The Tundra Book
Directed by Aleksei Vahkrushev
In choosing to organize his movie within chapters, director Alexei Vahkrushev’s The Tundra Book reminds me of Dogville, but without a sinister turn of events affecting a young stranger, obviously. Instead of that plot, we see a few Chukchi families ride their deer-run sleds into the Russian Arctic Circle. I’m still trying to figure out fully why Vahkrushev organized his movie this way, as each chapter just denotes one or two events in the tribe’s lives. But the title cards do, in their own way, deconstruct the audience’s stereotypical expectations of the shaman-worshiping, environmentalist, history-obsessed Native. ‘Spirits’ are just fur patches that the Chukchi patriarch Vukvukai keep on their person. Rituals are simple actions while the spiritual beliefs driving these said actions are internalized and not explicitly talked about. Nature isn’t an eternal living entity but an everyday constant place where the tribe survives. There is no excessive instrumental ambient soundtrack to exaggerate the purpose of the tribesmen’s actions.
We can also see this straightforward approach in Vahkrushev’s visuals. He knows that nature is beautiful and so are his subjects, and he lets these elements speak for themselves. The arctic snow sometimes glistens without glowing. He rarely uses long shots, a scope used in other films set in harsh climates, and instead focuses on its subjects and the structures in which they live. We see Vukvukai, fully aware that the camera is watching him, teaching his grandchildren in both Chukchi and Russian, or his deadpan banter with his wife and sons. We see the blushing children trying to learn from their elders or play in the snow. Even after the tribe members move to summer pastures there’s still this closeness and rawness to the brown grass and to the children fishing in the waters nearby.
The only times he would use long shots is when he wants to show the majestic herd of (rein)deer. He makes the men look small compared to the herd. Their strong bodies harness the deer that they need for their food and livelihood, the numbers of both sides prove the tribe’s adequately regenerative self-sustainability.
My Dogville comparison is strange, I admit, but both movies are about small communities facing whatever it is that’s invisibly looming from the outside. As many scenes as there are devoted to watching these children play, a chapter later in the movie shows a helicopter arriving to fly the Chukchi children into a compulsory residential school. The phrase ‘residential school’ triggers memories of national trauma here in Canada, where teachers abused First Nations children. Vukvukai and Vakhrushev’s worries are more subtle yet sincere. We automatically empathize with him, telling Vakhrushev that taking away someone’s children is always a strange concept. The former ends his monologue with exclamatory remarks about the ‘stupid law’ without being preachy about it. Movies about any way of life are always presented with that way of life being threatened, but again, Vahkrushev knows to document his subjects behaving in an instinctual way, engendering this idea that native cultures are not just a part of the past but are equally strong today.
Follow me on Twitter @paolocase