Sakha’s amateur film stars Zoya Popova and Stepan Petrov in their own words

In casting the two leads for his film The Lord Eagle, director Eduard Novikov drew on two different veins of Sakha talent. The elderly couple at the heart of the film were played by Zoya Popova and Stepan Petrov. Popova is a classically trained theatre actor, who since the early 1990s has worked with Sakha folk performers as the founder of the Olonkho People’s Theatre in her native village of Nyurba. Since 2000, she has worked first as a director and then as an actor for the Sakha Drama Theatre in Yakutsk. Petrov, on the other hand, had no professional acting experience when Novikov cast him. Born in a remote village in 1945, he was a mechanic and served in the Soviet army, before working as a driver until his retirement in 2000. His casting in The Lord Eagle is indicative of Sakha cinema’s tradition of employing non-professional, local talent. The couple’s performances in The Lord Eagle bring its story of tradition and adaptation vividly to life.

Maria Sibiryakova, the curator of our Sakha Film season, spoke to both Zoya and Stepan about their work on the film and their relationship with Sakha cinema. Below is an edited transcript of their conversations, in which the two actors describe their experiences in their own words.

Zoya Popova

One day when I was getting ready for that day’s evening performance the director Eduard Novikov entered my dressing room in the Sakha Theatre and said that he would like me to be in his new film, The Lord Eagle. After reading the script I read the original story on which it was based — The Larch that Grew Old with Me by Vasily Yakovlev. The book was beautifully written and clearly by someone who really knew the life and minds of Sakha people.

I think the reason why my character turned out believable is because I tried to bring to life my own experiences. The film crew were amazing, it was a pleasure to work with them; they were all very young, some were the same age as my children, some the same age as my grandchildren. You could tell that all of them were driven by a single idea, and the whole team was like a family. I found working with the director Eduard Novikov very easy; he is a very tactful man who is at the same time quite firm and was direct in communicating what he wanted from the actors, which was very helpful.

Regarding my acting partner Stepan, who is not a professionally trained actor, the director had spent a great amount of time looking for the right person. He chose a person who in real life was just like the character he was supposed to play in the film. To my mind, actors who are not professionally trained act as they would in their real lives, without trying to get into the character’s skin and without trying to “play” the character. They act as they are, and they convey the character’s emotions so well because this is how they feel in reality. We professional actors are trained to portray various emotions we have never experienced in real life. I think young professional actors can learn a lot from non-professional actors.

One difficulty we encountered whilst filming was that we did not have a real live eagle on set, we had to imagine it was there. When I was a student in Moscow as part of my actor training, we were tasked with going to the city zoo and choose an animal to portray. I chose an eagle, as I was both amazed and scared by it. I remember standing in front of that mighty bird in its cage and thinking: how could anyone incarcerate such a freedom-loving animal? I felt like I could almost feel the eagle’s sorrow. Reflecting back, I think that the eagle, fifty years later, returned to me when making this film and I could still see his eyes and could sense his might and power on the set.

I think that every Sakha actor or creative person has a bit of shaman in them

Maybe because I grew up in a remote village, it is quite natural for me to connect and talk to animals and trees. As a student in Moscow, I remember missing the forest and nature very much. I used to go to the park, take my shoes off, and walk on the grass… I feel really relaxed and centred when I feel earth and grass under my feet. In general, Sakha people have always been very close to nature. We have a respectful and careful relationship with nature, animals, and trees, and I think to this day we continue to carry this in our hearts and minds. As I see it, this relationship with the natural world plays a significant role in how Sakha treat each other. For Sakha, it is a great sin when you disrespect, destroy, or damage someone, when you disrespect their nature. Sakha people in general value natural intellect and respectful manners. I also believe this comes from the Sakha language itself and how much of it is soaked in your skin and blood, as Sakha know that the language has its own spirit and breath. This is why we are careful with words; we refrain from talking too much or too loudly about animals, nature, or people. For example, even now I am somewhat afraid of animals with claws, like eagles, as I believe that they can both hold a grudge against you and be thankful to you, since they have their own souls. This you ought to respect.

