation of fear, which were used by the first Yakut directors, passed into oblivion. Their finds were not deepened, but, indeed, there was no time: a dynamically developing domestic market demanded films a la The Ring or Paranormal Activity, and the films should have been no worse than Japanese ones. So, most likely, this was a logical consequence of sharply changed conditions, a kind of teething troubles of the Yakut cinematography.
Another feature of the Yakut horror in the 00s was the emergence of a new theme - urban horror stories. Here it was already possible to play in full blast with effects and techniques from the world savings box of the genre. The most interesting, in my opinion, films of this period are Naakhara by Marina Kalinina, Tuman buolbut taptal (Haze Heat of Love) by Arkady Novikov and Ferrum by Prokopy Burtsev. All mentioned films can be easily found on the Internet. Naakhara, which became the leader of the 2007 box office (this is one of the first Yakut films shot in Russian), tells of city guys who come to the village to explore a mysterious place. This movie is interesting because Kalinina makes an attempt to creatively revise the plots of tubelté, pitting Yakut evil against modern city residents of Yakutia. But Novikov in Haze Heat of Love continues the tradition of the first Yakut horror, telling the canonical tubelté, the love story of a young fisherman and a ghost girl against the background of forests and fields of good old Yakutia. This film was warmly received by the audience, in contrast to the surreal Ferrum, it seemed too strange and incomprehensible. Meanwhile, Burtsev’s work has a completely mesmerizing hypnotic atmosphere of delusion, into which the city bandit ends up, deciding to hide the corpse of his comrade in the forest who was killed by him. Passing between the fine line of sleep and reality, madness and dreams, this largely experimental film opens up a new original path for the development of the Yakut horror. Perhaps Ferrum was simply out of luck with the release time: comedies and melodramas became the most popular genres of the 00s, horror dropped off the radar. But the latest box-office success of Pyotr Hiki’s film Kyulyuk khomus (Khomus of the Curse) inspires hope that the genre is going to be on the upgrade again.
E.I.: I know that the horror of Pyotr Hiki this year won the debut competition at the festival in Khanty-Mansiysk. Do prizes from festivals help to successfully distribute films in Yakutia?
K.M.: As far as I know, most of the Yakut horror have been on in Yakutia until recently without participating in any festivals. So, it’s hard for me to say how much it would help them at the local cinema market. Now, of course, they have already begun to participate, probably, this should somehow influence at least the press and the frequency of mention.
E.I.: Can you describe in general terms how Yakut films are produced? How are Yakut directors looking for producers? How, for example, did you meet Marianna Skrybykina, producer of My Murderer and Ichchi?
K.M.: The Yakut cinema community is small. Everyone flows from project to project. For someone you work as a film editor, for someone as a second director, sometimes you manage a buffet, for someone you act as a background artist. And that's OK! Everyone knows each other, everyone communicates with each other, everything is in the public view. Something like that.
E.I.: Is there any financial support from the regional authorities or Moscow?
K.M.: Basically, everyone is looking for money on their own, of course. There are republican support programs, and there are private ones. And no financial support from Moscow. Although some kind of Yakut film about sports is being shot with the support of the Cinema Foundation, but I'm not definitely sure. For example, we asked for money for Ichchi (then the project was called Eyes of the Night), but we were not given: Marianna Skrybykina participated in the pitching, went through all the rounds and dropped out at the last one. After the scandal with Bad (film reviewer BadComedian - RussoRosso's note) and the Ministry of Culture because of the film Beyond Reality, we laughed that perhaps this was where all the Foundation’s money was spent. This is because the project was funded under the cost item of ‘Support for National Cinema.’
E.I.: It is ridiculous to imagine that it was so. And how do the Yakut cinema community generally regard their locality? With pride, or, conversely, as something being compelled by circumstances? Are there any aspirations to release films for the All-Russian film distribution?
K.M.: I think that our filmmakers are not particularly excited about the problem of locality. While the budgets of Yakut films balance somewhere between 2 and 5 million rubles, they pay for themselves at the local box office and bring profit to the authors. It so happened, it is perceived as a given, so there are no special emotions - neither pride nor sadness. As the sun shines during the day, and the fish lives in water, no one really thinks that the situation could be different. But, on the other hand, discussions are taking place in the Yakut cinema community about further development paths, about the moment when the problem of going beyond Yakutia will arise. Our filmmakers are well aware that very few people need Asian cinema in Russia. Especially in the Yakut language. In order to interest the mass Russian audience, it will be necessary to shoot famous Moscow actors in the lead roles. A film should be in Russian. But will it be considered Yakut cinema? Indeed, at one time, cinema in Yakutia, in fact, arose as an answer to the fact that Asian faces are completely absent in big Russian cinema and that the country's cultural diversity is not represented at all. Until now, with very rare exceptions, Asian actors in Moscow cinema get only secondary roles, usually guest workers, servants, funny and ridiculous characters. Although… perhaps just a moment has not yet arrived. You see, maybe our filmmakers would like to find a way to the All-Russian film distribution, but does the rest of Russia need our cinema?
