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.