The transformative power of cinema is such that a sunny SoCal summer day can suddenly become an afternoon on the Russian Siberian tundra, thanks to the wholly unique and transporting “White Moss,” directed by Vladimir Tumaev. The LA Film Fest World Fiction jury awarded a special mention to this immersion into the culture of the Nenets reindeer herders, an exploration of this tribe that is far from just an ethnography or travelogue. A high stakes romantic drama set against the intersection of ancient and modern culture, “White Moss” illustrates how some experiences and emotions are universal.
An opening sequence illustrates how the Nenets are connected to the rest of the world—every year, a helicopter picks up children to send them off to school in the village or city. A small but hardy group remain in the temporary nomadic camp to keep the reindeer tradition alive, migrating with the herd. Our leading man, Aloysha, has an overbearing mother who is as anxious for him to be married as he is not. She takes matters into her own hands and selects for him a wife from another camp, the beautiful Savane, and brings her home.
Savane is initially happy and excited to be married and meet her new husband, but Aloysha silently rejects her and Savane grows bitter and cold. Small clues, a photograph, a mention of a name, unfold to reveal that Aloysha has long ago promised himself to a girl named Aniko from his tribe, though she now lives in the city. When her mother is killed by a wolf, Aniko and two other children of the tribe return to visit their families, and my, how things have changed. While Aloysha and Savane wear the traditional clothes and boots of the Nenets and sleep in their reindeer skin teepees, Aniko and the others are fully modernized and styled to the max, flossing in stiletto boots, down jackets, and designer purses. Aniko is more concerned about her iPhone reception than she is with reuniting with Aloysha, or her father for that matter.
This mix of the old and the new is what makes “White Moss” such a remarkable artifact: it captures this specific moment in time where new and old technologies and ideologies meet. The Nenets use sleds pulled by reindeer and also drive snowmobiles; they sleep in teepees but have iPads and cell phones (selfies truly are universal). Observing the way that technology is used by the Nenets is fascinating, because they incorporate it into their traditional lives seamlessly, but don’t let it overtake their traditional way of life.
The first half of the film is remarkable, slowly revealing the conflicts in this small tribe, developing a simmering drama between Savane, Aloysha and his mother that calls to mind the excellent Inuit film “The Fast Runner.” But, the second half is hampered by a tendency to go too far into extreme melodrama. And while the film fascinatingly explores the intersection of old and new, it becomes clear that what it truly values is the old. The estranged children of the tribe are shown to be materialistic monsters, who think only of the reindeer for their monetary value, not in the way Nenets live with and use the reindeer for every part.
“White Moss” is enjoyable for its anthropological appeal, but the story of love triangles, jealousy, overbearing mothers, and the inexorable march of time is skillfully executed against this backdrop. Though it is an escape into this vastly different culture, once we are there it’s clear that human emotion and drama exist in much the same way, no matter where you are. [B+]