Maciej Tsuske: I feel sorry for the whales, but I feel sorry for people just as much

Polish documentary filmmaker saw Chukotka, &# 171; balancing on the brink of survival&# 187;

Harpoons of Chukchi hunters fly into the water, getting stuck in the body of a huge whale, and the space around the victim turns red.
This is one of the most dramatic moments in the new documentary The Whale From Lorino. The film, directed by Maciej Cuske, is shown these days in New York as part of the virtual program of Polish cinema Millennium Docs Against Gravity (MDAG). Available for streaming across America ends on December 16.
The organizers of the action, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens and the Polish Cultural Institute New York, have chosen five of the most interesting films that were included in the program of the festival of the same name, which is held in Poland every year for almost two ten years.
MDAG is not only the largest documentary festival in Poland, it is also unique in its format. This is the only film screening in Europe that takes place simultaneously in seven cities, namely Warsaw, Gdynia, Wroclaw, Katowice, Bydgoszcz, Lublin and Poznan.
The world premiere of Whale from Lorino, one of the brightest Polish documentaries of recent times, took place last year at the largest international documentary film festival in Amsterdam (IDFA).
Director Machei Tsuske spent about three months in the most remote and inaccessible region of Russia – Chukotka, where he plunged into the daily life of the Chukchi-whalers living in coastal areas.
“The harsh and beautiful film by Machei Tsuske is a stormy ethnographic immersion in a gloomy world, balancing on the brink of survival,” the press release of the film says, “simultaneously evoking the romantic optimism of The Man of the Aran Islands by Robert Flaherty and the ecological pessimism of Dersu Uzala Akira Kurosawa “.
The Chukchi, one of the oldest small peoples of Siberia, have lived in Chukotka for many centuries. One of their most important traditional trades is whale hunting, whose uncertain prospects for survival are so worrisome for environmentalists around the world. As described in the film, for the Chukchi, whale hunting is not a whim, not a source of profit, but a necessary condition for survival in the long months of a harsh winter. When spring comes, and the mean polar sun begins to warm up, hunters go out with binoculars to the ocean shore in the hope of seeing a whale. When they detect the appearance of a huge marine inhabitant in the coastal waters, then the motors of the boats will roar, and the men of the village with harpoons and guns at the ready will rush in pursuit.
Meanwhile, wives and children await the return of the whalers with their prey. While the wait lasts, people are forced to buy scarce food in a local store on credit, since everyone in the village of Lorino knows each other. On the central square, a bust of Lenin reminds of the Soviet past…

&# 171; Keith from Lorino&# 187 ;. Courtesy photo

Director Maciej Tsuske was born in 1972 in Bydgoszcz, where he lives to this day. In 2004 he graduated from the Andrzej Wajda School of Film Directing in Warsaw. He shot, among others, the films The Old Bookstore, The Electric Train, In the Sky and on Earth, The Decalogue III, Andrzej Wajda: The Motor!, Far from the City and others. Maciej conducts classes for young filmmakers in various cities in Poland. Since 2012 he has been directing documentary film courses at the Warsaw Film School.
Correspondent of the Russian service “Voice of America” ​​on Zoom spoke with the director Maciej Tsuske, who is in Bydgoszcz.
Oleg Sulkin: Machei, why did you decide to make a film about the village of Chukchi-whalers?

Maciej Tsuske: I feel sorry for the whales, but I feel sorry for people just as much

Machei Tsuske: I am always looking for themes for my films with my heart. I choose stories that are close to me. For example, I made a film about my family. Several years ago I saw pictures of people living in the village of Lorino, the whaling capital of Chukotka. I was struck by their obvious poverty and signs of devastation around. I wondered: how can you live there? And I wanted to see everything with my own eyes and through a movie camera. In my film, I show the collision of two disappearing worlds – the Chukchi civilization and the population of amazing giant whales. I’m not sure if both of these worlds will survive.
O.S.: In the film, the villagers recall the Soviet past with nostalgia. Why, the salary was given on time, there was work, and now there is a large percentage of unemployed.
M.Ts .: This is true. But, alas, the Chukchi no longer remember how their ancestors lived in yarangas. They forget their ancient culture, their language. In this regard, they are almost all a product of the Soviet era..