The population of the Republic of Sakha is less than a million. Mainly young people actively go to the cinema, so it's a very small percentage of people. Here we need to conduct a special study, what age, what kind of social groups watch Yakut cinema, potentially what maximum amount can be collected at such a market, what level of shooting costs it is better not to go out to stay in the black. Already now it is becoming more difficult to fit into the framework of small budgets, because the number of film professionals is growing: sound engineers, cameramen, artists, wardrobe managers, editors, graphic artists, make-up artists, color correctors and so on. One must adequately pay them all. The technical quality of Yakut films is also growing; this is the requirement of the audience. And all this comes at a price. It turns out that sooner or later we run the risk of being stuck at some level, because the Yakut domestic market is limited. There is an objective limit to growth. After all, just one enthusiasm will not last long. There will be a problem of payback of the Yakut cinema in the domestic box office. For example, the comedy Agent Mambo raised 15 million rubles, but its budget was around 2 million. And what will happen if the film is shot for 10 million? So, we need to think about it in advance and look for ways out of this situation. But then you will have to change a lot, and there is a risk of losing your viewer, and not getting a new one.
Most likely, Internet platforms, world-wide online movie theaters, subtitles or dubbing in English could be a way out of the situation. At the world level, of course, the percentage of fans of a strange local movie is small, but the number of viewers is still much larger than the population of Yakutia. For example, I watched a Turkish horror movie in Istanbul with great interest. It is very interesting how fears are projected in Muslim culture, how the otherworld is portrayed. Because in Islam there is a ban on the image of God, human beings, animals and demons. And such conditions over the centuries should have formed a completely different non-pictorial, abstract way of transmitting higher ideas, symbols, otherworldly beings.
E.I.: Can you recommend any Turkish horror film? If not Turkish, then the horror with Islamic cultural specificity?
K.M.: I saw only one (laughs.) So far, if anything. I don’t remember the name, since the movie was in Turkish. I was interested to see horror from an absolutely unknown culture, I did not try to fully understand the plot. The film was about frenzy; the woman fell into a deep depression. Interestingly, the evil spirit there was visualized as black smoke. From Islamic horror - did you watch Under the Shadow? It is not completely Islamic, of course. The director lives in Great Britain, but he is Iranian, and the film was shot with Iranian actors. Here, too, the genii are rather abstractly transmitted, although the authors, of course, clearly focused on the European audience, so there is a flying bedsheet.
E.I.: Yes, Under the Shadow is a wonderful movie. There, by the way, the evil spirits in the sheets were also shown as something like black smoke - they moved through the air and came with a bomb.
K.M.: That's it! Not little devils with horns, but something in the air is changing. The heroine’s mental state is changing, not just the monster is shown. And it is very interesting.
E.I.: Did you focus on any other national horror waves when you worked on Ichchi? Or rather would you like to transform your native tubelté, set a new level of quality?
K.M.: I rather focused on the finds and techniques of the early Yakut horror. There was something very authentic in them. What, in my opinion, later in our pursuit of fashion disappeared behind standard effects from Japanese or American horror films. So our Ichchi is rather from the universe of Cursed Land, Saiylyk, Mappa.
E.I.: Cursed Land is still considered the most cult local horror film in Yakutia, right?
K.M.: Yes! Whoever you ask, everyone still remembers the Cursed Land. Each time after the release of the another Yakut horror movie, viewers write on the Internet forums that the legendary Setteekh Sir (Cursed Land) is still the most terrible Yakut film of all time.
E.I.: Why do you think?
K.M.: Because of authenticity. In the early 1990s, while there was no wave of Japanese horror, there were no role models either. It follows that the methods of transmitting the terrible and anxious were sought in their own culture. Tubelte was not built on effects, but rather on the atmosphere, on a strange situation. On the fact that the world around is not at all what it seems to be, that the reality is fragile or does not exist at all, that you can easily get into the world of the dead, which is very close, parallel to our life.
E.I.: Is it possible to say that technically this authenticity was achieved thanks to almost manual graphics? Cursed Land resembles an application of colored paper - and this is fascinating. Did you rely on simple effects in Ichchi or did you want to do everything as modern as possible?
