Some places are used to being film sets and one more film doesn’t affect their sense of themselves – think of Paris, New York or Venice. Small communities however can find the consequences of being used as the backdrop to a feature film disruptive and even traumatic. I have just come back from the north coast of the Kola Peninsula in Arctic Russia where I’ve been researching a new film. I stayed in a village of about three hundred people, five kilometres away from an older village, which is the heart of the community. The two villages are really one, connected by a road, but no public transport. I am not naming them for reasons that will become clear. The old village used to have 1000 or more inhabitants but is now down to a hundred, after the closure of a fish processing factory in the early nineties. The school and hospital have been closed and while I was staying, the electricity was turned off for eight hours a day for three days in both villages. There was no need for this as there is a perfectly good hydroelectric station nearby that provides constant power, from the dam upriver.
So far so depressing. The old village however has not been forgotten. Something much worse has happened to it: it has been used as a film set. The success of the multi-award-winning film Leviathan (2015) by Adrei Zvyagintsev has been a curse on the village.
Leviathan depicts a remote, God-forsaken, post-industrial arctic settlement with appallingly corrupt officials in league with a depraved church and state against which the little guy has no hope of holding his own. It is beautifully shot and full of striking visual metaphors (the beached whale skeleton being the most striking – a model according to a local I spoke to). I saw the film when it came out and was moved by it, and also surprised that it had received Russian state funding considering the way it condemned the authorities – all authorities. Even at the time however I was uneasy at, and irritated by, the over-simple message of the film. There is no room to interpret the film in any other way than how the director intended. The film depicts a doomed society (the director continues in a similar vein in his recent film, Loveless). I had recently shot a film – an artist’s film, not a feature – in a similarly remote and depressed village in the Russian arctic. I had struggled with questions of what it means to be an outsider making a film in a place, about what was going on there, how people felt about their home and what this might mean for future audiences of my film.
The success of Leviathan has sent Russian tourists from Moscow and Saint Petersburg, as well as Chinese tourists, flocking to the remote arctic village in search of the wild and uncivilized Arctic. Developers and a tour company sensed a great opportunity and have bought up and started building hotels and tourist cabins overlooking the beautiful sandy bay. They funded (until this year, when they stopped the funding) a festival, called ‘**** – A New Life’ to ‘transform’ the old village. They paid an architect to draw up a masterplan for an ‘ethno-eco-village’ designed from afar with no consultation with villagers, and clearly no understanding of the extreme conditions of life in the high arctic. Villagers are annoyed at being ignored, at having their home depicted as a dump, at the assumption they need to be given ‘culture’, in a form they never asked for, as if they haven’t any of their own. The worst thing that has happened since Leviathan is that villagers have been forced out of their homes – in large numbers not just a single family as in the film – and the buildings have been condemned. Some of these houses are beautifully built two or even three-storey wooden houses. They were heated by stoves and this has been used as an excuse to condemn rather than restore them and install central heating. The coincidence with developers and tourists taking an interest after Leviathan means that the villagers understandably resent tourists. The latter also behave badly, dumping litter everywhere, not spending much money, making a racket and ignoring the needs of locals.
This is the context I came to appreciate during my stay. Researching a film in a new place, however much you prepare beforehand, involves listening and not judging too quickly, replacing preconceptions with new stories and being sensitive and alert to the circumstances and to what people may be thinking about you. This time I felt particularly challenged, like I was being watched to see what I might do or say, and what my intentions were.
The ethics of filmmaking – whether documentary, fiction feature, or artist’s film – are not at all straightforward. There are legal obligations – getting permissions to film people or places – and questions of safety and safeguarding. But there are also much deeper philosophical, political and ethical questions that come out of the encounter with people and places. What do you want to say? How can you say it? Why film it here? What are you using the place for? Whom are you serving? What is at stake – in the film, for the people and place, for audiences? It is quite difficult sometimes to avoid clichés about people and places, to avoid delivering what might be expected in a film. How do you avoid closing down possible meanings for the viewer, without being vague or non-committal? How do you tell truths?
I had only a week in the village but I was fortunate in that I visited with an anthropologist who has been working there for many years. She is well liked and gave me many introductions. She shared her insights into the political manoeuvres of the local administration and tourist companies, and the villagers’ feelings about recent upheavals. Bearing these in mind, and attending to the physical as well as the social environment, I listened to stories of the inhabitants, and managed to work closely with a few of them. I am looking forward to the editing process, when the materials I gathered begin to reveal new possible meanings.
I have no final answer to the questions I pose above, but they are a beginning, and guided my filming, field recordings and interviews. The film director Michael Powell (of Powell and Pressburger fame) made his first personal feature film, The Edge of the World (1935), on the Shetland island of Foula. It tells the story of how a remote Scottish island (based on St Kilda) becomes depopulated. Locals interviewed on Foula for a film about the making of Powell’s film and its effects on the community reported that they had a hard time convincing the telephone company to give them phone lines because everyone believed that all the islanders had left. Many decades later, Foula now has a very small community, of maybe twenty-seven households, of mostly incomers.
Image Credit: Ruth Maclennan
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