&# 171; Keith from Lorino&# 187 ;. Courtesy photo

O.S.: And what, you did not see a single inhabitant who would live in the yaranga?
M.Ts .: I saw one.
O.S.: Where, in Lorino?
M.Ts .: No, near Moscow.
O.S.: Under Moscow?!
M.Ts .: Yes. In the ethnopark “Nomad” in Khotkovo, near Moscow, live Umka, which in Chukchi means the White Bear, and his family. In general, yarangas were preserved among the continental Chukchi reindeer herders, who today roam the vastness of the tundra. They simply need portable housing. And the coastal Chukchi-whalers in Lorino and other villages of Chukotka have long been without yarangas..
O.S.: As far as I know, whaling is a hotly debated subject and is regulated around the world by annual quotas. Chukchi receive such a quota?
M.Ts .: I want to remind you that in Soviet times, the authorities forbade the Chukchi to hunt whales. Whale harvesting was carried out on an industrial scale by whaling vessels. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chukchi have been trying to restore their lost hunting traditions and skills. The wisdom of their ancestors and their faith in the future would be very useful to them today. For the Chukchi, hunting for whales, walruses, seals and other sea animals ensures their physical survival. They, conducting the so-called aboriginal fishery, are allowed to hunt about 150 whales a year throughout Chukotka. Note: they are not saying “kill” but “get.” Specifically, the residents of Lorino are allowed to hunt about 15 whales, because this is a large village, other villages are allowed to hunt three or four whales. For comparison, I will say that Norway, Japan, Denmark and the Faroe Islands catch much more whales. Whale meat is stored for the winter by burying it in holes. Permafrost – the perfect natural refrigerator.
O.S.: I confess, when I watched the episode of the whale hunt, my heart was bleeding. I felt very sorry for this ocean dweller, I wanted him to break free from captivity. I was rooting not for people, but for the whale. You, as the filmmaker, accept this reaction?
M.Ts .: It was difficult for me to film this episode myself. I feel sorry for the whales, but I feel sorry for people just as much. We can say that this is a natural situation in nature, when the strong overcomes the weak. Another thing is that humanity methodically displaces and destroys the animal world, and who knows how much time is still allotted to whales until they disappear from the face of the Earth. A world tragedy is unfolding before our eyes. It’s not just whales. In Lorino, we filmed an episode on a polar fox farm, where fur animals are kept in dirty little cages and fed with whale meat, putting the pieces on the top grate of the cage..

Taking a Little Time to Feel Sorry for Myself

&# 171; Keith from Lorino&# 187 ;. Courtesy photo

O.S.: Yes, this is a painful sight, a concentration camp for wild animals. Another example of barbaric human violence against nature.
M.Ts .: Only I hope that the audience will not blame the Chukchi for all the sins. After all, for them, I repeat, sea hunting and the sale of furs is a condition of material survival. Let’s look at the problem more broadly. Humanity thoughtlessly destroys nature and its inhabitants, pollutes the environment, and today we see a kind of response from nature. We are trying to defeat the coronavirus pandemic, that is, the tiny microorganisms that mow down people all over the planet. And we do not know what else awaits us all in the future.
O.S.: You show that life in a Chukchi village is difficult. Children in the local school are taught light and good, but what surrounds them in reality is far from beautiful theses. Children play on vacant lots with empty barrels of gasoline and huge whale bones. These images make you wonder.
M.Ts .: I begin the film with an ancient Chukchi legend. According to legend, humanity appeared from the marriage of the foremother with a whale. Humans and whales lived happily together for a long time until the day a man killed his whale brother. And from that time on, hunger and suffering came to Earth. I do not impose my point of view. But in the images of modern Chukotka, it seemed to me, the features of the apocalypse appear.
O.S.: Where exactly did you shoot?

Maciej Tsuske: I feel sorry for the whales, but I feel sorry for people just as much

M.Ts .: In addition to Lorino, in the Chukchi villages of Inchoun and Lavrentiya. There were four of us in the film crew: cameraman, sound engineer, myself and my Russian assistant Anastasia, who speaks good Polish..
O.S.: Did everything go smoothly with the filming organization??
M.Ts .: There were some rough edges in communication with the local authorities, which can probably be considered a reflection of the not very best current relations between Russia and Poland. At some point, the FSB was even going to expel us from the country. We filmed something wrong. But we managed to resolve the situation. I told them: listen, I have already shot films in Russia and it was never my goal to denigrate anything. We did a Polish evening at the House of Culture in the village of Lavrentiya, we had a good talk. I love Russian people, I am passionate about Russia. So I’m very glad that everything was sorted out..
O.S.: How viewers accept the film?
M.Ts .: After the premiere in Amsterdam, a woman from Russia came up to me and admitted that she had cried for the first time on a documentary. It is a pity, she said, that the film will never be shown in Russia. Curiously enough, I soon received an email from Vitaly Mansky, director and president of the Artdokfest film festival, who invited me with this film. Because of the covid, I could not come to Moscow, but I was told that the film was shown at the Oktyabr cinema, and it aroused great interest.

  • Oleg Sulkin

    Journalist, film critic, correspondent for the Russian Service «Voices of America» in New York.

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