When Polina, who works at a fried fish food truck, is offered a mysterious herbal tea to fix her insomnia, she falls asleep, only to wake up in a parallel, folk royal universe. There, in filmmaker Uldus Bakhtiozina’s fantasy retro-futurist world, an elderly woman — a fairy-godmother who dresses in outlandish costumes — takes Polina through tests that will prove whether she has what it takes to become a tzarevna — the daughter of a tsar. This is the world of Tzarevna Scaling, Bakhtiozina’s 2020 film recently screened at the Berlinale.
Russian artist, photographer, and now filmmaker Uldus Bakhtiozina is known for her signature “Tatar baroque” style, which involves using a bold, energetic, and even belligerent aesthetic to catch the viewer’s attention and challenge their expectations. For her lavish, beguiling photographs, she creates her own costumes and headpieces, using century-old techniques to create ornate new designs — some of which have been exhibited worldwide and are included in the permanent collections at the Faberge Museum in St Petersburg and the Tretyakovskaya Gallery in Moscow.
Her first feature film, Tzarevna Scaling, which screened at this year’s online industry edition of the Berlinale in the Forum section, draws on this established style, telling an intimate, personal story that is born from her continuous research into Slavic folklore and mythology — particularly the varying legends that surround the figure of the tzarevna (the daughter of the tsar), reimagined in Tzarevna Scaling as contemporary princess figures. In the film, downhearted fish-seller Polina drifts into a dreamworld in which anyone can quickly become “anything they want” without any of the effort, initiating a journey of self-discovery that sees her take a complicated path towards becoming the tzarevna she had never dared to even aspire to become.
Drawing from her experience as a contemporary artist, Bakhtiozina visualises this internal journey through a series of elaborately staged dream-like sequences where her ornate designs are protagonist. Sharing an aesthetic sensibility with her photographic work, the film feels like a natural continuation of her distinctive style. “I think at some point I started to feel a little bit confined by photography”, Bakhtiozina says. “I wanted to expand my horizons, and switching to the moving image gave me that opportunity.” Through her photographic work she could explore a form of storytelling, staging dramatic scenarios in which the action is frozen in time, but “with film you have to chance to create environments that bring the audience on a journey.” Bakhtiozina started writing a script in 2018, and what was intended to be a short film soon started to seem like feature-length material.
However, the film’s genesis predates Bakhtiozina’s creation of her script in some ways. “I’ve been researching folk tales since 2013,” she says. Bakhtiozina takes inspiration from “archetypal characters that appear in various folk tales”, then uses them to create her own characters and narrative arcs. Tzarevna Scaling “doesn’t repeat or rework any original existing story,” Bakhtiozina says, “but instead builds from a mix of stories and stereotypes that can be found across various folk tales.” The images of the various tzarevna, for instance, will be immediately recognisable to most Eastern European viewers, Bakhtiozina argues. “These are shared images; they are part of our collective folk memory.”
The film is not stuck in the past, though. Bakhtiozina’s staging of myths involves a modern twist. While wanting to display how she perceives the role folklore has had throughout Russian cultural history, she was also conscious of not “disconnecting too much from the experiences of the present generation.” Continual development and the introduction of new ideas is “the goal of culture,” Bakhtiozina argues, adding that “even when working with a historical or mythical story, you still need to be creating something new.”
Bakhtiozina believes that Russia is currently undergoing a process of “defining what is the culture of today”, noting that the country has always had “a very bold and strong cultural history” with clearly definable periods and traditions, even as recently as the late ‘90s and early 2000s. “The current era is not as defined in terms of visual cultures”, Bakhtiozina says, and she sees mimicry of other countries being chosen in place of genuine self-expression. “We are increasingly taking influence from other cultures and trying to imitate them”, she says, citing the Russian filmmaking industry as an example. “Many film directors are chasing after Hollywood standards, looking to recreate the same imagery, and applying the same sorts of colours, qualities, and style.”
As a filmmaker, Bakhtiozina believes that one of her main functions “is to inspire the country’s young generations to work with our own codes and artefacts, not to disconnect from our culture or feel ashamed of it.” Instead of trying to imitate others, Bakhtiozina says that young Russian artists “should be trying to understand what is most suitable for ourselves.” This is a message that is expressed in the film itself. Through a series of increasingly surreal training sequences, all filmed in a tableaux vivant style, Polina comes to a deeper realisation about what it takes to become the version of yourself that you want to be — she realises that genuine beauty comes from a place of self-interrogation and integrity, not pageant-style tests and competitions.
Continual development and the introduction of new ideas is “the goal of culture”, even when working with a historical or mythical story, you still need to be creating something new
My film is about finding your personal destiny”, Bakhtiozina says. It is about working out how to “benefit from who you are rather than trying to be someone else who you see as being more successful.” This desire for self-optimisation is a common topic today, Bakhtiozina says. “It is very easy to lose all sense of yourself when you are trying to meet the world’s expectations”, she says. When young people see “stories of instant success” all around them, they start to “feel lost, or that their lives are going in the wrong direction.” Referring to a commercial that features in her film, promising instant transformation, Bakhtiozina notes that “this sort of thing is very popular currently in Russia.” “These five-day challenges to improve yourself and find your true path have become a popular phenomenon,” she says.
In Tzarevna Scaling, this is what Polina is promised, as Bakhtiozina puts it: “a fast track to being a princess.” In the film’s purposefully ambiguous final sequence, the same mysterious elderly woman who had sent her on her journey offers Polina a different route to success, handing her a fishing rod so she can catch the fish that she is employed to sell herself. “This is the most essential thing for me,” Bakhtiozina says. “You need to do the work in order to find your own way: your abilities, your skills, your talents.” Like Polina in the film, Bakhtiozina is also the daughter of a fisherman, but she insists that the story “is not as autobiographical as the audience might want it to be.” Bakhtiozina and Polina do have one thing in common though: they both now know that “hard work takes time, and there are no shortcuts to success.”