K.M.: I wanted to abandon all the effects at all so that only the atmosphere would work. But that would have been completely arthouse work, but we still wanted to have a chance to be accepted and understood by a wide audience, so we had to back down a bit.
E.I.: I can’t wait to watch! Is it possible that Ichchi will be released across Russia?
K.M.: Yes, we are planning to release it on a nationwide scale.
E.I.: And how did you manage to get into the All-Russian film distribution for the first time? (The thriller My Murderer, the debut of Kostas Marsaan, is the first Yakut film shown all across Russia and nominated for the Golden Globe. The organizers of the Asian World Film Festival (AWFF), where My Murderer was also the first film from Yakutia, applied for the nomination, - RussoRosso’s note)
K.M.: After participating in the Moscow Film Festival, a distributor approached us and offered to try to release the film in Russia. We agreed. The only thing was that the runtime was slightly reduced and dubbing into Russian was made.
E.I.: Dubbing was not done by Yakut actors?
K.M.: No, we did in St. Petersburg. Well, it was not a pure dubbing - we simply recorded the voice of the translator over. Ichchi is a bilingual story.
E.I.: You said that it is not known whether films in Russian with famous Moscow actors can be considered Yakut cinema. Ichchi is bilingual, actress Marina Vasilieva plays there, you yourself now spend most of your time in Moscow. Do you personally experience cultural estrangement from Yakutia?
K.M.: In Moscow, I dealt with post-production: editing, sound, music, graphics. But the film was shot in Yakutia with Yakut money, all the actors, except Marina, are Yakut, the script affects the stories of tubelté. So, the film is Yakut, and I do not feel any distance. There would be cultural estrangement if Dracula appeared in my movie.
But I don’t think that a film shot in Yakutia in Russian with Moscow actors, it's bad. This may be one of the ways to go beyond the local market. The main thing is that in these films there will be Yakutia and the Yakut world view. That is, cultural diversity will appear in Russian cinema.
E.I.: ‘Stoker’ and the unfinished ‘River’ by Balabanov. Do they have anything to do with the Yakut cinema?
K.M.: Stoker and River - these are primarily films by Alexei Balabanov. On the Yakut topic, with the Yakut actor. But this is the world of director Balabanov. Although I am personally very sorry that the River has remained unfinished.
E.I.: In your opinion, is it possible to draw a line between the images of monsters in classic American films and already classic Yakut ones, like the Cursed Land? In American horror films monsters are often interpreted as oppressed groups (blacks, women, working class, etc.). In Yakut horror films, monsters are ghosts of the past, which are more likely to remind characters of their own culture. These monsters all the time rhyme with the Yakut folk memory of their own oppressed position in the former empires - Russian, Soviet. And now, you emphasized, Asian faces are almost not represented in Russian cinema.
K.M.: Not only the Yakuts, but also the Buryats, Kalmyks, Khakasses will say about this. It is unlikely that the whole thing is in this now newfangled oppression and infringement. This context is too American. Here, it’s more likely the issue is about Nature that surrounds the Yakuts. Huge spaces, long winters, few people - these are the centuries-old living conditions of the Sakha people. In such conditions, Nature became a living creature. And it was necessary to be able to negotiate with Nature. Every winter was a challenge, because you could easily not survive it. Death has always been near. And you have to remember about it, instead of living with illusions of good fair world with God and the devil.
E.I.: An interesting observation is that the real conditions (and aggressors) for the Yakuts are endless land and long winters. But it seems that in the Republic Z the authors managed to combine two optics - mythological and social. Somehow it came out very organically. Or do you have a different opinion?
K.M.: This is again the triumph of Nature. Notice that the winter defeated zombies, not some social structures. The characters did not do anything politically. And it was in this context that this story was perceived by the Yakuts. But one can certainly see anything if there's a particular desire. Especially Europeans know how to do it (smiles). There is no definitely bad and good in this universe: the cold winter is, of course, bad and scary, but it also gives a lot of good.
E.I.: And judging by the film, for Russians here, too, the chances are not so great! The last question: what would you more willingly watch with your friends - classic horror or modern?
K.M.: Earlier I would have answered that it’s classic, but it seems that recently the horror has been enjoying a boom.
E.I.: What modern films would you call the flagships of this rise?
K.M.: The Witch, Shelley, The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
E.I.: A wonderful selection! Like the whole conversation - thank you. We are all waiting for Ichchi.
K.M.: Thank you! I really hope that Ichchi will not take long to wait.
by Evgenia Ivanilova