The arrival of director Milko Lazarov and producer Veselka Kiryakova in Yakutia may have seemed at first accidental and unintended. The initial idea was to find an Arctic location that would suit the poetic purposes of their film, accommodating a collective image of the Northerner. Chance brought them to the Siberian province, and their film, among other virtues, became an ethnographic portrait of a place in time. This single act of almost accidental discovery remains one of the most exciting aspects of filmmaking. Embarking on a journey with a vague idea of a destination, like one would go into a forest or a foreign land, letting one’s work be shaped by what occurs on the way. In this kind of filmmaking, the destination is often shaped by the path, and the process is as scary as it is exciting.
Ága (2018) invites us into the world of an Inuit family whose traditional lifestyle is threatened by modernity and climate change. The life cycles and stories occurring within one family seem to be the same in any other. Yet, each story is unique on its own. Lazarov’s opus is the result of personalising the universal and vice versa. Within the film’s minimalist microcosm is the history of human kind.
All shot in one take and on 35mm, Ága presents us with dream-like landscapes poetically surrounded by film gear – a sign that the images travelled to us without the slightest reframing of a single shot. An example of grandeur filmmaking, Ága is the final product of an Odyssey. Prior to the film’s UK Premiere at the Barbican Centre, we sat down with director Milko Lazarov and producer Veselka Kiryakova to discuss the making of their film.
Congratulations on this beautiful film. To start off, can you tell us a bit about how this story came to be, and what particularly interested you in setting your film in Yakutia?
M.L. I don’t remember exactly how I got the idea. I remember that I was already thinking about it when we went to meet the great Asen Balikci, the founder of visual anthropology. He spent many years living and working in the North, and he is well known there. We even met some of his former students who had film equipment given to them by Balikci. Anyway, after meeting him, I had this feeling that what I wanted to do was possible. He had made hundreds of films about the Northern people, and he talked about it with an ease that gave me the confidence I could pursue this project. So this is what I remember about the beginning of Ága. The working title of the film was Nanook at the time, as it is the most common name in the North. Vesi and I were looking for an aesthetic that would suit my style, and eventually we ended in Yakutia. The whole production process felt like a trap, but we saw great potential there. If you find yourself in a trap, you need to get out, and this is what filmmaking is about. You don’t make films with pleasure, at least I don’t. Filmmaking to me is the act of escaping something, most often the existential panic that comes with it. But yeah, that was the beginning of the film, and Vesi financed it. We shot on 35mm, without reframing. This is why you see the gate in the film. We decided to leave the framing pure, so that whatever the camera consumed would be what the spectator sees.
(Milko and Veselka on set, source Aga the movie)
V.K. The beginning for us was actually Sofia Meetings. Before that point, we didn’t know if we could make the film, but the idea was well received there. We also met our French co-producer, and the whole experience gave us the confidence that, from a production point of view, we can start the project and look for finance.
Veselka, I know that you trained as an editor in film school, and you are the editor of Ága as well as the producer. How did it feel to shift between those two roles?
V.K. Well, while one of my ears was on the phone, the other one was on the screen.
You two work a lot together. How did you meet?
M.L. We worked together on my first feature, and we also work together on TV projects. Vesi was one of my students at the Academy, perhaps my most talented student. At some point, I invited her to work on the production of my projects. She took the hardest path in becoming a producer, by directly diving into the deep. Can you imagine if your first gig as a producer is an international art project shot in Yakutia! I have no idea how she did it. But she did it brilliantly, all on her own.
V.K. Well, you don’t have a choice, you have to get it done. But this one wasn’t easy. I would spend hours every day at the border, trying to make sure that our footage was sent to France. Also I needed to make sure that everything we needed for the production was delivered to us.
M.L. It’s difficult to even rent a car in Yakutia. Finding a hotel for the crew is a massive difficulty there. They had never heard of the word ‘catering’ so you can imagine what was going on. Not to mention how expensive everything was.
