It’s a great pleasure to encounter a rare and startling movie one year, and then see it reach the critical acclaim it deserves the following one. This is exactly what happened with Evgenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev’s now Oscar nominated documentary short Haulout. I first encountered the film when it played at the Berlinale Shorts 2022, where it easily made our top 10 picks of the festival. I was awe-struck by its evocation of life in a remote shack in northeast Russia, populated by a lone scientist, Maxim Chakilev, who spends three months a year studying the walruses. With a sweeping grandiosity fit for the subject, the New Yorker-presented film is a stunning, slow-burn exploration of the deleterious effects of climate change upon some of the most vulnerable creatures in the world. We talked to one half of the sibling duo, Evgenia, about the difficulties of shooting in remote locations, the advantage of having an indigenous perspective and how the film’s big reveal was devised.
I’d love to know how you got in touch with Maxim Chakilev in the first place. How did you come across the hut, and then what was the process of approaching him to make the film?
It took a few years. I’m a photographer and I was working on this long-term project on the indigenous community of Chukotka. Together with my brother, also named Maxim, we went to Enurmino village for a couple of years, following the hunters and the community. One day we were on the boat with the hunters, and we landed on this beach that looked very strange. It had this horrible smell, and the sand was very dark as if it was burned. In the middle was this hut.
I love photography. It’s the main thing I do. But for this story, it just wasn’t enough.
The hunters told us that there is a scientist who comes here and there are hundreds, thousands, of walruses coming out onto this beach. We hadn’t heard about it before and just thought that it sounds really interesting. We decided to come back to see the place and we were absolutely astonished by what we’d seen. I tried to make a photography series. But very quickly, we realised that this needed to be a film.
What could film express that photographs couldn’t?
This place is so special on so many levels. Just the whole atmosphere of the place — the elements, the sea, the wind, just the feel of it — needed sound. We needed to show the time and the movement of the animals, and the interactions between human animals. I love photography. It’s the main thing I do. But for this story, it just wasn’t enough.
Can you tell me why the haulout happens?
In an ideal world, walruses would not come out on land. They would migrate by water and rest on floating ice. They eat molluscs at the bottom of the ocean, rest on the ice, and continue their migration. This beach is close to the mollusc fields, so they come here to eat. But because there is no ice, they have no place to rest and have to haul out in these incredible numbers. It’s a very unnatural phenomenon.
What was it like getting the trust to be able to stay with Maxim, especially for quite a considerable length of time? He strikes me as a solitary man…
He is a solitary man, for sure. Because he’s been doing this for ten years, these three months every year is a special time for him. It’s almost like coming home. He has a very strong relationship with the animals. We got along really well from the beginning because we are from Yakutia, which borders Chukotka, and grew up in the tundra. Maxim is from Perm, on the Western side of the Ural mountains, but he became a local. I guess we just feel each other’s vibe. We both understand the rules of behaviour in these places because it’s also quite a spiritually charged place. There are these unspoken rules when you see and meet each other, and you know if you can get along.
Also, that year, 2020, was the hottest year on record in the Arctic. It was quite dangerous to be on your own because there were a lot of brown bears that didn’t go into hibernation as it was too warm. Maxim is unarmed so it just made sense to be with someone else. We got along really well. In this kind of survival mode, you tend to work as a team.
What logistics are involved with getting equipment up to Enurmino? I understood there was an initial flight from Moscow, then another flight and then a boat! Did you have to think about what you packed? I guess in this region you can’t just walk to the local camera shop if you break something?
We’re quite used to this type of environment from working in the Arctic. Participating in all types of exhibitions, on dogsleds, and whatnot. We live quite an adventurous life. But, of course, you need to plan everything in advance and have a backup plan for everything in terms of equipment. We were going very light; technology allows you to go very small with DSLR cameras. For charging we used a generator but there’s a big problem with this. Because walruses are in such an unnatural environment when on land, they are easily scared by anything that is foreign to them, like strange smells and sounds. Once walruses hear something they start panicking, so we had to be really careful with our battery usage. Sometimes we didn’t know the next time we could charge!
Walruses are easily scared by anything that is foreign to them, like strange smells and sounds.
