This month, I’m looking at a film that was on my list for a while. It was brought to my attention by filmmaker and collaborator Bogdan Darev and Filmabee, a platform he founded in 2019. The platform brings together filmmakers, artists, writers, and educators from diverse cultures. And its mission is to help connect these individuals to niche audiences who are most likely to enjoy their work and provide support. It was screening on Filmabee for a limited time and is now available on Apple TV and Vudu.
Aga (2018), directed by Milko Lazarov and shot by Kaloyan Bozhilov centers around an Indigenous Yakut couple, Nanook and Sedna, who live in a yurt on the snow-covered fields of Siberia. They live as their ancestors did–as reindeer herders, alone in the wilderness, living off the land. We come upon them in the twilight of their lives as hunting becomes more difficult and animals around them die of strange wounds. But they are no strangers to this challenging life. And even while Sedna endures ongoing pain from an injury to her abdomen, what worries them most is the absence of their estranged daughter, Aga.
Records about the Yakut culture date back to the tenth century–they were hunters, fishermen, reindeer herders, and raised cattle and horses. They’ve suffered an all too familiar story. When they first encountered Russians in the 17th century. The Tsarist regime began taxing them, invading their territories, laying claim to their land, and converting them to a Russian Orthodox religion. When they fought back, they were met with an unbeatable force whom also infected them with diseases like smallpox. As a result, they experienced a 70% drop in their population in just forty years between 1642 and 1682.
Discoveries of gold and diamonds brought more and more Russians into their region. By the 19th century, most Yakut had transitioned into a more urban lifestyle.
When Stalin came to power in the 1920’s Yakut territories were officially absorbed into the Soviet Socialist Republic, and systematic persecution began. With help from an armed force of anti-communist Russians, the Yakut were able to take a last stand against the Red Army. They were victorious in their first battle but were ultimately defeated–leaving them vulnerable to ongoing persecution while experiencing another decline in their population. At that point, they were only numbering 236,700.
In the 1970s, their population began to recover. In the 2010 census, almost a million ethnic Yakuts were registered. Those who carry on a traditional Yakut lifestyle struggle with a worsening climate every year.
Aga was shot on 35mm with an Arricam lite package and anamorphic lenses for a 2:35 presentation. I had the pleasure of speaking with Kaloyan last week–the movie’s Cinematographer. I first asked him about the rounded corners included within the aspect ratio of the final presentation. He said he wanted to take advantage of the entire image area on the negative and show that there was no cropping or reframing. To express why this is significant, here is a little background:
There is hardware in an analog film camera that functions as a window–framing the area on the negative where the image is exposed–we call it the “gate.” The corners of the gate are not perfectly square but slightly rounded. Usually, these rounded corners would be cropped out for the final presentation, but Kaloyan opted not to do that. Many of his compositions were dependent on action happening at the edges of the frame, and he didn’t want to compromise that. He was also thinking like a purist and wanted to show that he did not crop his images
This purist approach started with still photography–a medium that largely embraced cropping and reframing as an acceptable standard since its advent. But even then–as early as the 1880s–some photographers didn’t believe in cropping or manipulating their images. These photographers became known as the “purists.” Notable “purist” photographer Paul Strand became one of the movement’s significant influencers in the early 1900s.
Cropping in the motion picture analog era was also reserved for achieving the desired aspect ratio. Another way to achieve 2:35 was to crop off the top and bottom of a 4:3 image (square image). The filmmakers would use 2:35 frame guides in the viewfinder and monitors to set up their compositions. They’d often allow lights and other film equipment to be seen outside the frame guides–a practice used to achieve a certain quality of light or discourage the reframing of their work. And sometimes, the filmmakers would compose for both a 4:3 and 2:35 presentation when making films for both the big screen and TV–resulting in two versions of the film. Cropping and reframing for the sake of adjusting composition were very rare during this period.
Digital filmmaking technology began to emerge with the digital intermediate (digitized film for color grading). Minor creative adjustments to composition became commonplace. And as 4K settled in–major adjustments to composition became prevalent in certain circles–surpassing creative needs into time and budget savings onset. Going to the extremes of cropping a wide shot to get a medium shot, a two-shot to get a single, and a single to get an extreme close-up. Most Cinematographers strongly disagree with this practice–myself included.
Lenses and compositions are chosen to best evoke emotions and authenticity. Visual story arcs in a film are designed around and with these choices. The nuances of lens and composition characteristics play a significant role. For example–the emotional response to a wide lens close up vs. a long lens close up is very different. So, if a filmmaker decides to start cropping in for close-ups, he or she is losing out on this ability to orchestrate emotions. And it risks disrupting verisimilitude in the entire film. The optical characteristics of a zoomed-in and reframed image are very different from an original composition’s optical characteristics. When the two are cut together within a film sequence, it can create a jarring effect that takes the audience away from the story. However, the yin to this yang is–if you want to disorient or confuse an audience intentionally, this could be a technique to use.
When starting conversations about the cinema language and shot design for the film, director Milko Lazarov gave Kaloyan a lot of autonomy in bringing his own sensibilities to the story. Thus Kaloyan made a bold choice for keeping the camera static throughout most of the film. Compositions were chosen based on certain essential moments in the scene, allowing the characters to stand up out of frame or briefly hang out behind a prop or piece of set dressing. He thought this approach would add a layer of authenticity and gravity to the film while not distracting the audience with camera movement. He also felt that the action in the movie didn’t motivate or need any camera movement. I agree with him, and I think it paid off–the film was a visual feast in terms of location and sets. The fixed camera often forces the viewer to scan the frame and take in the surroundings as if we were there, with them, sitting or standing quietly, just observing. It was meditative while both surreal and authentic. At times you could feel the cold.
The camera did move in at least two shots in the film. First, in a pivotal moment as Nanook hurries home to his wife. Technically the camera was still static–it was mounted to Nanook’s sled in a fixed position, holding Nanook in a medium shot as he runs behind the sled. This gave us a frenetic feel, complimenting Nanook’s sudden anxiety–also emphasized by the stillness of all the surrounding shots and serving as a visual segue, transporting the audience into the final act.
Secondly, the closing shot of the film is an aerial. The camera moves slowly out of a diamond mine–where Nanook goes to find his daughter Aga–and into the clouds as the credits fade up. This shot book ends a visual theme through the film, designed by the director to express the decay of culture and environment. It’s one of those visual motifs that can mean different things to different viewers, so I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, for further discovery. That’s part of the fun!
Credits and Specs
Directed by Milko Lazarov
Produced by Veselka Kiryakova
Written by Simeon Ventsislavov, Milko Lazarov
Starring Mikhail Aprosimov, Feodosia Ivanova, Sergei Egorov
Music By Penka Kouneva
Cinematography by Kaloyan Bozhilov
Edited by Veselka Kiryakova
Production Design by Agi Ariunsaichan Dawaachu
Production Company: Red Carpet
Release Date: September 4, 2019
Running Time: 96 min
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Camera and Lenses: Arriflex Arricam lite, anamorphic lenses
Negative Format: 35mm
Country: Bulgaria, Germany, France
Reported Budget: EUR 1,000,000 (estimated)