Simultaneous ping pong with reality and mythology. Interview with Liesbeth De Ceulaer

Maxim Seleznev

The Siberian permafrost is melting. Ancient bones appear from the ground and it seems that all wild animals have disappeared. Three Yakuts are sent to the endless wilderness with different tasks. Villager Roman and city boy Kim hunt a rare reindeer. Scientist Semyon is looking for a viable mammoth cell with which he can clone an extinct animal. In the midst of a mass extinction of fauna and flora, in the process of Siberian ivory fever, a modern myth unfolds. As Roman, Kim, and Semyon approach their goals, the frozen ground they walk on and reality itself shift into a different state.

Specially for Ayarkut Maxim Seleznyov interviewed he author of the film "Holgut" in Yakut and Yukaghir, Liesbeth De Ceulaer, is a Belgian independent documentary filmmaker who explores in her films the tense and contradictory relationship between man and the environment. Her breathtaking film explorations constantly intertwine documentary and acting approaches. Her previous film Victoria won last year's Innovation Award in the Young Film Program of the Berlin Film Festival. "Holgut" was presented at the major Swiss film festival Visions du Reel, the Danish CPH:DOX and the German DOK.Fest in Munich.
How did the idea of creating such a film come about – with Yakutia as the location, a plot involving a mammoth, and the people who became the main characters? Could you sense the distance between your home country and Siberia, which is thousands of kilometres away? Considering that distance (temporal, media, imaginary) seems to be one of the main themes of this film.

There’s a specific number of kilometres between Yakutia and Belgium, but in my mind this distance wasn’t fixed at all; it was constantly growing and shrinking. At some moments Yakutia was so close that I could touch the tundra, at other moments I felt very far away, and Yakutia was another universe with foreign rules and customs.

The project started in 2013 with the urge to make a film about extinction and climate change. I got fascinated by how humans play a crucial role in this; on the one hand we need and cherish the natural and wild world, while on the other hand our actions contribute greatly to the destruction of it, and we look for solutions to science, or even to the science of the future. I wanted to make a film about those thoughts, but I didn’t want to make an informative piece about something that had happened in the past, or that might happen in the future. We know that every second so many species are going extinct and that climate change is upon us, so I wanted to see this happening with my own eyes, here and now.

During my research I learned about the Mammoth Creation Project and how leading scientists from the NEFU in Yakutsk and Sooam Laboratories in Seoul are trying to bring back the mammoth through cutting-edge science. This project fascinated me greatly and the idea of de-extinction surpassed my wildest imagination. It enabled me to look deep into both the past and future. The extinction and de-extinction of the mammoth seemed to mirror one another. Thousands of years ago it was a combination of climate change and possibly/probably (this is still debated) the improved hunting techniques of humans that drove the mammoth to extinction. And now it is once again through a combination of climate change – mammoth carcasses emerging from the melting permafrost – and improved human technology – DNA sequencing and cloning techniques – that the mammoth might be brought back to life.
It was through this project that I got to know the brilliant scientist Semyon Grigoryev, and that I first came to Yakutsk, back in 2014. I immediately knew that I wanted to work with Semyon and over the following years we kept in contact, exchanging ideas and making preparations. Semyon is known all over the world and had already been in many documentaries, but the idea of for once hanging his lab coat up on the wall and going off on an expedition into the nature of his beloved Yakutia was one that appealed to him. I also wanted to meet tusk hunters and Semyon helped me get in contact with some who were living in the northern village where he had spent his childhood; Kazachye. Once we arrived there and met these men, I came to the conclusion that this wasn’t the storyline that I was looking for. The focus was too much on mammoths in particular, but I also wanted to show animals that were changing and struggling in the here and now. A combination of luck and an open mind brought us to that. During our time in Kazachye we stayed at the house of a certain family who we got to know well over the course of our stay. They were very kind people and proud of their natural surroundings. They kept showing us wonderful pictures of life on the tundra; hunting, fishing, camping, gathering berries, reindeer herders, the beautiful nature and the colours in the sky, etc. I thought that this was what I wanted to show; an ode to this wild and beautiful land and to the humans who have learned to live in these challenging conditions. It turned out that the man of the family, Klim, was a film enthusiast and had made several films himself. He showed me a documentary about an expedition that he had made with his friends, and I was very much inspired by this journey to the North. I had a very good connection and understanding with Klim, and so we agreed that he would be some sort of fixer for the project. It was through conversations with him that we decided to go on a journey to find reindeer, and it was also he who found Roman and Kyym to go with us on this rite-of-passage.

