02 April 2020

Ovsyanki: one last fire on the river

Miron (Yuri Tsurilo) and Aist (Igor Sergeev) in Ovsyanki

I recently watched the 2010 film Ovsyanki (literally, ‘The Buntings’, but rendered with the inept English title as Silent Souls) written and based on a novella by Denis Osokin, and directed by Aleksei Fedorchenko. I’ve got some very strong, but decidedly mixed feelings about this film. It purports to be a depiction of the dying culture of the Finnic Merya people of the Volga basin in central Russia, as seen through the eyes of two natives of Kostroma Oblast: a grieving widower Miron, the director of a paper mill who wants to give his dead wife a ‘traditional’ Merya riverside cremation; and his employee Aist, a middle-aged bachelor and poet who also had a connexion with the departed woman.

I have some mixed feelings about the concept, for starters. The Merya people were a real, historical tribe, which spoke a Finnic tongue closely related to the still-living Mari language. They are attested in a sixth-century source, Jordanes’ Getica, as one of the peoples alongside the neighbouring Mordvins who were conquered and subject to the rule of the Gothic king Ermanaric [or Aírmenareiks 𐌰𐌹𐍂𐌼𐌰𐌽𐌰𐍂𐌴𐌹𐌺𐍃]:
23. 116. Soon Geberich, king of the Goths, departed from human affairs and Ermanaric, noblest of the Amali, succeeded to the throne. He subdued many warlike peoples of the north and made them obey his laws, and some of our ancestors have justly compared him to Alexander the Great. Among the tribes he conquered were the Golthescytha, Thiudos, Inaunxis, Vasinabroncæ, Merens, Mordens, Imniscaris, Rogas, Tadzans, Athaul, Navego, Bubegenæ and Coldæ.
Conveniently for Osokin and Fedorchenko, these people were assimilated entirely and successfully into the Russian populace – a fact acknowledged ruefully by Aist in the film – and apart from a handful of toponyms very little actually remains of the Merya language or culture. The river-funeral and wedding rites described in the film seem to be, at best, very recent Romanticist attempts at neopagan reconstruction – if they are not, in fact, whole-cloth sexual wish-fulfilment fantasies on the part of Osokin and Fedorchenko. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are unworthy of consideration, but it does mean that we must treat the narrator as, to a certain degree, unreliable. The film becomes not so much genuine ethnography as the expression of a certain form of post-Soviet cultural insecurity and longing. It is quite believable that people who live in Volga towns with Finnic names attempt to reconstruct a meaningful local, historically-rooted identity for themselves: there is, in fact, a local attempt to revive the Merya language the way Aist is seen to be doing in the film.

This much having been said, Ovsyanki is a deeply-touching and remarkably well-made film. Technically both a road movie and a buddy movie as well as a retrospective romance between Miron and his wife Tanya, Ovsyanki seems to imbue these almost-misleading genre labels with a defying sense of middle-aged male pathos. Fedorchenko is a fan of long static takes, slow pans and a range of focus which provide the film a strong slice-of-life sense, and he uses these to convincingly convey a number of strong emotional effects: grief and humour and sensuality. The score of the film is understated and sombre; and the colours largely cool and muted – the bright yellows and oranges are reserved for Aist’s flashback memories of his childhood life, before his mother died and his father fell into depression.

The story itself is fairly simple, but it runs deep and is made to carry a great deal of thematic weight. Miron (Yuri Tsurilo) asks Aist (Igor Sergeev) to assist him in cremating Tanya (Yuliya Aug), which he wants to be as quiet and as private an affair as possible. Aist takes along the two buntings he bought, afraid that if he leaves them alone for days that they will starve to death. Miron processes his grief by telling Aist the intimate details of his marriage with Tanya, a kind of wake observance which Aist calls ‘smoking’. They bathe and decorate Tanya’s body, wrap it in a blanket and bundle it into the back of Miron’s car, and set off for Gorbatov on the Oka River, which is the preferred site for riverside cremations. As they proceed, Miron reminisces about Tanya, and Aist recalls his father the poet (Viktor Suhorukov), and how the death of his mother affected him. They get to Gorbatov and perform the rite, but Miron gets lost on the way home to Neya and the film takes a very different turn for the two men, who, as Aist tells us early on in the film, are fated not to make it home.

As with Shaman (and, indeed, with many films made by ethnic minority peoples under the Soviets – like Baksy, Shal and even Baikonur), a key theme here is the juxtaposition and clash of a primordial and protean antiquity with industrial modernity. The key difference here, is that the films made by these existing cultures tend to portray their own antiquities as having a firm reality: the life of the aul, the fight for survival on the taiga, the abiding love of Nazira for Gagarin. Industrial technology is portrayed as something aberrant, something less than real, or somehow contingent in its ability to solve problems.

Ovsyanki differs markedly from this, in that it portrays a dying or dead culture which dreams of resurrection. It seems noteworthy that the film presents us with a close relationship between the vital life of the culture – expressed as marriage and fertility rituals – and the funerary rites surrounding death. Tanya’s dead body is adorned like a new bride’s before she is carried out of the house. Miron tells Aist he took delight in bathing his wife in vodka while she was alive; and Miron and Aist do the same thing to her, dead, on the pyre as they prepare to cremate her.

There is a definite insecurity to Aist’s (and his father’s) poetic whims, and one which seems doomed to be swept away by the river of time. In Ovsyanki, it is modern, industrial society which is real, and the Meryan ethnofuturist dream which seems to belong to the ephemera – or else to some eschatological state of completion outside of history. Aist even says this explicitly toward the end of the film. Aist’s father writes his Romantic Merya poems on a Soviet typewriter – his most beloved possession, which also gets a river burial. Tanya is cremated with a toy rubber hedgehog bracelet around her wrist, bought at a magazin. The lumber for the pyre consists of axe-handles, bought in bulk at a hardware store. The holy places of the Merya are dominated by steel bridges, industrial parks, concrete lots. Natural scenery is present in this movie – and lots of it – but it is always out of the centre of focus, cut through or else otherwise dependent on the industrialisation which seems to be the dominant force. Even so, water is given a particular prominence and power in the film, and the Volga and the Oka rivers which are so important to the film’s Merya spirituality seem to have the last say – or at least, the main characters hope that they do. The paganism of the film is poignant in its deliberate state of incompletion and uncertainty, but at the same time profoundly pessimistic with regards to its own historical place.

I enjoyed Ovsyanki, despite its toying on the very ragged edge, without quite managing to fall into, the trap of pretentiousness. The more so since the rites that Osokin and Fedorchenko ascribe to the Merya people appear to be fictitious. Certainly it’s an art-house film, and it knows which audience it’s meant for. But it’s concise and meaningful, and it actually earns its keep as far as storytelling goes: everything that Aist sets up for us in the narration, manages some sort of payoff in the action and imagery in the film. Even the two buntings which Aist brings with him, and which are always on the seat of Miron’s car throughout the movie – and which serve as symbols of spirituality and feminine genius in several different ways – have a significant rôle to play in the film’s conclusion. I found it to be a profound and moving film, and it’s certainly worth watching once.

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