(Nenets and Russian dialogue)
This anthology, consisting of seven short stories, takes the viewer to the rarefied, isolated land of the Nenets, who live, literally, at the top of the world. Fascinating in every respect, and quite beautifully made, this insight into a most unusual culture should crop up at many festivals and be grabbed by quality TV programmers.
The Nenets are Inuit-like people who inhabit the tundra in the far north of Russia. In winter, it is punishingly cold; in summer, flies and mosquitoes abound. Filmmakers Anastasia Lapsui and Markku Lehmuskallio made several documentaries about the Nenets in the 1990s, but decided their new film, “Seven Songs From the Tundra,” would be largely fictional, despite the fact that there is no tradition of acting among the Nenet people.
The first story, “Sacrifice,” is a documentary depicting a chilly winter’s religious ceremony in which a reindeer is sacrificed to the gods. Next, “The Bride” explores the traditional, pre-Revolution ways of these people, who lived in fur-covered teepees, herded reindeer and survived in the most spartan conditions. A young girl is supposed to marry a rich man chosen by her widowed mother, but she prefers a local boy and elopes with him; he treats her appallingly.
The next four stories, “An Independent Person,” “God,” “Enemies of the People” and “Syako” deal with Soviet communism’s effect on the Nenets. Commissars arrive in the community, demanding the people conform to the new order. The more prosperous Nenets are branded derisively as kulaks and one is shot when he protests.
The people have difficulty accepting Lenin as a kind of replacement god, and react angrily when their children are taken away to Russian schools and come back with Russian names. The final story, “Lullaby,” is a brief, simple depiction of a woman singing to her child.
The Nenet actors give natural, unforced performances, and the direction, though extremely simple, powerfully conveys the destruction of an age-old lifestyle by ruthless ideologues with an exaggerated notion of their own righteousness. But above all it’s the small details of Nenet life, captured in grainy black-and-white images, that fascinate in this strangely beautiful film.