Tundra Man

in 12nd Perm Flahertiana - International Documentary Film Festival

by Sergei Anashkin

The Tundra Book is a full-length documentary by Russian director Alexey Vahrushev, filmed in the Chukotka region of Siberia. The pure colors of nature in the polar regions, a wilderness of wide landscapes, the exotic customs of arctic nomads are presented in all their beauty and decorative strangeness. Vahrushev used his footage for different purposes. His perspective is the “panoramic view”, depicting the everyday life of the Chukchi, a native people of the far north. The key character is an old man named Vukvukai, who combines various masculine roles. Vukvukai is the head of a numerous family (husband, father, grandfather), the leader of the local community, the supervisor of the deer-herders, the dominant patriarch. His name, translated from the native Chukchi language, means Little Rock, and shots of rocks trapped in the arctic ice become a visual refrain in The Tundra Book, repeated again and again.

But the film is not simply a biographical study or portrait of an important character. The director represents his hero as a kind of archetype, a symbolic figure. Vukvukai is an authentic “man of the tundra”, a sage who tries to preserve the traditional way of life and authenticity of the Chukchi people. The existence and survival of arctic nomads depends on the unending cycle of natural events, on deer herds’ seasonal migration. That’s why, “tundra man” realizes himself not only as self-dependent human being, but as natural part of the environment, part of a mythological universe, part of a continuous line extending from ancestors to descendants.

Vahrushev combines different trends of documentary cinema. His poetic inflexion of storytelling and conception of a metaphorical hero refer to the tradition of Robert Flaherty. It is fair to say that the arctic nomad Vukvukai is a modern descendant of Nanook, the polar hunter. But there is evidence of the influence of Dziga Vertov too. Vahrushev tries to catch fleeting moments of pure living reality, taking advantage of random events. The figurative structure of the film is based on a long process of observation and fixation, on an intent examination of Chukchi everyday life.

There is a miracle of observation in The Tundra Book: an episode of reindeer carcass-cutting. The camera is static, totally immobile. But the space within the frame is full of action and interest, because of the permanent movement of people. Individidual people are constantly moving from the foreground to the background and from the background to the forefront in what is virtually a choreographic abstraction. One can count four or five levels of variable motion in this sequence.

The camera – the director’s eye – picks out many distinctive details. An old man has a cheery and humorous temperament. His wife appears lazy. Vukvukai’s youngest grandchild is timorous girl, afraid of launching herself from the top of snowy slopes (this is the main form of winter amusement for arctic children). There is no romance in the second marriage of Vukvukai. Quite clearly, matrimony in traditional Chukchi society is more a matter of the economic strategy than an affair of the heart. 

The Tundra Book portrays some of the transformational effects of modern life that are tending to destroy the traditional lifestyle of polar nomads. The old man prefers to speak the native tongue, his ancestors’ language. His Russian is not very fluent. The people of the following generation can understand both and don’t like to use Chikchi for daily communication. Vukvukai’s grandchildren speak only Russian. This linguistic situation is the result of the paternalistic policy that the the Russian State is applying with regard to national minorities in the North. Officials take the children from nomadic camps to place them in boarding schools where the Chukchi youngsters are educated in the Federal language only. This controversial practice may have the effect of breaking inter-generational continuity and destroying the basic values and skills of the traditional culture.

The director forces the audience to reflect on these important social problems. But firstly he establishes some impressive visual effects, notably the gyrations of deers’ antlers, those of a multitude of reindeer driven by the herders. The everyday labors of the arctic nomads are represented on screen as a kind of enigmatic ritual, a kind of ecstatic action.

Edited by Bernard Besserglik