Hot Doc Review: The Tundra Book. A Tale of Vukvukai, the Little Rock [ Aleksei Vakhrushev, 105 minutes, Russia, 2012]

The following review is written by our friend and fellow documentary lover Joe from Mechanical Forest Sound, check out his blog for Hot Doc reviews, exceptional live recording and probably a helluva lot more thought out writings

Mother Nature, let the herd be ever well.” It’s no surprise that the Chukchi people’s prayers might be reindeer-centric — in the blank, treeless tundra of northeastern Siberia, there’s not a lot else to sustain life. Taking a largely hands-off observational approach, this film takes us into the world of an extended family of reindeer herders, eking out a living in the unforgiving arctic. It’s certainly not all grim — the adorably ewok-like children have lots of time for play before falling into the busy life of their parents.

Cajoling, shouting and bringing in wayward individualists looking for some alone time, patriarch Vukvukai doesn’t always come off as a likeable guy. He watches and treats his extended family just like his herd — as something needing to be ordered around and watched constantly. Vukvukai is our focal point, but by dwelling on him, we don’t get any other sharply-drawn characters, which is one of the film’s biggest flaws.

And it’s interesting, of course, to consider what the film does and doesn’t show us — just as there are no guns and no predators in sight threatening the herd, besides a tractor and a plane passing by overhead, there are very few signs of modernity, which makes me curious as to whether the director was trying to present a sort of airbrushed anthropological view of the Chukchi. The whimsical chapter titles feed into that a bit as well.

It’s only at the end, when Vukvukai is fretting over the children being herded into a helicopter to be taken away to school that we feel any tension between modern Russian and ancient Chukchi ways. (And here in Canada, the sight of the words “residential school” tends to send a chill down the spine.)

That this isn’t the most interesting documentary I’ve seen about nomadic herders probably says more about my film-watching habits than about this doc’s intrinsic value. There’s some nice — if intensely snow-bright — scenery to behold, and I don’t mind the languid, observational pace. Those with short attention spans might want to give this a miss, however.

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Screens: Sun, Apr 29, 6:00 PM @ TIFF Lightbox 4; Tue, May 1, 1:00 PM @ TIFF Bell Lightbox 4

Posted on by Ricky in Hot Docs

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Britpop lovin Chinaman, consumer of all things irrelevant. Toronto Raptors fan.