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.

The Film

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!

Kaloyan’s lighting was kept simple and motivated to further service the narrative’s authenticity. Outdoor’s on the icescape it was mainly bouncing and reflecting the sun. Inside the yurt, he motivated light from above–augmenting the natural daylight coming through the typical skylight at the yurt’s crown. Kaloyan positioned 4K HMI’s outside–making additional openings in the roof to facilitate different angles. The only instruments he brought inside were reflectors and bounce cards. Otherwise, there were no windows in the yurt. So the only other source of light came from the wood-burning stove and kerosene/oil lamps.

What touches me most about this film is how it invites us to see inside such a treasured lifestyle at a time when its characters and environment are at their most vulnerable. Thank you, Milko and Kaloyan, and cast and crew.

Credits and Specs

Directed by Milko Lazarov
Produced by Veselka Kiryakova
Written by Simeon VentsislavovMilko Lazarov 
Starring Mikhail AprosimovFeodosia IvanovaSergei 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 
Language: Yakut
Reported Budget: EUR 1,000,000 (estimated)

SXSW 2021 Favorite Films

I have another festival favorites edition this month. I didn’t watch every film–that would be impossible. Therefore, out of the forty-eight I watched–here is a breakdown of twenty-eight SXSW 2021 films. Similar to the Sundance edition–The film links point to their festival program page and the synopsis come from that same page.

Narrative Feature Films

Inbetween Girl – “Teen artist Angie Chen turns to secret hookups with the heartthrob of her private school after her parents’ sudden divorce.

The Drovers Wife – The Legend of Molly Johnson – “The Drover’s Wife The Legend of Molly Johnson is a reimagining of Leah Purcell’s acclaimed play and Henry Lawson’s classic short story. A searing Australian western thriller asking the question: how far do you go to protect your loved ones?

Gaia – In the depths of an ancient forest, something has been growing. Something older than humanity itself, and perhaps greater too. When a park ranger discovers a man and his son living wild, she stumbles onto a secret that is about to change the world.

Here Before – After new neighbors move in next door, a bereaved mother begins to question her reality in this unsettling psychological thriller.

I’m Fine (Thanks for asking) – When a recently widowed mother becomes houseless, she convinces her 8-year-old daughter that they are only camping for fun while working to get them off the streets.

The Fabulous Filipino Brothers – From Northern California to The Philippines, four brothers confront their issues with love, family, and culture, surrounding a highly controversial Filipino wedding. Told in four vignettes with cockfights, adultery, romance, food, and family.

Bantú Mama – An Afropean woman escapes after being arrested in the Dominican Republic. She is sheltered by a group of minors, in a dangerous district of Santo Domingo. By becoming their protégée and maternal figure, she will see her destiny change inexorably.

Documentary Feature Films

Mau – Mau follows the unlikely story of design visionary Bruce Mau and his ever-optimistic push for massive change.

We Are As Gods – “We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” Stewart Brand wrote in ‘68. The legendary pioneer of LSD, cyberspace, futurism, and modern environmentalism now urges people to use our god-like powers to fight extinction by reviving lost species.

Narrative Short Films

Malignant – Chynna travels to a West Texas health retreat to visit her terminally ill mother. As she learns more about the faith based wellness preached in the commune, Chynna desperately attempts to convince her mother to leave.

The Other Morgan – When a dopey young exterminator discovers there’s another version of her out in the world, she begins to question her life choices.

The Mohel – After celebrating the birth of their first child, James & Lola are faced with family expectations and financial strain as they fly in a Mohel to perform their son’s Brit Milah – The circumcision ceremony.

Plaisir – A lonely American faces unrequited love on a farm commune in the south of France.

Are you Still There? – Safa’s been through a lot. Now her car battery is dead in a strip mall parking lot.

Chuj Boys of Summer – Speaking only his native language, a Guatemalan teenager begins his new life in rural Colorado.

The Nipple Whisperer – Maurice Sanders has a gift. He’s a nipple whisperer. Once he was known as “Magic Sandy”. But that was years ago, before Doris, a famous model and Sander’s muse, fell ill. Now, after more than a decade, Doris wants to meet Maurice again.

Soak – A 16 year old tries to convince her runaway mother to return home.

Sales Per Hour –  A young woman faces a moral dilemma when she witnesses a sexual encounter in a dressing room at the clothing store where she works.

Marvin Never Had Coffee Before – Marvin Wexler tries coffee for the first time and desperately tries to talk about it with anyone who will listen.

Femme – When Jordan gets into the car of a flirtatious drug-dealer, his night takes a dangerous turn.

Doretha’s Blues – Doretha goes out for her evening drink at her local watering hole when a news story dredges up old memories.

Summer Animals – Living out of a motel, 15 year old Tommy makes a drastic decision in order for her siblings to escape the heat before the summer’s over.

The thing that ate the birds – On the North Yorkshire Moors, Abel, Head Gamekeeper, discovers the thing that is eating his grouse.

Documentary Short Films

Plant Heist – California’s fight to protect valuable native succulents from an international poaching ring.

Joe Buffalo – Joe Buffalo is an Indigenous skateboard legend. He’s also a survivor of Canada’s notorious Indian Residential School system. Following a traumatic childhood and decades of addiction, Joe must face his inner demons to realize his dream of turning pro.

The Box –  The Box is a hybrid documentary that explores the effects of solitary confinement through three people’s harrowing true stories – they’ve spent a combined nine years in isolation, and one of them co-directed this film.

Aguilas –  Along the scorching desert border in Arizona, it is estimated that only one out of every five missing migrants are ever found. ÁGUILAS is the story of one group of searchers, the Aguilas del Desierto.

The Unlikely Fan – “She’s a Sri Lankan born, Dallas-based, retired teacher and mother. She’s also crazy about basketball. Meet “The Unlikely Fan” who knows a thing or two about hoops.