Of the short films screened in the Berlinale Shorts section at the 2022 Berlinale, the most remarkable were two seemingly very disparate films. Haulout, a documentary film examining different modes of research in Siberia, by the sibling team Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev, and the Jury Prize winner, the psychological drama Sunday Morning by Bruno Ribeiro that will be discussed in a separate text.
Siblings and filmmakers Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev come from Tiksi, a small Yakut town with a population of 5000, located more than 4300 kilometers from Moscow in the Arctic region, i.e., north of the Arctic Circle. The territory also includes parts of the Chukchi peninsula, the location of their first movie.
Their affinity with the environment is obvious and, as a result, the movie looks very attractive. Conscious of the charm of their native land, the Arbugaevs capture breath-taking nature scenery in a carefully planned narrative structure that is close to fiction storytelling. This is the case especially in tension building and viewer expectations, development of identification with a vaguely unspecified protagonist, and the final climax that in retrospect colors everything that happened up to that point.
The movie also involves a strong element of surprise, which is quite unusual in documentary films. Regardless of the narrative style, the filmmakers put even more emphasis on the mystery by revealing just the bare minimum of information about their film, whether it be a poster, film stills, a trailer or a brief synopsis, such as: “Follows a man waiting in his hut in the desolate expanse of the Russian Arctic. He is holding out in order to observe a natural event that occurs here, every year, but ocean warming is taking its toll.”
Without revealing the surprise, it is unfortunately impossible to write anything more substantial about the film so let me say that before reading the following text, you should definitely watch Haulout first.
Documentary or drama?
People don’t seem to belong here: coast without vegetation, a rusty abandoned shipwreck, miserable weather, howling wind and the loud roaring of the icy sea. The intense atmosphere of an inhospitable place introduced as “Chukotka, the Siberian Arctic.” A man suddenly appears from behind the shipwreck. Framed in wide shots, he looks tiny in contrast to the scenery around; this also hints at the main theme of the movie, being versus nature.
An unknown man wanders through the desolate landscape with no apparent goal. Then he records the following voice message: “September 7. Dense fog, I can't see them yet.” This seemingly inconspicuous moment quickly grabs the viewer’s attention and, because of the (non-)events up to this point, raises viewer expectations. What’s he waiting for? A classic narrative hook that fuels our interest in what comes next. And since almost all the shots are flawlessly composed (directed), the movie looks almost like fiction.
Even though documentary film has long since moved past the format of a report filled with talking heads, Haulout makes it hard to define any boundaries. In addition to the visual precision mentioned above, the difficulty lies in the way the filmmakers treat the protagonist. He is neither a portrait subject nor a guide presenting information. Rather, he is a lonely romantic wandering the Siberian wilderness, waiting for someone or something, taking refuge from the harsh climate in an old dingy cabin in the middle of nowhere. Since he is the only human character, from the first moment, we are invited to share in his experience.
Alone with one hundred thousand others
The film reveals its turning point at the fifth minute mark (relatively corresponds to the average turning point in feature films). The man wakes up in the middle of the night, hearing ominous and mysterious noises from the outside. He gets out of bed and walks to the door. The hand-held camera is now very dynamic, unlike before when it was always static, which works together with the narrative hook to build the tension to its peak, almost as in genre film. We see the man walk through the cabin in real time, the editing is absent and since it is dark, we find it hard to find our way in the environment, which only increases our identification with the protagonist. Finally, there is the stunning surprise. Through one of the doors, we can see along with the man an endless pack of groaning saber-tusk walruses that surround the building.
The following, two-minute shot is rather exceptional for its maximum fulfilment (exceeding) of expectations. The carefully built tension breaks down into an awe-inspiring image. At the same time, we keep thinking about what we are actually watching. This powerful moment of documentary “objectivity” was carefully orchestrated using the stylized form. For instance, the sound of the groaning walruses was there from the first moment we started approaching the cabin, but the sounds are more clearly identifiable when we see the animals closeup, otherwise it feels like vaguely horror-like (non-)diegetic sound design.
