“Aiyy Dyöһögöi”: when a god comes to the horde

Mikhail Bashkirov

The entire plot of this non-standard Yakut picture can be summed up in the single caption which the viewer sees right at the beginning. “This is a story about a guy named Dyöһögöi, who rode to Ysyakh from a faraway ulus. Dyöһögöi is as innocent as a child and as pure as a mountain stream. This is his first time at this big national holiday. Here he will meet many different people, see beautiful horses, games for strong-willed men, and listen to delightful singing. And it is here at Ysyakh that he will meet someone who, as it seems to him, has stepped straight out of his dreams...” That is, in fact, the whole plot of the film, and one very simple at first glance, if not primitive. But I doubt many people would dare to call this film simple.
Aiyy Dyöһögöi (2015) belongs to a rare genre (and one rare not only in Yakutia, but in general) – that of the mockumentary. The director Sergei Potapov has not merely combined the feature film and documentary here, but has made an attempt to implant a fictional story into the flesh and blood of a very real and current Yakut holiday – Ysyakh. For Potapov, the reality documented by Semyon Amanatov’s camera is, on the one hand, decoration. On the other hand, the people who flock to the town festival are drawn into the director’s action, becoming full-fledged actors who function according to the director’s intentions. (As an aside, the picture was filmed in real time over the course of just two days). Despite his position at the fountainhead of independent Yakut cinema, Sergei Potapov is first and foremost a theatre director, for whom cinema is to a large extent not really his regular job, but rather a way of letting off steam on the side. As such, he will have chalked up several dozen, if not hundreds, of plays so far, while his films are incommensurably fewer in number. In this particular work, the dual theatrical-cinematic nature of Sergei Potapov is manifested quite characteristically. “Aiyy Dyöһögöi” resembles an immersive performance, in which all observers present during the action are turned into participants in everything that happens.
Dyöһögöi is not just a nice guy from the sticks, though. In Yakut culture Dyöһögöi is also the god of horse breeding. As might be expected, for a horse-breeding steppe civilisation, as which the Sakha people can largely be defined, Dyöһögöi is one of the chief deities in the pantheon. Potapov turns this ancient god (presumably a god, though the author never gives a truly definite answer on this score) into a small, frail guy (the Sakha Theatre actor Pavel Chenyanov). When asked about his parentage, he gives the evasive answer that he is an orphan from Suntar Ulus. The situation whereby a deity turns up in the world of mortals is nothing new for world cinema, with the first thing that comes to mind being Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Theorem. In Pasolini’s picture, the coming into the world of either a pagan deity or a Christian saint serves as a pretext for the director to deliver a critique on the sleepy, half-dead bourgeoisie of the 1960s and ‘70s. In our case, a deity (or is it perhaps just some guy who happens to be named Dyöһögöi?) comes along to a major, almost nationwide festival and dives headlong into the “folkloric element”. As follows from the caption, he immediately falls in love with a girl – one with something of an outward resemblance to an anime heroine (Alya Poiseyeva). But the romantic thread seems to be of little interest to Potapov; it is conveyed more in terms of a broken line, casually tossed into view, and narrated to a large extent through clichés. Potapov is truly original in his play with reality.
In Yakut culture, Ysyakh is a holiday of the summer solstice, the new year, when the divinities of the upper world commune with the middle world, the abode of us human beings. Without any hyperbole, Ysyakh is the most important annual event in the Republic’s calendar, rightfully inscribed into the life cycle of the contemporary Yakuts. Us Khatyn – the locality where filming took place – is located not far from the city of Yakutsk and has a sacred status: According to the mythology, it was precisely here that Ellei, the progenitor of the Sakha, first performed the ritual of worshiping the aiyy deities and the local land spirits. Symbols occasionally pop into the frame – the Aan Aartyk archway, the Aan Alakhchyn complex of worship of sacred places, Aiyy Sitime (the tutelary goddess of the Earth), and the ritual complex of the ceremony of meeting the Sun (Kyunyu Korsyuyu). Tyusyulge festival spaces are set up on all sides (in line with current realities, tyusyulge are often associated with the corporate spirit, with almost every institution or company having its own tyusyulge in Us Khatyn). To refer to my own personal experience, I have had occasion to visit several town Ysyakhs down the years. Everywhere people are roaming around, eating horse and other meats, all in a motley crowd of men, women and children; horses graze nearby, and thousands of human feet kick up great clouds of dust. Up in the sky, hungry kites circle in formations above the buzzing crowd, looking for scraps of food on the ground from on high. This probably gives some indication as to how the ancient hordes sweeping across Asia once looked. There is no doubt that Potapov succeeds in what many other “ethnic” directors have dreamt of but almost never achieved. Potapov charges ethnic tradition with contemporary energy, and in doing so saves it from archaisation and dying out.

At some point, it seems Potapov has turned his film into an ode to the Yakut people and Yakut culture, positioning it exclusively in the ethnic plane. But things turn out far less rosy in the end. The people themselves, in the person of mambets or deribasses (common local terms in Yakutia for the usual Russian gopnik or low-class thug), make short work of the deity who has stepped into their world. The scene of a casual murder is filmed with frightening documentary authenticity. If we assume that they are not in fact killing a god, but just some simple innocent guy, an orphan from Suntar Ulus, then it becomes more awful still...