AMGA, Russia -- After four bone-jarring hours on a rutted dirt track, bumping past thickly wooded taiga and fields full of grazing horses, the 15-person film crew unloaded heavy bags onto snow-covered ground and took in the rural locality they had traveled by car, hovercraft, and four-wheeler to reach.
A patchwork of single-story homes built on stilts dug deep into permafrost, the village of Amga is the setting for movies that have helped make the surrounding Yakutia region, or Sakha Republic, the home of a burgeoning Russian film industry garnering awards and plaudits internationally.
The latest production it was hosting was The Illegal, a movie about a young migrant from Central Asia and his struggle to assimilate. Its director, 36-year-old Dmitry Davydov, is an Amga native and a rising star of what has come to be known affectionately as Sakhawood -- a nod to Hollywood’s many imitators but also a sign of Yakutia’s ambitions to conquer the world stage.
“It’s the enthusiasm that drives us,” Davydov, a former school principal who quit teaching in January to focus exclusively on cinema, said during a break from filming at the home he shares with his wife and three children. “We’re making art, not business.”
Enthusiasm may be crucial for any successful project, but in Yakutia, one of the world’s coldest inhabited regions and a place so remote that it’s closer to Alaska than the golden domes and skyscrapers of Russia’s capital, it determines whether a project goes ahead at all. No one shies from the menial tasks: actors haul boxes of equipment, producers wash dishes, and the crew travels to locations in beat-up Soviet-era cars carrying costumes procured from charity shops.
The budgets are similarly modest. Davydov’s 2020 film Scarecrow, which won the main prize at Russia’s Kinotavr film festival, cost only 1.5 million rubles ($20,000) to make -- though The Illegal, thanks to rare funding from a Moscow-based producer, has a budget more than six times that.
Davydov’s actors are amateurs, sometimes local residents he has known since childhood, and he says he’s rarely able to pay his lead more than 300,000 rubles ($4,160) for a movie. One of the main roles in The Illegal is played by the father of Stepan Burnashev, another celebrated local director.
“Our people come not to make money, but because they want to take part in creating something special,” said Anastasia Pitel, an assistant director from Moscow who moved to Yakutia 10 years ago after falling in love with a local actor and stayed to work in the film industry.
Of all the Russian films made outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, the country’s two main cities, more than half come from Yakutia, a region with five times the territory of France but only a million inhabitants. Film festivals from Finland to South Korea have included special retrospectives on Yakut cinema in recent years.
The Sakha Republic is richly endowed with diamonds and oil, and breathtaking mountain ranges that have inspired the olonkho, traditional stories Yakuts have passed on through generations, and which today inspire the films they make.
“Over 70 years of Soviet rule, our culture was destroyed,” said Aleksei Romanov, a pioneering Yakut director who in 1992 founded Sakhafilm, a production studio headquartered in the regional capital, Yakutsk. “Shamanism, our traditional faith, and other customs were banned. But now we’re bringing them back.”
Many local directors see film as a vehicle to promote an ethnic identity virtually unknown beyond Russia, and a part of the world too often subsumed into the vague, misty notion of Siberia -- a place rarely associated in the public imagination with anything other than extreme cold and endless space. Dialogue in Sakhawood films is almost exclusively in Yakut, a Turkic language that sounds nothing like Russian.
“This place, socially and geographically, never merged with Russia proper -- it has remained a distant edge, able to preserve its unique traditions,” said Anton Dolin, Russia’s most prominent film critic and a fan of Yakut cinema.
Most Russian films are “an imitation of Hollywood with idiosyncratic touches,” he said. But Yakutia has fully fledged comedies, dramas, and thrillers, and doesn’t shy from experimenting with the genres. And while Russian films often fail to break even, the budgets of Yakut films are so low that they frequently make a profit.
On a recent evening in Yakutsk, the Tsentralny (Central) cinema was packed with teenagers and young adults watching Agent Mambo, a slapstick comedy about a wannabe rapper called TruePak who moves to Yakutsk from a small village to make his name in the bustling city. The movie has beaten box office records in Yakutia, grossing over 15 million rubles there (more than $200,000) and leaving audiences in fits of laughter.
Far away in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the films that usually fill movie theaters are overwhelmingly Western titles. In what Dolin and other critics say are ham-fisted efforts to shift the balance toward Russian productions, officials have suggested imposing a quota on Hollywood screenings and even banned some foreign films. The Culture Ministry has in recent years funded dozens of high-budget productions depicting epic tales from Russia’s past, but few have proved popular with the country’s demanding viewers.
Now, a steady trickle of state funding is finally reaching Yakutia. In December, the regional government awarded its first annual series of grants aimed at strengthening the local film industry, distributing subsidies totaling 20 million rubles ($278,000) to seven film directors including Davydov. Next year, 35 million rubles is up for grabs.
But the emergence of homegrown talent is stymied by a lack of dedicated institutes. Of around a dozen Yakut film directors whose movies have screened at international film festivals, none had the opportunity to officially study the craft at home. With no film school in Yakutia, the region’s young aspiring directors, cameramen, and producers dream of enrolling at Moscow’s prestigious Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), the country’s best film school.
“Many see a VGIK diploma as a kind of entry pass to the world of cinema,” says Sara Tarekegn, a 19-year-old aspiring director from Yakutsk. “That’s where the producers, directors, and actors that form the elite of Russian cinema work.”
For the majority that will never enroll at VGIK, the chance to work with local talent offers a hands-on education in the art of cinematography. Tarekegn was hired as a costume assistant on the set of The Illegal after writing on Instagram to a director she knew, who connected her with Davydov. Others get a foot in the door by offering to work as volunteers in exchange for valuable training they’d struggle to get elsewhere. Since castings are rare, social media can also be a route to landing a starring role.
Directors like Burnashev and Davydov were buoyed by the recent success of the South Korean film Parasite, which won four Oscars and became the first foreign production to win the Best Picture award at the 2020 Academy Awards. It made them realize the power of film to spotlight cultures and languages that the West too often overlooks.
“Through cinema, Yakutia has a chance to show the world that there is such a people, such a language, and such a place. We can use it to acquaint the world with our culture,” Burnashev said during filming in Yakutsk for his latest movie, titled Bihigi Kyhymmyt (Our Winter). “People across the globe now watch Korean cinema. Why can’t they watch Yakut films, too?”
Davydov recalls being impressed, during a visit to a film festival in New Zealand in 2019, by the way indigenous Maori used cinema to revive their endangered language starting in the 1970s. Indigenous people “are the original storytellers,” Maori filmmaker Taiki Waititi said in accepting his Oscar in February 2020.
Davydov believes the maxim applies just as much to Yakutia, which he hopes is next in line to shock the world. “We’re finally getting noticed,” he said.