Evgenia Arbugaeva: Born in Tiksi in the Russian Arctic in 1985, she is now based in London but remains deeply connected to her homeland. She has been a documentary photographer for over a decade; her work has been exhibited internationally and published in magazines including “The New Yorker”, “Time” and “National Geographic”. Haulout is her debut film.
Maxim Arbugaev: Born in Tiksi in the Russian Arctic in 1991, he is now based in Moscow. Before discovering his passion for filmmaking, he was a professional ice hockey player for 15 years. He graduated from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow in 2018. His films, which focus on sports and/or the Arctic, capture remote worlds and the people who inhabit them.
What was your starting point for “Haulout”?
Evgenia: As a photographer, I have been working on a project looking at places and communities in the coastal region of the Russian Arctic for many years. My brother Maxim and I are from the Republic of Yakutia in the Far East, and we were always curious to visit Chukotka, a neighbouring region.
In 2018 we arrived in one of the most remote coastal villages called Enurmino. We instantly felt welcomed in the community and kept returning for two years photographing its life, particularly the culture of whale and walrus hunting on which Chukchi people had been relying for centuries. One summer, during the hunt at sea, our boat landed at the beach, which looked strange. The sand was of dark colour. It smelled terrible and was full of bones. In the middle of it stood an old crumbling hut. We were told that walruses haul out on this beach in autumn and that a scientist comes and observes them every year. Next autumn we returned to meet the scientist, his name is Maxim as well. We stayed for two weeks with him and witnessed the walrus haulout. We were shocked by what we saw. The sheer amount of animals and the terror of the consequences of climate change were overwhelming. I tried to capture it in photographs.
On our way back, we kept talking about the need to tell this story more profoundly. I felt that photography as a medium just seemed to be not enough.
In 2020 we came back with an idea to make a film. We arrived together with the scientist this time, and three of us lived in the hut for three months until the end of his field season.
Do you have a favourite moment in the film? Which one and why this one?
Maxim: At around 4 am, we were sleeping in the hut. That night I struggled with nightmares and kept turning in my bunk bed. I was woken up by the weird and increasingly loud sounds outside. I quickly put on a jacket and walked out to the cold part of the hut. When I opened the door, I saw tens of thousands of walruses in front of me. There was a feeling of panic in the air. Walruses were coming out in thousands from the sea. The steam from their bodies created fog. It all felt like a continuation of my dreams.
Back in the hut Evgenia and I quickly started to set up cameras, and I followed the scientist as he opened the door to see the animals. I was anxious and excited because we had been anticipating this moment for more than a month, and I was already envisioning this scene in my head. I knew how vital this scene would be for the film. My main goal was to capture the scientist’s emotions during his first close meeting with walruses. I did not anticipate that it would be one long take. I guess my inner emotions and this dreamlike situation dictated the camera movement. By this time, we got used to each other with the protagonist so much that he felt comfortable with me being close, so the camera movement was smooth and calm. As often happens in documentary filmmaking, my hands and eyes were guided by intuition. This moment will stay with me.
What do you like about the short form?
Evgenia: To be honest, we didn’t have a particular idea of the film’s length when we were shooting. It was my first experience in filmmaking and a total free fall. We were driven by telling the story and preserving a sense of time and its pace as it felt when we were there in the hut in Chukotka. When editor Joshua Chadwick and I started editing, it became clear that it was a short film. The story was dictating it.
Maxim: I think it turned out to be an interesting contrast – the small size of the film and the massive issue it portrays. I appreciate that short form is open to experimentation, perhaps more than a full-length film. It liberates you in many ways, and the process feels more playful.
Photo © Dorothea Tuch
Photo © Roman Malyshev