You shoot a lot in low light and have panoramas and these close shots in the hut with a lot of contrast between blacks and whites. What kind of equipment did you bring to capture all this? I assume you switched lenses a lot.
I was shooting on a Canon DSLR camera with multiple lenses, both longer lenses and wider lenses on the inside. Then we recorded sound separately on Zoom Recorder. But a lot of the sound was made afterwards in post-production. In terms of equipment, it wasn’t that complicated, because, being a photographer transitioning between still and moving images, I just wanted to have this familiarity with this camera, so my hands would know what I was doing and it wouldn’t be distracting.
There is one absolutely mesmerising moment in the film that has seemingly taken everyone by surprise: Maxim opens the door to the hut and suddenly there are hundreds, if not thousands of walruses there. I went in totally blind when I watched this film in the cinema at the Berlinale 2022 and was really surprised. Was it always your intention to frame it in this way to suddenly jolt the audience?
This is something that came out in the edit. Because when we arrived there, filming was a free-fall, then it all came together in the cutting room. In terms of build-up, I just really wanted to have the space for these elements to come in and for the audience to really experience the atmosphere of the Arctic and this barren landscape, and the mystery of the place. I felt that if we introduced the walruses too early, you wouldn’t have this breathing space to take it in.
As for this moment of walruses appearing: when we were first in the hut the year before, we were sleeping, and I remember Max, my brother, went outside. When he came back, I was in my sleeping bag and I could hear him breathing really heavily and pacing inside the hut. He was like, “Hey, you have to see this.” I opened the door and there they were. This sea of walruses and the light were exactly the same — this blue light of dawn. It felt surreal like we were in a parallel universe. We hoped we could recreate those emotions again. We were lucky that the first time they surrounded us in the film it was early morning again.
We’re really grateful for this attention and to be part of this stream of conversation about climate change.
With this isolated hut and the diary entries, Maxim takes on a kind of Priest-like quality. What came to mind is Martin Scorsese’s Silence or Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. He’s obviously a scientist, but I could see him as an isolated preacher in another life. Does that make sense?
It totally does. There are so many kinds of ways to look at it. In general, scientists who dedicate their lives to these extended periods of observations in the field are obviously fanatical about their work and very dedicated. They do it year after year and all over the world. They pass these observations from one year to another for this continuity to happen. It’s this mission they have, without knowing if there will be recognition. It’s this silent, invisible labour which requires this religious dedication…
The Chukotka community call him the haulout keeper because, before the Russian colonisation of this land, the Chukchi people had a spiritual leader in every community. Walruses would haulout back in the day, but it would be very rare, and there would be just a couple thousand walruses. A shaman would live among the animals, making sure that they were not disturbed by humans. So there is this memory of a shaman-keeper in the community, so they call him the keeper. It’s just incredible to see how much respect he gets from the community.
Walruses know no borders, whether it’s Russia or Alaska or Canada, and their lives are being affected by climate change. What can governments do? Are there any short-term fixes they can implement or is it a more general problem to do with the overall effects of global warming?
I’m afraid it is the latter. It all depends on the ice, which is irreversible. It’s about what we do from here. Do we let it continue this way? Animals have to adapt to the ice-less world. It’s hard to say how they will adapt. All governments need to work towards mitigating climate change and do whatever it takes.
The Chukotka community call him the haulout keeper because, before Russian colonisation of this land, the Chukchi people had a spiritual leader in every community.
I’ve been following this film ever since we watched it at the Berlinale and it’s great to see it nominated for an Academy Award! What does this mean for you?
It feels quite surreal to be nominated. We’re really grateful for this attention and to be part of this stream of conversation about climate change. We need to tell stories from any angle we can and from any genre we can. I feel we’re part of this chorus of people, artists and scientists. I hope that this is a small contribution to this knowledge. This is what we set out to do and what we will continue to do.
Will you be in LA in March?
Yes. Maxim is also coming to the Red Carpet. All the way from Chukotka.
What are you working on next?
We’re continuing working in Arctic regions and developing projects and ideas. In my trajectory, each story leads to another one and I’m just building it brick by brick. I’m hoping I can continue the same stream with similar sensitivities and aesthetics. Just telling stories that are hard to do, that are not on the surface, and that are just very hard to access.
You can read all of DN’s Oscar interviews here!