(Russia, 90 min.)
Dir. Mikhail Barynin
What’s it like to live in a place where temperatures drop to minus 65°C? Ask Sergei, a horse breeder from the Sakha region in Russia and the protagonist in new Mikhail Barynin’s documentary 24 Snow.
Yakutia or the Sakha Republic is situated in northeastern Siberia, a land famous for its austere climate. The region is predominantly populated by ethnic Sakha people and has two official languages: Russian and Sakha. Sergei’s family lives in a small village bordering the Arctic Circle but he is only a visitor in his own house due to his seasonal migration for work. In the winter, he resides in the mountains, where the climate is especially severe, so he can look after his horses and reindeers.
The film’s visual mastery is extraordinary. Through camera work, Barynin captures not only the wild beauty of Taiga but also transmits a feeling of the harsh, Siberian winter. The film solemnly opens with a few stunning shots of the Northern Lights, which are quickly juxtaposed to a pitch white shot of Sergei’s desolate cabin in the heart of Taiga. In the same sequence, we see Sergei cutting ice and adding it to a hot pot of water, which immediately fills the screen with warmth. The close ups of Sergei’s evaporating tea pot emphasize the coldness of the place, especially as they are contrasted to a chilly snowy landscape.
While the first couple of shots make you shiver, Sergei seems impervious to the climate. His warm, genuine facial expressions soften the initial hostility of the Siberian winter. As the story unfolds, Sergei’s affection for his region, labor and animals (his matchless appreciation of his horses deserves a separate essay) imparts itself lovingly upon the viewer. While Barynin humanizes Sergei though acutely depicting his powerful and moving dedication to horse breeding, Sergei tames and personifies the wildness of Taiga for the viewer. As our main guide in the land of snow, Sergei enhances the viewer’s understanding of the semi-nomadic way of living through his bold attitude and heartfelt stories. “We, the horse keepers love freedom,” Sergei proudly states to the camera. “We depend on nobody.”
Barynin experiments with pacing and camera angles throughout his film. He makes use of traditional observational cinematography and deploys several panoramic drone shots, putting the vastness of Siberia, its hilly mountains and extensive flats, in perspective. Barynin spices up a few scenes with POV shots of Sergei riding reindeers and adding some Go-Pro camera sequences, making capturing reindeer feel like an extreme sport. The filmmaker also uses slow motion shooting, for instance, while filming Sergei riding his horse – visually turning him into a heroic cowboy from Hollywood Westerns.
Apart from portraying the beautiful wilderness of Arctic Sakha, Barynin offers a glimpse into the life and culture of the ethnic Yakut people. Through Sergei’s eyes, the filmmaker captures Ysekh, an annual celebration of the Sakha community and the main festival for the horse breeders. On this festive day, the Sakha people come together to bet on horses, feast, dress up in traditional clothes and play folk games. By attentively chronicling Sergei’s free time during the holiday, Barynin seizes a powerful sense of community and tradition.
Although aesthetics is definitely 24 Snow’s strongest aspect, the film also offers a meaningful discussion around socio-economic issues in the Sakha region. Through Sergei’s story, Barynin reveals how modernization and capitalism have affected the historic Sakha occupations. While horse breeding, reindeer herding and hunting are fundamental to indigenous Sakha culture, more and more Yakuts are abandoning ancestral traditions due to insufficient salaries, and are moving to the cities. Sergei, whose kids and younger relatives have chosen urban life styles, is troubled by such alterations. Apart from a few friends, he has no successors to continue his life long labour.
Barynin’s genuine interest in the Russian North and indigenous people makes his work sincere and important. While his film could have benefited from a higher budget and more complex storyline, 24 Snow is indisputably a strong and far-reaching documentary. Its stunning cinematography makes it a captivating and meaningful watch. And the film’s cultural agility—for instance an unforgettable scene of Sergei slaughtering a horse in the most humane and respectful way imaginable—contributes to global recognition of the intricacy and sophistication of the Sakha culture.