Destroying Indigenous Cultures

Gazprom and the Nenets

Russian Gas, the new documentary by Belgian director Sergio Ghizzardi, shows the collision of past and present. But in more ways than he had initially intended.

Trying to survive.

When production on the film set out, the goal was to contrast the lifestyle of the nomadic Nenet people who live on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula with Gazprom’s exploitation of the massive natural gas reserves beneath it.

Ghizzardi and his team travelled with the Nenet on their annual migration, capturing the people’s traditional way of life, which revolves around their reindeer herds.

We see how the Nenet have done things for centuries. And we see how the developed world has changed their practices, for better and worse.

First and foremost, Russian Gas showcases the Nenet people’s resilience, exemplified by their ingenious efforts to survive the massive transformation of the Arctic landscape wrought by the petroleum industry.

Because the Nenet are tuned into the natural world by necessity, they register the negative impact of Gazprom’s presence with a sensitivity that researchers in the developed world need technical instruments to achieve.

As a result, their observations provide evidence of climate change that reinforces mainstream discourse on the subject while giving it a more human-scaled inflexion.

Unlike experts in the West who make dire pronouncements about the planet’s future, however, the Nenet do not have the luxury of scientific detachment. Even if their mode of existence is dying, they still need reasons to live.

Some of the most moving scenes in Russian Gas involve the son of one of the Nenet’s tribal leaders.

Like all of the nomad children, Albert Serotetto went to boarding school, meaning he was only herding reindeer during the three summer months.

Unlike them, he was also the first member of his family to get a university degree, which made it more likely that he would not return.

As Serotetto explains, though, years of working as a bureaucrat made him increasingly frustrated with how the Nenet were treated. So, he decided to use his education to help them in their struggle for survival.

Through Albert’s eyes, we recognise that government officials are trying to persuade the Nenet to make decisions that will make it easier to drive them from their ancestral lands.

Since the film also spends a good deal of time with Albert’s father, Vassily, the head of the first band of the Nenet, we perceive that Albert’s bearing derives from his upbringing amid the nomads, not the years he spent in modern society.

Although Albert and Vassily are strikingly different on the surface, they share a clear-eyed pragmatism and steely determination. Stopping the exploitation of the Yamal Pensinula’s gas reserves was never a realistic goal.

The developed world of today has about as much chance of overcoming dependence on fossil fuels as an opioid addict does of getting sober. The only thing that will bring lasting change is to cut off the supply. And so long as a profit is to be made, any breaks will be temporary at best.

To Ghizzardi’s credit, Russian Gas finds resources of hope amid this seemingly hopeless situation. Documenting the Nenet people in a time of existential crisis ensures that the lessons they have to teach us will not disappear with their traditional way of life.

The discipline of anthropology has aspired to perform the work of conservation since it came into being in the nineteenth century, for better or worse. Luckily, Russian Gas falls squarely on the side of better.

Instead of celebrating a pure conception of traditional ways, which almost inevitably leads to their intellectual and economic subjugation, Russian Gas shows the compromises that the Nenet have already made to continue their nomadic existence.

The profoundly problematic glorification of the primitive that has plagued so much of that research is absent. Yes, the Nenet’s world is collapsing. But so is our world.

Although the tribe’s experience might be radically different from what we encounter in the urban centres of the developed world, the predicament they face is one we will all have to contend with soon enough.

The primary way Russian Gas avoids the trap of anthropological exoticism is by counterbalancing the story of the Nenet with one centred on the petroleum industry itself.

Because the infrastructure that most visibly intrudes on the Arctic wilderness is devoted to transporting gas far away from Yamal, Ghizzardi focused on the investment in keeping a northeast sea route navigable.

Interviews with Diana Kidzhi, a young woman in charge of an icebreaker, remind us that pride in doing a job well has intrinsic value, whatever we may think of that job’s broader implications.

No matter how bad we know the use of fossil fuels to be and how destructive it is to promote their continued exploitation, it makes no sense to blame someone like Kidzhi.

As Ghizzardi has explained when discussing the film, trying to achieve a journalistic balance of competing views provided surprising opportunities to communicate with ordinary Russians about their work.

In the West, we don’t expect to see everyday Russians represented in the way they are here. Thus, Russian Gas serves an anti-propagandistic function despite its sympathies with the Nenet.

This brings us to the other ways the documentary shows the collision of past and present.

Work on it was delayed by the pandemic and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. But planning for it clearly preceded both COVID and the current war.

This imparts a datedness to Russian Gas. Not only does the Nenet’s traditional way of life seem to be on a different timeline, but so does the film’s narrative trajectory.