During one of the research trips to Yakutia, I set out to go back to Kazachye. It was in the midst of summer and we had to travel first by airplane and then by boat on the River Yana. Together with a translator and some other villagers we started the journey by river. The water was very rough and, after some hours, a tragedy happened. Not everyone survived the accident and for the ones that did, it was an extremely horrifying and traumatising experience. I can’t describe the sadness and darkness this brought. I felt very far away from Yakutia and didn’t know how the other people were dealing with this; I could only feel the grief. The accident brought the project to a halt, and at first we were thinking of abandoning it completely. The nature of Yakutia had shown how powerful and unforgiving it could be, and it had scared me. The reason we did continue is because I felt I wouldn’t just be abandoning the project, but all the people involved in it too, their energy and their dreams. So, I contacted those people and asked how they felt about the project since the accident. They told me that they would like to continue, and so we did. None of this takes away from the fact that I still often think of the accident and the people on the boat. I have a space in my heart for each one of them. The film is dedicated to all the people who were on that boat, that day.
Your film has been shown at many festivals, mostly documentary film festivals such as Docufest, Beldocs, or more recently in Petersburg at “The World of Knowledge”. But is your film truly a documentary? And do you draw any line at all between document and fiction? Because, within the film, these boundaries, in my opinion, are very smoothly erased, so it’s hard for me to guess whether all the characters are real or perhaps some of them are actors.

Holgut is a hybrid documentary-fiction film and I prefer to present the film as such. Unfortunately, this is still an unknown form, or rather seen as a subcategory of one of the two, and so I’m always forced to choose between fiction and documentary. For me, I don’t make this harsh distinction. Every documentary is a construction and the claim of reality an illusion. From the moment a camera is pointed at someone, the director creates a frame and chooses what to put in it and what to leave out. Beside this, the people are aware of the camera and thinking about how they’re showing themselves to the outside world. In the editing, it is again the director who decides which moment to show and which not. A documentary film is always the world seen through the eyes of a director, an artistic composition.

In Holgut I tried to embrace this to the fullest. Most of the elements are real, including the characters themselves, but together we created a storyline that was fiction. During the preparations I drafted the basic story, like a framework in which reality could come to its fullest. I envisioned myself setting off to Yakutia for filming with a big backpack full of scenes, myths and other possibilities. There were storylines that could easily be altered in collaboration with the characters. There was a lot of room for them to give input or to even completely reject an idea. We agreed on where we were heading, but the road there we created together. Every scene or sequence had its own approach. Only once all of us understood and believed in it, did the moment become truthful and strong.

From the very beginning it felt like we were playing Ping-Pong with reality and mythology at the same time. In my communications with Klim in Kazachye I told him that I would like to film an older person teaching a younger person how to survive on the tundra. This was based on the old story in which a father and son go out on a hunting trip. I wanted to make a contemporary version of this story. The older person had to really know the land; he would be like an embodiment of the land. With these indications Klim found Roman, who saw himself in this description and embraced his portrayal as such. Roman didn’t have a son that could play the role of the pupil, but he did have a younger brother that had moved to Yakutsk when he was very young and now was the perfect age to go on a hunting trip. This of course was Kyym. The background of these characters, their will to go hunting and their way of interacting with each other was very real. Because of this strong foundation in reality, Roman and Kyym were able to be themselves within a fictional frame.

We referred to the end of the film as the “permafrost dream”. It offered the space for the imagination of Kyym and, moreover, of Semyon to manifest. We created our own cinematic vocabulary to communicate certain feelings like the wish to sustain one’s childhood fascination, or the fear for an uncertain future. It is a combination of shots that are created in the minds of the characters, as they represent their dreams, hopes and fears, their inner world. I’m unable to say if we created fiction or documentary here, these words don’t really seem fitting to describe what was going on. But I do feel that it’s something truthful and valuable. I have noticed that a part of the spectators of Holgut are confused or even upset by this hybrid form, but that of course was not my intention. I would rather like the audience to liberate themselves from this need to know what exactly is fiction and what is documentary, and let themselves be taken on a cinematic journey, which is in any case a construction.
In some scenes I could not help feeling that the magic of Apichatpong Weerasethakul is present in the frame. Some levels of narration turn out to be either phantoms, or even dreams. It’s sometimes difficult to immediately understand what we see – a landscape captured by a flying camera, or vice versa – a super-close-up of some object. Is it possible to say that Weerasethakul’s films influenced you?

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a great inspiration to me. In his films the inner, outer, and mythological worlds seem to exist on the same level. There is no conflict in them existing side by side. On the contrary, they seem to complement and strengthen one another. I think that this way of looking at life and the world comes close to how we really experience it. It seems to me that humans are constantly making their own lives into meaningful and even mythic stories. We bring some elements to the foreground, some we leave out, some we enlarge, and some we give intensified proportions. It is evident to me that when I build a cinematic story, I also do it in this same way.

The story begins with an image of animals – and for the first minutes we see them rather through the eyes of a hunter, as prey, as a consumable resource. But gradually the optics change, and the animal becomes a real protagonist, perhaps more perspicacious than the people who follow him. What do you think about this shift towards the feelings and perceptions of animals that is happening today in cinema and philosophical writings?