V.K. For the locals, it was enough to have someone to cook us soup once a day, so everything was about logistics. But we were lucky, somehow everything was falling in its right place.
M.L. The film was being made. How Vesi managed all this is still a mystery to me.
V.K. Yeah, I don’t even know how.
Do you think perhaps those difficulties came partially due to the fact that you were the first big foreign production to make a fiction film about Yakutia?
V.K. Well, they work differently there. The Yakutian productions are small and if they have two friends and a camera, they call it a crew. But the Yakutian team was extremely devoted and they put a lot of heart in the film, which was very important to me.
How did the Yakutians react initially to the idea that a foreign crew was coming to make a film about their life?
M.L. We came with the clear idea that we are making a film that is not particularly about Yakutia. But they said ‘Well alright, but if you’re shooting here, how is your film not about Yakutia?’ They didn’t know that the location wouldn’t be established in the film. We covered the car registrations and initially wanted to change the language. But in the end, they said that they’d like to be a part of it, and I loved their language. We agreed to make it in Sakha, their regional language. We explained to them that the film portrays a collective image of the Northerner, and that the whole script is fictionalised. No one over there lives the way people live in Ága, or at least I haven’t seen this lifestyle there. It was just an aesthetic decision. I am convinced that life must imitate art and not the other way around.
Your film has often been compared to Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). Watching Ága for the first time, I felt like there was an interesting synchronicity between the two. While Nanook, as a documentary, fictionalised its environment, your fictional world bears documentary qualities.
M.L. I hear this often, and sometimes it sounds like people are accusing Flaherty. The documentary quality of the film comes from the fact that you believe what you’re seeing. You see people fishing and going about with their life, and it feels true to you. Ága is mostly compared to Flaherty’s film because our working title was Nanook. But yes, in a way this is the same Nanook a century later, and the Northern people are still oppressed by the greed of technology and modernity.
The right way is always where the energy and the charisma come from. The film leads you somewhere, and you have to follow it and be patient.
Were there any improvised moments in the film?
Milko and Veselka exchange looks and laugh.
M.L. Pretty much the whole film was an improvisation. We removed ⅔ of the script days before we started shooting. At the last moment, I found out we didn’t get a funding we had applied for, although everybody was certain we would. We ended up with €300 000 less than planned, weeks before we had to start shooting. So there was a high level of improvisation. That’s the life of an independent filmmaker outside of the US, often even there. In the first few days we saw how the talent of our main actress Feodosia (Sedna in the film) began to unravel, so she became our energy source. We started telling our stories through her. Then Mikhail (Nanook) caught up with her, and we turned to him. The right way is always where the energy and the charisma come from. The film leads you somewhere, and you have to follow it and be patient.
. (snap from the set of Ága, source Aga the film)
And how did you find your actors?
V.L. We had a few castings, including a dog casting. But the Yakutian acting style is very theatrical and dramatic, more similar to Chinese opera, and at first we weren’t sure how to work with this. But we chose our actress instantly. We saw her in a film made by her neighbour, who is a teacher in the village where they live.
M.L. She’s not a professional actress, she looks after the cows in her farm. But as we said, everyone makes films in Yakutia, and her neighbour made a film about her, called Bonfire that screened at Busan. (International Film Festival) And she was the most talented actress I have personally ever worked with. But we casted the rest of the actors.
V.K. Yeah, the main actor had missed his casting, so he came to another place. For the role of Hector, they had gathered about 50 dogs in a square, which they filmed and sent us the video.
M.L. And we instantly chose our dog, a wonderful actor. Bear in mind that all of it is shot in one take. How do you make an untrained dog do this in one take? And his owner was great as well.
How did locals react seeing Ága?
V.K.: They haven’t yet. The film still hasn’t been screened there as it doesn’t have a Russian distributor yet. So they are yet to see it.
