By Vlada Lodesk, Graduate Student, The Media School
Ivanna is a young Nenets woman. A mother of five children. A nomad that lives in the severe northern Arctic tundra. The image that immediately pops up in our minds following such a description has been constructed by documentary filmmaking for years—starting from the iconic Flaherty’s film Nanook of the North. But that image of a traditional Arctic nomadic family is not something you should expect from Life of Ivanna. Because Ivanna is a single mom and copes with both household duties and traditionally male chores remarkably while smoking one cigarette after another and dreaming of an apartment in the city. As I’ve learned later from a post-screening Q&A discussion with Dr. Marya Rozanova-Smith (George Washington University) and Dr. Stephanie Kane (Indiana University), Ivanna’s family is not typical for the Nenets population.
Nor is this film a typical representation of the Nenets lifestyle, which makes it a really unique experience for the audience. Right before the screening, the director Renato Serrano asked the viewers to keep two words in mind while watching the film—empathy and intimacy. Life of Ivanna delivered us exactly that—a story that is most rewarding when experienced through the senses, rather than the mind. The style choices made by Serrano help the audience live through such an experience. The camera is often set on the eye level of a child, which immediately takes away any possibility for the critical commentary of the image and leaves us with curious observations. The sequences are often edited in a way that severity—be it of Ivanna’s choice of words or the raging weather—exists side by side with tenderness of motherly love or quiet Arctic night.
Life of Ivanna is not quite an ethnographic story that focuses on how urbanization and technology destroy the traditional Nenets lifestyle. Quite the contrary—it opens up the world where the brutal northern mode of life coexists with modernity. Ivanna and her kids live in a canvas house on skis – a Nenets version of a trailer – and migrate from one spot to another only with the help of reindeer. But they still wash their hair with Head&Shoulders. The kids use knives and sticks to play with, but they still listen and dance to Russian pop songs. Such a juxtaposition of two worlds that seem so far apart makes the audience question their biases: what does contemporary indigenous lifestyle really looks like? And why does it appear so similar but so different?
Life of Ivanna is not quite a gender studies case that draws attention to the hardships of being a woman. Again, maybe quite the contrary – Ivanna seems to cope with the tundra hardships without strain and drama. Drama comes in later when her husband appears on the screen. He drinks, he fights, and he spends his days playing computer games in a crumbling apartment in a tiny town at the border of the tundra. Why would he bother if his wife is better at everything and doesn’t really need him? That’s actually an interesting subversion of the traditional gender roles. During the Q&A, Dr. Marya Rozanova-Smith gave the audience a short overview of the liberation of Nenets women. In Soviet times the government freed them from household duties in order to find them useful state-related occupations. Since then, women have been adjusting to new reality whilst men got stuck between two worlds. They are detached from their traditional lifestyle and they can’t accept the modern one. The film seems to capture that struggle—it seems that Ivanna’s husband needs to be rescued, but Ivanna helps herself.
If a producer needed to pitch this documentary to someone in the industry, they might have used such a concept—Wonder woman meets Nomadland. Indeed, Ivanna is kind of a superhero roaming the Arctic. She drives a sleigh better than any man, gracefully conquers the North in heels, lulls her youngest to sleep with one arm, and drags on a cigarette with the other. But she is also a fragile romantic soul in search of a home and better life. We are taught to see characters from road movies blown away by the thrill of a journey and constant movement. We are expected to marvel at the powerful images of nature and feel a longing for that unobtainable life. That imagery is still present in the film through poetic panoramas of the mysterious tundra and almost repelling footage of an Arctic Russian city surrounded by garbage. But what’s interesting is that in this movie the character is not charmed by the nomadic lifestyle. This character is longing for another kind of life, a sedentary one and with a permanent home. Is Ivanna happy in her new home? I guess it’s not up to us to know.
But one thing is certain – any comparison or genre search for Life of Ivanna is irrelevant. And when you stop searching, you start seeing the film for it really is—an ode to a dreamer that keeps singing her song of searching for home, romance, and better life no matter the circumstances.