The clash between age-old indigenous cultural traditions and bulldozing global-economic needs finds sharp nonfiction illustration in “Father, Son and Holy Torum.” Pitting the nomadic Khanty peoples of Western Siberia against land-grabbing gas and oil corporations — with blood relatives on each side — quietly absorbing docu will attract fest and academic programmers for its environmental and ethnographic relevance. Though it plays well as a feature, nominal division at midpoint is aimed to suit two-part telecasting.
Shot over a period of two years, pic finds relations already well deteriorated at outset between an elderly Khanty — aka “Weasel Man” medicine man Sosho — and his son Petja. Former still lives the hard-scrabble life in a rapidly dwindling forest landscape, herding reindeer, hunting bears and worshipping them as embodiment of the all-powerful “Torum” spirit.
Petja, on the other hand, has long lived “in town.” Worse (from father’s p.o.v.), he’s betrayed his roots by working as the oil companies’ “program on indigenous peoples” shill. Though Petja does try to get the best deal possible for locals in buying up ancestral lands, he also admits his job is largely “to fool the public” into making decisions that in the long run can only harm them.
Precise, spiraling ecological damage from oil drilling isn’t spelled out clearly, but it’s evidently already had an impact on livestock health and other requirements for rural survival. Mostly, helmer Mark Soosaar intercuts between generations. Their rift seeming irreparable, Petja now steers clear of his parents. Meanwhile, the latter, especially his wildly cantankerous mom (“We should have tossed him down the outhouse hole!”), alternately curse their offspring and plead with the gods to make him start “living right.” (Petja’s serial-wife-changing domestic life, one major sore point, could have been explored a bit more clearly.)
All this is colorful, even humorous given the robust characters involved, but helmer never makes fun, or loses sight, of the larger issues. Shots of pristine vanishing wilderness, soundtracked on occasion by kitsch TV-pop tunes, deftly convey the historical and natural resources being sacrificed for fleeting profit. At pic’s endpoint, barely one-sixth of extant Khantys are still living in the forest.
Directorial approach is understated, wry, sometimes lyrical, with good tech work all around. Given that subtlety, finger-wagging intertitles (referring to “The Kingdom of Oil and Gas” as “The Dark Forces”) seem out of place here, and can be safely ignored.