Premiered simultaneously in Vision du Réel’s International Competition and at CPH: DOX, “Holgut” is a documentary-fiction hybrid that takes viewers on an immersive double journey deep within the Siberian tundra. Prague-based Filmotor is handling international sales.
The film follows the journey of two brothers who travel north upriver to hunt the last wild reindeer and of a scientist who joins mammoth ivory hunters in the hope of finding DNA and one day cloning the creature. (“Holgut” means “mammoth” in Yukaghir, a language spoken in the Russian Far East).
Intent on making a film about climate change and what she describes as “the idea of extinction and de-extinction,” director Liesbeth de Ceulaer set out to find the ideal setting, which brought her to Siberia.
“The mammoth is the iconic ambassador of the ice age which became extinct due to a combination of a rise in temperature and of humans going into their territories. Now, once again due to the rise in temperatures, their carcasses are coming up through the permafrost,” she says.
The director and her two-member crew shot the film during the Siberian summer, which allowed them to capture the organic, intensely mineral landscapes where climate change unfolds “in front of your eyes,” she explains.
“I wanted to feel it. So I went in those (summer) months where you have this abundance of water because I wanted to convey this idea that you could squeeze every image like a sponge,” she explains.
An atmospheric film that blurs the lines between reality and myth, “Holgut” eschews linear storytelling, offering instead a poetic journey where past and present meet, featuring drawings by a Belgian graphic designer inspired by Siberian mythology and cave paintings.
An award-winning filmmaker (“Victoria,” 2020), De Ceulaer says she doesn’t believe “reality” exists in filmmaking but sees herself “as a coach who sets out a frame in which reality can come to its fullest,” with “the star players” being the characters.
“What I like about using fiction is that you can really go into their dreams because, in the end, they are acting their dreams and hopes and aspirations, it comes from them,” she said.
She went on: “So it’s a means to go beyond reality and show what’s going on inside. And also for the viewer, to touch on something inside, this freedom of poetry. I ask myself: What is a myth? Is it always something stuck in the past or is something that keeps evolving?”
While the shoot only took five weeks, the genesis of the project was lengthy and started in 2013. Through a scientist, De Ceulaer met her fixer, who put her in touch with reindeer hunting brothers.
As a woman, she says she was privileged to work with the people of Yakutia in north-eastern Siberia. “There are certain things that men do and certain things that women do. For example, fishing and hunting are things that a woman is not allowed to do. But because I was a filmmaker, a ‘professional,’ there were exceptions. They are very honorable people, who took very good care of us,” she says, describing how they provided them with extra reindeer and polar bear skins to sleep on when it was cold at night.
“Holgut” is dedicated to Semyon Grigoriev, the scientist, who died from heart failure a year ago and never saw it completed.