Yuri Vella, in memoriam: Filming and Being Filmed

In September 2013, Yuri Vella’s death at the age of 65 was a harsh blow for all those who are concerned of the health of our planet,  the balance of the earth and the strive of small but rich cultures. Yuri Vella (1948-2013) was one of the individuals who contributed to these goals both through his thinking and through his action as a reindeer herder and a poet in the oil-devastated Western Siberian taiga.

Since 1990, he had put all his energy in building a dignified and worthy life in the taiga, close to the places where his grandmothers had lived, with his reindeers, his gods and his grandchildren. He did not want a satisfying life only for himself; he wished that his contemporaries and also his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren and their great-grandchildren could have a choice. He wished to protect the very existence of the taiga, so that they would have something to go back to… He knew that at some point the oil would be exhausted; then, the region would be deserted by those who have exploited it without keeping it safe. Then, the only ones who would still want to live there would be those who have no other home, no other place to go. The risk is that this place may be so polluted, so dilapidated, that life there might no longer be possible…

So Yuri Vella fought. He fought using his ideas: defending them with talented words, with intense poetry. And when necessary with spectacular actions, with bold interference, refusing the fatalism of the short-sighted, choosing to give the future a chance, slight as it may be. Grandchildren is a key word in this thinking. They illustrate innocence and frailty, the future and personal responsibility.

Grandchildren is a synonym for innocence and frailty, and often, especially in Yuri Vella’s poetry (Pains of the Forest), the word is coupled with “baby reindeer”. They elicit tenderness as small beings still unable to fight for themselves, beings that are their adults’ helpless victims although they are full of potential. They are future-bearers because they are active links in a chain – they will grow, have children and become wise grandfathers and grandmothers themselves. So when Yuri Vella speaks about grandchildren, he speaks about the future, about perspectives, about openness to what may or may not happen, depending on our deeds and on our ability to keep doors open. Because grandchildren will live in the world we leave for them. So grandchildren are also the incarnation of our responsibility towards our kin, towards the earth. They are a permanent reminder that whatever we do has consequences. Grandchildren are the meaning of life.

From the film The Last Monologue. Photo by Olga Kornienko

Being a reindeer herder and being responsible leads to the inevitability of action. To be a reindeer herder at the end of the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st in Western Siberia is a challenge: you must be responsible for those who are not. You are not only responsible for your herd, but for the wellbeing of the earth. Because if your pastures disappear and the places where the reindeer spend the rutting period are damaged, there will be no further herd. And hence no people living in the taiga and a nature that will only further decay because it lives through respectful interaction with humans. Yuri always emphasised that nature strived around the dwellings of men…

Vella was also aware that the people responsible for this waste were just ordinary people, not better nor worse than the average human being, but that they were put in a situation of irresponsibility and non-awareness. He attempted to raise awareness, not with real hopes, but with the wish to give a chance. One of his tools was motion pictures. He was convinced of the power of the visual media and attempted to use films as much as he could.  For him, films were multipurpose tools.

He was physically and mentally on both sides of the camera. Physically, for about five years, he used a camera on a daily basis. Later he entrusted this camera to his grandson Kolchu. His aim was to document  the lives of the natives in his time and in the smallest detail. This led to the development of a visual way of thinking which he very much enjoyed, because after this period (1995-2000) he watched films and documentaries differently. And he started to be mentally behind the camera, empathising with the filmmakers with whom he interacted.

Let me mention some of the uses of the camera in his actions.

  • The camera as protection. The world of the oil industry is a harsh and a dangerous one.  Meddling with LUKoil’s strategy can be dangerous. Yuri knew that as long as he was more dangerous for LUKoil dead than alive, he was protected. Attention from the media warranted this protective celebrity. He was not devoid of a very human vanity, and he also found satisfaction in feeding it. But most of all, his presence in visual media was a shield. Therefore, when there was danger related to some action he undertook, he was keen on having it documented with a camera, knowing that his enemies would be more careful in front of witnesses.

  • The camera as a way of gathering evidence. Words may be discussed, but also dismissed as self-interested lies. It is more difficult to maintain that nobody ever violated a territory if you have sound visual evidence of people being there.

  • The camera was a way of convincing people. He liked to talk in front of the camera, to the camera, and he was eloquent. He knew that even if he was not personally there anymore to defend his ideas, they would remain thanks to the camera, and be shown in different parts of the world.

He befriended filmmakers. For this festival session dedicated to his living memory, we invited the closest of his filmmaker friends, ones who have been on his camps numerous times and whom he called whenever he needed a camera.  Anthropologist Stephan Dudeck is a long-term friend. Olga Kornienko lived in Siberia, not very far from Yuri’s place, and is specialised in filming the Khanty-Mansi area natives – he often asked her to be present in his life to record it.  Liivo Niglas, while living in Estonia, was always disposed to answer his calls. These filmmaker friends of Yuri Vella and their materials will lead us into a discussion focusing on Yuri and on the relationship between him and their cameras.