The ruptures that we can sense when watching Russian Gas, the impression that it is coming to us from a time and place lost to us forever, are communicated by Ghizzardi’s decision to use computer animation for sequences he could not film in person.

Documentary filmmakers usually privilege the position of participant observer, capturing otherwise impossible footage because they are willing to struggle alongside their subjects.

This approach lies at the core of the cinéma vérité aesthetic.

In the case of Russian Gas, Ghizzardi and his crew were willing to suffer the indignities of living in a group tent with nomads, eating raw meat and drinking reindeer blood.

The rewards for this degree of embeddedness are conversations that would have been distorted by filming in a studio and stunning drone footage of the Nenet and their herds.

Perhaps Ghizzardi hoped to achieve something similar in footage of Kidzhi’s icebreaker.

However, the pandemic and war made it logistically impossible to perform live-action filming for that portion of the film on par with its treatment of the Nenet.

The director could have tackled this problem by focusing more attention on the tribe, a decision which would have made sense both aesthetically and politically. Or he could have relied on more of a talking-head approach for the Russian content.

Instead, Ghizzardi made the radical decision to incorporate computer-generated sequences of the icebreaker moving through the Arctic Sea instead of the live-action ones he could not film.

The moment this fabricated content first appears in Russian Gas is deeply jarring.

After getting used to the look and feel of the exclusively cinéma vérité portion of the film, we suddenly see shots that look like the AI-upscaling of old photographs. The lines are too neat, and the surfaces too smooth.

Indeed, the ship and the human figures we see upon it have a distinctly uncanny appearance, like close-ups extracted from the establishing shots in James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic.

Instead of trying to make these computer-generated shots blend with the live-action footage as seamlessly impossible, Ghizzardi chose to accentuate their otherness.

There is a shot of the icebreaker’s prow cutting through sheets of ice that would have been almost impossible to film conventionally, even with the best access imaginable.

The overhead shots feel like they were captured not by hovering drones but by cameras running on invisible tracks in the sky.

Ghizzardi’s decision to let audiences perceive his loss of access to Russian content on an aesthetic level makes Russian Gas a more interesting film.

To include sequences that simulate reality instead of trying to capture it on film is to confront the existential crisis confronting documentary filmmaking with the same clarity that Russian Gas demonstrates in portraying the plight of the Nenet.

In a world where the objectivity of the camera lens – called an “objective” in most European languages – is as endangered as the traditional way of life of Arctic nomads, to pretend that the cinema verité approach can function as it did in its heyday would be the height of self-delusion.

That may be why Ghizzardi decided to double down on computer-generated sequences, using them not only to depict scenes that he was prevented by political turmoil from filming but ones that he could not have captured because they took place before work on Russian Gas began.

At one point, a tribal leader explains that the winter of 2013-2014 brought wild temperature swings to the Yamal Peninsula, with a premature thaw followed by fierce snowstorms that made it impossible for the reindeer to locate the lichen they needed. A great many reindeer died.

Ghizzardi could have relied exclusively on footage of this conversation, filmed inside the nomad’s tent, to communicate what happened, like the messenger in a Greek tragedy announcing that something terrible happened off stage.

Or he could have inserted some shots of talking heads, placing the event in a broader context.

Instead, he decided to use a computer-generated sequence, complete with harrowing close-ups of deer corpses and overhead shots of herds taken from a drone’s eye view, even though a drone was not required to take them.

These fabricated shots of the Nenet and their reindeer are even more unsettling than the ones we see of the icebreaker since we have already seen many live-action shots from similar angles by this point in the film.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Russian Gas is that the sequences featuring the Nenet and the computer-generated ones are so aesthetically appealing.

It’s almost as if Ghizzardi had wanted to create a montage effect, capturing the collision between two visual regimes with the same clarity that he documents the collision between the migrating Nenet and the pipeline they must navigate past.

Unfortunately, both regimes are still grounded in an economy for which hydrocarbon extraction, distribution, and consumption are indispensable.

As anybody who has been to a big server farm can tell you, the outwardly clean technology of the digital age depends on a background that remains distressingly dirty.

When we see the Nenet taking photographs of their children on mobile phones before sending them back to boarding school in the fall, we are bearing witness to their imbrication in a worldwide network that is burning through the planet’s remaining energy reserves much faster than alternative sources are coming on line.

That doesn’t mean the tribe’s quest to preserve its traditional way of life is any less important. But it poses hard questions about what should matter to us in the Late Anthropocene and why.

Russian Gas is challenging to watch. But that’s what makes it the kind of film we must watch right now.

Screenshot courtesy of Arte. All rights reserved.