Dir: Aleksei Vakhrushev | Doc | Russia, 2018 | 88′
Seasoned filmmaker Aleksei Vakhrushev has made some of the best-known Russian documentaries of the past few years. His previous film The Tundra Book (2011) explores the traditions of deer-hunting in Russia’s Northern Chukotka region. His latest – THE BOOK OF THE SEA – is an intense visual experience that follows the daily struggle for survival of the traditional sea hunters of the Bering Strait whose Inuit faith in ancient myths and legends guides their hunting ethos in their ancient Arctic culture.
Although this sounds quite surreal and otherworldly, it’s actually a very sensible way to live sustainably. Respect for nature and the animal kingdom allows them to avoid unnecessary slaughter while hunting to feed their families – rather than for pleasure.
Their regular hunting expeditions will see them catching sperm whales, seals and walruses and these sections of the film are roughly divided into chapters entitled: The Whale, The Old man and the Sea, and The Walruses. They also rely on auks eggs and reindeer. Along with his skilled cameramen, Vakhrushev follows the hunters and close-quarters as they track their prey. But as soon as a catch is about to happen, the filmmaker cuts away from the slaughter to Edvard Belyaev’s effective animated sequences that illustrate Inuit hunting legends. In this way, the film transcends the blood and gore of the killing experience, enriching the narrative while also adding a historical parable to the stark reality of the eco-documentary.
Hunting with their trusty husky dogs, Inuit and Chukchi hunters still rely for protein and nourishment on large sea mammals that have sustained their people since time immemorial. But today, these hunters are elegantly kitted out in high-performance padded jackets made of down or seal-skin and their precision equipment is specialised and decidedly high-tech.
The contemporary story of elders Alexander and Alexei blends seamlessly with that of “the woman who gave birth to a whale” and other ancient myths, told here in vivid animation, in this ongoing struggle for survival and preservation of a traditional lifestyle in one of the most remote places on earth. A magnificent and visually striking story about the vitality of these Arctic people whose struggle very much connects to a global narrative of survival for small communities all over the World. Judging by the richness of the Bering Strait – which runs from the through to the Arctic ocean’s Chukchi Sea – and the Inuit people’s respect for nature, it looks like they will survive for a good many years to come. MT
The director is an Inuk, who was born on the Chukchi Peninsula in the Far East of the Russian in 1969. Upon graduating from the Director’s Department of the Russian State Film School (VGIK) in 1996, he launched his career with a documentary entitled The Time When Dreams Are Melting. The film tells the true story of his native Yupik Inuit people of northeastern Russia. His unique insider’s perspective group offered a fresh new look at the lives, challenges, and aspirations of the indigenous peoples living on the Russian side of the Bering Strait. It was the first time their story was ever captured on film.