We are also given more information about the mysterious protagonist. He doesn’t seem to be afraid of the animals surrounding him. On the contrary, he goes closer and looks utterly fascinated. This is a man who is familiar with the situation and decided to investigate the walrus nesting grounds. This insight may sound obvious, but the movie does not reveal the protagonist’s background. By controlling the supply of information, the filmmakers also hold the viewer’s attention.
Next day, we see another unforgettable image. A drone shot that captures the landscape around the cabin from a sufficient height to allow us to see as much of the walrus population as possible. Simultaneously, we hear the man’s commentary as he records a message again and finally takes on the part of a voice-over narrator. “The coast is full. About 95 000 walruses, and another 6000 in the water. The sea is completely free of ice.” Here, the film assumes its documentary function.
This function is quickly replaced again as the movie pivots to showing “dead time” instead of giving us new information. A man is trying to pick specks of tobacco from old cigarette butts stored in a large glass container to roll a fresh cigarette. This continuous shot stretches for almost one minute, yet we cannot discern any clear message. It serves again as a way to identify with the protagonist, to experience his sense of boredom, waiting with nothing to do, while the walruses outside the windows keep on roaring. These moments become increasingly frequent in the second half of the film (e.g., the man is captured sleeping, having dinner) and the viewer starts questioning again what it is we are actually watching.
Suddenly, the animals are again in the background, and we feel man’s loneliness. In another scene, we get a sense of the extreme weather conditions when we see the bluish hue on his skin. Our mental identification with the protagonist is enriched again (the only human in the film, POV shot from binoculars, voice-over recordings) with a kind of primal human identification on a universal level involving basic experiences (e.g., cold, boredom, hunger, loneliness). There is also a tear falling down the man’s face – maybe it’s the wind, maybe it’s his grief over the dire state of the environment. Global warming leads to the loss of ice in the region so that migrating walruses cannot rest on the ice and often make it to shore in poor health. Once stressed out, they injure one another, and some may even die.
After our identification with the man, the film unexpectedly shifts to identification with the animals. The man is asleep in his bed and the camera follows his folded hands, then cuts to walrus flippers folded in a similar way, which results in a sense of mutuality. In another scene, the man finds a solitary walrus cub in the cabin. The two beings look at one another, while the camera captures their encounter as one of complete equality in the shot-countershot style. As the camera works to highlight the sense of kinship, it seems to convey the message that global warming is really an issue that involves all residents of our planet. The feeling of grief then intensifies as the camera examines dead animals left on the coast after the animal hordes leave. The man then uses anthropomorphic language and calls another walrus cub “orphan”.
The cabin is covered by snow at the end of the movie and, just like the animals, the man also leaves. Judging by his occasional recordings, we can guess that he stayed in the area for roughly two months. The protagonist moves through the landscape again, passing walrus bodies and then finds himself alone again. The film ends the same way it started. A wide shot of one man passing through. Tiny creature(s) versus mighty nature.
As a symbolic documentary epilogue, a text appears over the visuals to convey important facts about what we have just seen. The nameless protagonist was Maxim Chakilev, a marine biologist studying walrus migration for many years. We find out that the huge number of walruses is actually one of the negative consequences of climate change. The loss of ice forces the animals to stay longer on land where they become dangerous to one another. In 2020 when the film was made, over 600 animals died, the highest recorded number to date. The film that relied most on purely cinematic narrative and on the power of images, in the end delivers its final appeal as a knock-out punch with dry facts to maximize its emotional impact.
The Arbugaevs made an unconventional film that employs devices typical for fiction film (e.g., identification, tension building, deliberate and signifying film language) that can be reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s work. They don’t overwhelm the viewer with information. Instead, emotions are conveyed using compelling images and identification with the protagonist to really understand their situation. The power of natural phenomena is utilized to point out a major threat we face today, and the result stays with the viewer long after the film is over. Thanks to its style and subject matter, Haulout can succeed both at an environmental conference and with fans of narrative film.