M.L.: This is what we were trying to sort out today actually. We don’t want them to pay for it, but of course if you have a distributor, you need to pay them. Yakutians don’t have the money, and we want to organise a few screenings there. Actually, I want to take the opportunity to say that we were invited to a great festival in Chukotka which has only had two editions so far, and it’s perhaps the most prominent festival for Arctic cinema. We were very worried about how Ága would be received there, as the people at the festival were the same people this film was about. But do you know what happened, they gave us the grand prize.
V.K. Which is an audience award.
M.L. Yes, and to this day I get goosebumps thinking about it.
They may be foreigners, but we see ourselves on the screen. This is us, and this is our Ága.
That’s the biggest recognition you can hope for.
Yes, to us it was the biggest confirmation that we didn’t misrepresent them. There was a Yakutian film at the festival that had just won the St. George award in Moscow, which was revolutionary for Yakutian cinema, and they screened the film along with ours. They expected the Yakutian film to win. When it didn’t, they asked the audience how could they award the foreign production. And they said, “They may be foreigners, but we see ourselves on the screen. This is us, and this is our Ága.” I don’t know what we did, but we captured the temperature of their emotions, and they felt it back. That’s the biggest award for me, and it’s the only one that touched me deeply.
The Yakutians are a very pure people, and many take advantage of this. We had this feeling of guilt that we were doing the same. You know, “ok, play this instrument now,” and “do this thing.” Our cultural and visual languages are different, and it’s difficult to explain why exactly you need what you need. It’s just a different language. They are probably the last real Inuits, in Chukotka. You can’t find them in Canada anymore. And what is left from the Inuit life in Greenland is for touristic attraction. They speak Danish there. While in Chukotka they speak their own language, and maintain their traditions.
In Ága, it seems like this conflict between the modern and the traditional way of life is communicated through family values.
M.L. That’s the first thing you feel when you step your foot there. “We are coming to take you away.” Because there are diamond mines there, there’s petrol, and it’s full of natural resources. The greedy people want those resources. Step by step, they come in, they make those buildings where they accommodate you, and they take everything away from you. That’s what happens to minorities all around the world. So it was natural to pursue this topic. Three actors, a family. We reduced everything to the most minimal, and we observed why we wanted to film the North. And this was our answer. We could make the same film in the Rhodope mountains in Bulgaria, two old people, whose daughter lives in Spain. It’s the same story. But when you place it in the North, it becomes a metaphor. As there are no signs of temporality there, the film can be set in any era. Even the truck seems ancient. It was an aesthetic decision, because we wanted to show that it is a big issue, for us, not necessarily for them.
(snap from the set of Ága, source Aga the film)
And how did they receive the film in Bulgaria?
The screening room at Sofia Film Fest was historically full. But the film is yet to have its wide release in Bulgaria. The film is released in the cinemas on 29 March, so we’ll see. It’s not a film for the wide audience, we expect perhaps around 10 000 spectators. But the film was already released internationally in France, Germany, Poland, Luxembourg, etc. It will also be released in China, which makes us very happy.
With Ága, I had this thought in mind, that it’s the end of humanity, and I was filming the last family on earth.
I know you also just finished a TV series together, but before we wrap up, would you share a bit about your next film project?
V.K. Well, we’re starting preparations for it, but we’re expecting to have the script and treatment ready soon. We know that it will be set in the mountains in Bulgaria.
M.L. And that there will be goats! We’re testing different ideas now, to see which one resists. But I feel like doing something like this again, and exploring an important topic. Family, love. But not the social family, the last family on earth. With Ága, I had this thought in mind, that it’s the end of humanity, and I was filming the last family on earth. That gives you a different feeling. You’re witnessing a historical event, so how do you film it? I feel like doing something like this. Otherwise it’s not worth it. Filmmaking is demanding and it takes constant effort that lasts years. Why would you do it, if it isn’t important?
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After holding the UK premiere in London, New East Cinema is showing Ága in Manchester on 20 March.
The Bulgarian premiere of the film will follow on 29 March.
Interview by Teodosia Dobriyanova