In Yakutia, movie-making is big business. Alexey Vasilyev photographs the visionaries behind it

Our biennial New East Photo Prize is back, this year, with 11 new finalists. Below, get to know our winner, Russian photographer Alexey Vasilyev who goes behind-the-scenes of Sakhawood — a thriving film industry in the tundra.

17 December 2020

“You can always work out the film’s budget by the kind of coffee they serve,” says photographer Alexey Vasilyev. The 35-year-old has spent over a year shadowing Yakutia’s emerging filmmakers in Russia’s Far East, where movies are made for little money, even by Russian standards. So much so that the difference between high and low-budget productions will only amount to the choice of instant coffee brand on set. “If it’s an upmarket Japanese brand, like Maxim, you know the movie budget is far better than most,” says Vasilyev. A film in Yakutia costs 1-2 million rubles (£10,000 – £20,000) on average, though Vasilyev has witnessed productions made for half this sum that have gone on to outrank international bestsellers at regional cinemas — a remarkable feat for an industry that was built not long ago from the ground up.

Read more Freeze frame: how the Arctic republic of Yakutia forged its own indigenous film industry

In 1992, filmmaking in the remote region was limited to one state-backed production company, Sakhafilm. Nowadays, there’s Sakhawood: a booming entertainment industry in the Arctic tundra that releases up to 10 feature length films a year. The best known films in recent years include The Lord Eagle (2018, dir. Eduard Novikov), made by an indigenous cast and crew, that tells the story of an elderly Yakut couple living in the tundra during the 1930s, as well as Aga (2018, dir. by Milko Lazarov), that revolves around an aging reindeer hunter, his wife, and their silent struggle to preserve their traditional way of life. Both picked up major international awards and, last year, Yakutia launched its own film award for local talent.

When Vasilyev started dropping in on film sets with his camera, the directors were puzzled to say the least. The photographer had no background in film, though he had been taking photos for nine years for a Yakutian newspaper, where he reported on young people’s lives in the region. In his spare time, he had earned a reputation as a chronicler of daily Yakutian life, always shooting his subjects with an extraordinary dignity. When we first spoke to Vasilyev in 2018, he had 12,000 Instagram followers. That number is now close to 50,000 and will doubtlessly keep rising. His progression as a photographer also took him to St Petersburg in 2018, where he enrolled to study photography for the first time at DokDokDok school, after living his whole life in Yakutsk.

The idea of photographing Sakhawood had grown from a sense of pride for his talented peers, and a frustration with the way the industry was reported in the media. “In articles about Yakutian cinema it’s always presented in the same way: you read about how in the fucking arse end of nowhere they’re making 10 films a year from practically nothing, and that some of these films even make it to various international film festivals.” In reality, Sakhawood operates as any independent film community with high stakes, little-to-no funding, and enormous ambition behind it. “Yakutian directors are ready to give up the last shirt on their backs in order to see their films come to fruition,” says Vasilyev, about what has now become a much-respected cultural export for the region. “It’s not an outlet for a small group of amateurs who make movies in their free time. Yakut cinema is big business, attracting more and more employees each year.”

It wasn’t only Vasilyev’s first time on set. The twins in Vasilyev’s series, noticeable for their matching furry costumes, are first-time actors — a common occurrence for a region without a film school. The photo was taken on the set of The Old Beyberikeen, an artful production about the mythological creatures said to roam the harsh landscapes of Yakutia. “Semyon and Stepan Stepanov starred as dulgancha who live in swamps of Yakutia. Originally from Aldan, a few hundred kilometres south of Yakutsk, the twins and their family had taken a long journey just to make it to the casting.” The film is based around a fairytale read by every child in Yakutia, a classic tale of good and evil. The costumes, however, were made in adoration of a certain blockbuster space saga. “Yakutians are very fond of Hollywood, so it’s possible that the costume designers, intentionally or not, had based these creatures on ewoks. Nobody has a reference point for what a dulgancha looks like, but you would recognise an ewok no matter where you were from in the world.”

More often than not, Yakutian cinema draws on local legends, literature, and real life stories. It’s not about just making movies, says Vasilyev. “Filmmakers want to make an indelible mark on Yakutia’s culture.” He took the opportunity to go behind the scenes of all major productions throughout 2019. Among these was Hurried (dir. by Roman Dorofeev), a comedy based on a play of the same name by N.D. Neustroeva, heralded as one of the classics of Yakutian literature. Cursed Land, on the other hand, was a sequel to a 1996 Yakut horror film that accrued cult status after its release. The man behind the film, Stepan Burnashev, is prolific in the Yakutian scene. That same year, he completed shooting for Black Snow, a drama about a trucker who sells fake vodka at exorbitant prices and swindles his neighbours. He later comes to a turning point in his life after getting into trouble while driving in the deserted taiga. “Yakutian film is one big family,” says Vasilyev. “Everybody has known each other for a long time: they work together, hang together, drink together, fight, hook up.”

Compared to his usual way of working, he calls film a laborious process. “Photography is simpler. You don’t depend on anyone. You are on your own. You are your own director, screenwriter, producer. That is what I like about photography.” In his own work, Vasilyev’s recurring subjects are everyday people: sometimes he strikes up a conversation which results in an immaculately posed portrait, other times he captures subjects unawares. In many ways, Sakhawood is not just a documentary project about the ins and outs of a remote film industry. It explores the ways that Yakuts represent themselves to the world. “I’m continuing to share the cultures and beliefs of my region.”

Writing in The Calvert Journal in 2018, Vasilyev talks about the prospect of being a documentary photographer as something of a distant dream. But over the past three years, he has grown considerably in confidence. The most rewarding part of working on assignments, he says, is being trusted by professionals across the world. Besides, Vasilyev doesn’t just represent his region. He represents all Russian photographers working on the country’s peripheries. Earlier this year, he was mentioned by fellow photographer Dmitry Markov in a video interview on Russian blogger Yuri Dud’s influential YouTube channel. Though Markov is based in Pskov, more than 5000 kilometres from Yakutsk, they are peers in their craft — both have found success showing daily life beyond Moscow and St Petersburg and showing the true diversity of Russia. “I’ve been friends with Dima for a few years, but we first met in person last year in Kaliningrad, where he was running a photography workshop. He’s one of the people who’s helped me really progress with my photography. This wasn’t the first time he’s given me a mention on his social media, and this is something I’m grateful for. There was so much hype when that interview came out, especially among people in my hometown.” For artists scattered across a vast country, their mutual support is admirable, but it reveals something of the power of community in creativity: even when each person has different stories to tell.

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