• Feature

The Book of the Sea

An Interview with Aleksei Vakhrushev

Oct 24, 2019
by IAQ

Filmmaker Aleksei Vakhrushev is a Yupik native of Anydyr Chukotka who has worked in the film industry for over 20 years and focuses mainly on northern Russian subjects. His most recent film The Book of the Sea is a hybrid documentary that follows a group of contemporary Chukotkan whale hunters and blends the story, told through vivid claymation, of "the woman who gave birth to a whale."

Ahead of the screening of The Book of the Sea at imagineNATIVE on October 25th, the IAQ sat down with Vakhrushev to discuss his new film, animation, and the important messages behind his film.

IAQ: When did you first become interested in filmmaking?

Aleksei Vakhrushev: I was born in Chukotka. I'm Yupik. My mother is Yupik. I grew up in the capital of Chukotka, in front of Alaska, and when I was 22 years old, I went to Moscow to learn filmmaking. I decided that I would mostly make films about my people and so I started to make documentaries about the Yupik peoples in 1993. I've made many films since about Chukotka natives, Chuvans, and Yupiks. Mostly documentaries and The Book of the Sea is the first film using animated materials.

IAQ: Why are you drawn to filmmaking as a storytelling medium? 

AV: From the beginning of the 20th century, anthropologists came to Chukotka and learned and studied the traditional cultures of the Chukchi and Yupik and they spoke of the culture disappearing. But after a century, these people continue to identify as Yupiks and Chukchis and continue to hunt. I believe that the land holds important knowledge about the history of families and people. The land hold the spirits of the past and the spirits of their ancestors. The landscape - the sea and sky - is full of images and these images, for them, gives them the strength to maintain their traditions.

I decided to show the audience this by animating the fundamental legend of the Yupiks, "the woman who gave birth to a whale," because it describes the connection between sea mammals and people. Before shooting the documentary, I found a great artist who is a professional sculptor and also a brilliant animator, Eduard Belyayev. He began to develop the animation style by visiting museums,  archaeologists and anthropologists. He also studied images from the internet. Not only images of Yupiks, but also Inuit from Canada and from Greenland. He mixed all of the materials and the images and began to make characters and landscapes from the sculptural plasticine.

IAQ: Why did you choose to use claymation?

AV: The plasticine is a handmade material and all of our characters and landscapes were made by the hands of the artist. This style of animation is very close to how people move and because of that, it was absolutely a good choice to use claymation.

IAQ: When did you first meet the hunters who are featured in this film?

AV: Since 1993, I've worked with many teams in many different settlements of Chukotka, in the Arctic seashore, and the Pacific seashore. But the heroes of this film I met in 2004. Alexey Ottoi is a leader of a community of sea hunters. Alexander Emelyanov was a Chukchi elder and he was a real keeper of traditions and rituals and was very clever and very intelligent. He died one year before the end of our production. He came to the sea hunt in the spring alone and disappeared. People tried to find him for two weeks and then one night, there was a strong wind and the next morning his body was washed ashore. People think that he fell under the ice.  I think he went like a real Chukchi, a real sea hunter, a real man. It's like a hero's death.

IAQ: When did you film the footage that's included in the documentary?

AV: We made four expeditions to Chukotka, from Moscow and stayed for six months in total. I joined the sea hunt many times, more than eighty, in different seasons. We were waiting for an unexpected situation because during those moments, they act like archetypical sea hunters.

IAQ: Is there a message that you wish to convey in your film?

AV: There are many messages. The first message is to my indigenous people: wake up, save the culture. You are the keepers of an amazing culture. Please be curious about your past. Be curious about your folklore. I also hope this film will be seen by many kids and teenagers in settlements in Chukotka and I hope they understand and feel this message. This is not journalism, this is cinema and it speaks to an audience through feelings and emotions.

The message to the audience around the world: please be accepting. Acceptive of other people and other cultures. And please don't ask why they go to the sea and hunt whales. It's tradition. It is a continuation of a very long story. I had a very interesting reaction from this one Russian woman at the film's first screening in Moscow. She came up to me and said, "I didn't understand whaling. I felt very sad by the idea of killing whales. But when I saw your film, I understood that it's absolutely normal. This is their life."

Do you have any future projects that you're excited about? 

AV: We are developing a historical-adventure drama feature based on a real Yupik history and myths. The story is about a young Inuit guy who is living in a settlement in the middle of the 17th century when their culture was alive and when the first meeting with the Europeans happened.

There's now an exhibition made from the art materials (the characters and the landscapes made from plasticine) of The Book of the Sea. I saved everything in pizza boxes in my room. This exhibition combines, like the film, the legend and some real information about the history of the Chukotkan natives from the past until today. It was presented for the first time at the East Economic Forum last September in the Russian far east. Now it is part of a very good exhibition devoted to Inuit culture in the oldest Russian ethnographical museum, the Russian Museum of Ethnography.

The Book of the Sea has also been published into a book. It includes stills from the animation storyline. They are on the right page and then on the left page, there’s historical information. It’s an art and educational project. The Book of the Sea is a complex project: an exhibition, a book, and a film. In two languages: in Russian and in English. It’s great. Other formats give you possibilities to say more than you can do in the film. Now the project is absolutely complete.