The reason why Sakha films are becoming so popular, in my opinion, is because Sakha people have not left or lost nature, and although “progress” is ever present, we are still very much dependant on nature. I think this is what other people find interesting in Sakha films, because this is what humanity is losing — that connection with nature. I think every person, whatever their nationality, will connect with something that perhaps has been sitting there all this time, very deep in their souls, when they watch Sakha films. Perhaps without realising it, everyone wants to be closer to Nature; I mean Nature with a capital ‘N’, not just the natural world but also the power, the spirits, the soul that flows throughout the world. I am convinced that if you put some relaxing music on and tell a Sakha to close their eyes and ask them what they see, they will say Nature, whereas others perhaps will see their loved ones or other surroundings.

I also think — and this is merely my opinion, and I have never found any proof to this — that every Sakha actor or creative person has a bit of shaman in them. If you sit down and talk to someone who pursues creative work, there is often someone in their ancestry who used to heal people. As you know, shamans are unique people with incredible healing powers, and I think every Sakha actor has a bit of the shaman in them.

Stepan Petrov

Everything in life happens by chance, and one example of this is how I became an actor. It was the beginning of spring, and the film crew needed to film quickly before the snow melted. They were in urgent need of a lead actor. The director approached the playwright Prokopy Nogovitsyn for help. It happened that I knew Nogovitsyn, as I had been an extra in a film about the childhood of the first president of the Republic of Sakha, Michail Nikolaev. So, Nogovitsyn approached me with the suggestion to be in The Lord Eagle. I of course declined, but he sent my picture to the director anyway. A short time after, Eduard Novikov himself, along with cinematographer Semyon Amanatov, came to visit me in my village and tried to persuade me to be in the film. They led a proper campaign to convince me, they said we will show Sakha life and traditions to the whole world. I kept refusing, as I was scared to be in a film, but in hindsight, deep down I really wanted to. As the Russian saying goes: “every soldier wants to become a colonel”. After some time, I thought to myself, why not? We live only once, so I might as well try out what it is like to be in a film, so I agreed. I was 71 at the time.

We travelled to the location in the forest and filmed there for about two weeks, then we filmed over a number of days in summer at the Sakhafilm Studio in Yakutsk. Then, for the next year or so after filming, we spent a great deal of time doing the voice work. After that there was nothing for a long time. One day I was sitting at home when suddenly, like thunder on a clear summer’s day, Eduard called me and said that we, the cast and crew, were all going to Moscow with our film. Of course, I was quite shocked by all of that and immediately refused to go anywhere. I said Zoya can go, you guys can go, but they said they would not go anywhere without me. They left me no choice but to agree.

People often ask me: how did you do it? How did you make the character? I don’t know how to “make” or work on a role. I don’t know at all what an actor should do for that. I just read the script. I understand what I understand, but there are bits I don’t get at all. I am telling you here, that I don’t portray anyone, I just act as I am. Of course, I convey emotions, or so people tell me, but I cannot say I go through a lot of internal work and effort to do so, I just act as I am.

For The Lord Eagle, there was not much contribution from me, it was all down to the director. He told me: “do this, do that”, and I just did it. I didn’t add anything. If I wanted to “act” the director would say that this is not a theatre and that I should “act” like in real life. In some places I wanted to make things more dramatic, and he would say to me, just act normal.

I was scared to be in a film, but in hindsight, deep down I really wanted to. As the Russian saying goes: “every soldier wants to become a colonel”. After some time, I thought to myself, why not?

In reality, I am a bit older than my character Nikifor, as he is in his sixties. The story of The Lord Eagle is quite old, and I read the story on which the film is based when I was a child. Like Mikipper I have huge respect for the eagle, because from childhood I was taught how you should treat such animals, animals with claws. Like every Sakha person, I treat such animals with awe and respect and would never touch them; hence this theme, this belief, is something that is within me. Maybe perhaps because of this my acting was believable.