In Holgut not only the part that humans play in the extinction of fauna and flora is questioned but likewise the effects these extinctions have on the lives of humans. We tend to look at extinction as something that is happening in the natural world, outside of us. We often forget that we are part of that natural world and that when an animal or plant goes extinct, it has consequences for human lives. These losses are like holes in our stories, we become incomplete.
In your film, two types of mythology intertwine in a very interesting way. On the one hand, this is folklore and ancient legends, which are related by a voiceover. On the other hand, we have what might be called the mythology of our time or even the mythology of the future – talk about cloning cells and resurrecting a living mammoth. Is it really possible to say that modern science, as well as sci-fi, is developing the same topics that people used to talk about through legends?

Science is the never-ending pursuit of knowledge, but the more we find out, the more new questions arise. Stories, legends, folklore, etc. are there to make sense of it all, and to communicate it to the next generations. Holgut follows in this tradition. To me, science and mythology are not opposites of each other; they work together to understand the world. The pursuit of knowledge is as old as humankind and within this there’s a special place for the creation of life by humans – this seems to be the ultimate goal, the “unholy grail” of science. It is a pursuit that goes back centuries, to the alchemists, Prometheus, etc. It is not surprising that the first science-fiction novel, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, deals precisely with the creation of life. Cutting-edge science like cloning or artificial intelligence seems to be our contemporary attempt at this. A step that will at some point look out-dated itself, but which is greatly valuable at this present moment in time.

Another curious rhyme is related to the topic of archaeology. On the one hand, the heroes of your film are literally busy with archaeological excavations. On the other hand, your entire project could be called something like media archaeology.

In these people, a hero scientist, the animals going extinct and being brought back from the dead, etc., I felt like I’d found a story in which the past is reflected in the present, but also in which we could see glimpses of the future in our current times. It felt like I was looking at some sort of a great myth-in-the-making, and that we were looking at it from within. I saw this as an opportunity to show this story as a contemporary myth.

I did conduct something that can be described as archaeology of mythology. The actual filming of Holgut was done in a matter of weeks but the research and preparations took many years. From the first time that I travelled to Yakutsk I invested a great deal of time and effort in researching the local mythologies and other stories that could be linked to the topics and themes of the film. These could be Russian, Yakut, Yukaghir, etc. I visited the local institutes, went through archives and literature, talked to knowledgeable people, and so on.

The spirit of the mammoths is present throughout the whole film. Stories, drawings, songs, etc. create a vision of the animal in the minds of the spectators. Every element has its own function. The strange and unrealistic drawings of mammoth-like creatures at the beginning of the film are not just mythological representations, but also the first scientific attempts to understand what the mammoth was, what these bones were that they found under the ground. That is also why we see these drawings in a laboratory; science and mythology is intimately connected. I wanted to start the film with these drawings because I see the film as a sort of contemporary continuation of them. Holgut is also an attempt to understand this animal and to give it a place in time and space.

In the very finale, an image appears whose appearance all Russian-speaking viewers have been waiting for from the very beginning of the film – the cartoon about a little mammoth. How did you hear about this cartoon? And why was it important for you to include it in this story?

I found the cartoon of the little mammoth during my online research. This cartoon was not part of my childhood, as in Belgium we had mostly local and American cartoons. When I watched it for the first time, I was completely taken by the strangeness and emotionality of it. It looks at the whole extinction and de-extinction story from the point of a small and vulnerable mammoth calf and raises the question of who will be the mother for this creature, who will take care of it, who will have its best interests at heart, and is there still a place for this animal on our planet? A feeling of loneliness wades through the cartoon and confronts us with our motives for wanting to bring back this creature. The idea of creating a single lonely mammoth does not seem very heroic. Beside this, during one of my conversations with Semyon, he told me that he was thinking that maybe he did not want to save only the mammoth from extinction, but also to save his own pure fascination from extinction, that fascination we feel as a child when we see a representation of a mammoth. He wanted to save that fascination by passing it on to the next generation. I thought that was a beautiful idea and it shows how pure and personal Semyon’s motives were. I would like to give a word of acknowledgment to Semyon, who so sadly passed away recently. He is an icon of Yakutian excellence, and I consider myself lucky to have been able to work with such a brilliant and kind scientist. He showed me that science and mythology can go hand in hand. He is greatly missed but I know that he will live on in the minds of many people, and that his work will continue to influence many generations of scientists. I also dedicate Holgut to him.
And the last question I want to ask is one about Yakut cinema in general. You are probably well aware that in recent years the cinematography of Yakutia has been considered one of the most striking phenomena in the context of Russian cinema. Are you familiar with the work of your Yakut colleagues, and do you have any favourites?

I am aware of the great quality of Yakutian cinema and I would love to see more for myself. Unfortunately, I don’t speak either Yakut or Russian, and as I can’t find these films with English subtitles it’s a challenge for me to watch them. Nonetheless, I have succeeded in watching some. Recently I watched Republic Z by Stepan Burnashyov and I thought it was very entertaining, surprising in its genre, and high quality in its image and sound. Through these films I can also travel back to Yakutia in my mind, the landscapes are very beautiful. And in the end, this film also comes to the conclusion that the permafrost is pretty cool!