When it comes to the question of non-professional actors, in my opinion, talented people are everywhere, especially in places like small villages. When I was a child, I remember how women who used to come to visit my mother would have really animated conversations. They would discuss someone they knew, and in doing so they would become that person — portraying how that person had glanced at them, imitating their voice, body language, and posture. All of this was in a simple, everyday conversation. I was transfixed and used to watch these conversations like a show! There are many talented people in villages, but no one from such villages wants to become an actor; it is hard for people living in villages to change their way of lives to become actors. During the Soviet Union, they used to organise amateur theatres, and this is where people used to get involved in acting and they really enjoyed it. I used to participate in many events, reading poems and singing, and the more you are on the stage, the more comfortable you are. What I like the most is how, after a long summer of rest, you step on the stage again and feel the adrenaline rush.

I bet when people see me together with Zoya, they can tell straight away who is a trained actor and who is not. One thing to determine whether the actor is professional or not is their voice. I speak with almost a mewing voice, whereas Zoya’s voice is powerful, and she is great at conveying emotions and feelings, as she is trained to do so. When I watched Zoya’s scene where her character Oppuos hears how the eagle was shot, tears came down my cheeks.

Zoya, although a very well-regarded and experienced actor, never looked down on me, and never said I was not professional and couldn’t act. In fact, because of her support, I understood many things. She told me once never to argue with directors: all directors are “a bit strange” in their heads, and if they see something one way, you will never make them change their minds. Don’t argue, just do as you’re told. I really appreciate Zoya’s support. She really treated me as her older brother.

From the very beginning we were one team, the director Eduard, the assistant director Lyubov Borisova, the cinematographer Semyon Amanatov, and other members of the crew, we were as fingers on one hand. We have become brothers and sisters to each other, they now call me their grandfather. It has been great.

Zoya Popov and Stepan Petrov in The Lord Eagle (2018).

The fact that my first ever film received such recognition —the Grand Prix of the Moscow International Film Festival — was quite unbelievable. I come from a small village where no-one has ever performed in a major film, so it was all unbelievable. But it has happened to me, and I can’t deny that now. I think my birth star has guided me through life up to now so that I could arrive at this point. As a Sakha person, I believe each life has a destiny and is predetermined for something. I am thankful to Eduard, and the whole crew for supporting me and for treating me with understanding and respect. Whenever I come to Yakutsk, I come to the Sakhafilm studio. Lyuba [Lyubov Borisova] is very kind to me and treats me like her father, and all the guys from the film crew are in regular contact with me and check on me, so I feel at home there.

Since I started acting in films, people recognise me now, but in my village, I am the same old Stepan, nothing much has changed. Especially since my second film, [Borisova’s] The Sun Above Me Never Sets, people recognise me on the street in Yakutsk. We do this for them, so that they know about our culture; we try hard to do this for our younger generation. I am so proud of the children of our Republic. They say that these days there is no place in the world without a Sakha person, which is quite incredible. I am not an expert when it comes to politics, but I think people should know about the issues and problems small nations like ours face. This is not to complain, but to tell things like they are.

There are many reasons why Sakha film is attracting interest now. In my personal opinion, people outside of Sakha find our films different from the films they are used to. Sakha films can depict a very calm and peaceful life that flows slowly, whereas other films might show action, movement, fighting, conflict. It’s like when you enter a quiet room — your mind relaxes. It is like that with Sakha films. They are quiet, which often touches people’s hearts. I also think this is because we Sakha, like non-professional actors, show our life as it is. I think this is interesting. Sakha films have this power, authenticity, and emotion and this is what attracts people and touches their souls.

Watch The Lord Eagle as part of our season Sakha Film: On Nature’s Edge until 28th October.