Life among the Nyvkhi


A Piebald Dog Running on the Edge of the Sea

Directed by Karen Gevorkian

From September 10 at Carlton Movie House, Melbourne

Reviewed by Peter Boyle

The "piebald dog running on the edge of the sea" is the Nyvkh name for a large rock off the coast of Sakhalin Island, in the Russian Far East. Local fishermen returning from expeditions into the icy sea know they have reached safety when the "piebald dog" comes into sight.

The Nyvkh are the indigenous people of northern Sakhalin and are not nearly as well known to the rest of the world as the Ainu in the south. There are only about 4700 Nyvkhi, and they would be even less known if not for a popular short story by Kirghizian-born writer Chingiz Aitmotov, who gained official and popular recognition in the Soviet Union.

Armenian film maker Karen Gevorkian began turning the story into a film 13 years ago, but the project was frozen by the Soviet authorities until 1989. Piebald Dog was completed in 1990 and went on to win the Grand Prix International Critics Prize at the 1991 Moscow International Film Festival.

Gevorkian uses this simple coming of age story of a Nyvkhi boy to offer us a vivid picture of the traditional lifestyle of the Nyvkh people. He blends ethnographic footage with dramatised sequences using a subdued documentary style (perhaps he goes too far by including a sonorous Russian voice-over for the sparse dialogue, all in the Nyvkh language).

In a curious way the two elements combine seamlessly even though much of the second half is quite obviously filmed in a studio. Winter in the Nyvkhi traditional lands is so severe that all human movements are restricted and ritual-like. And there is also plenty of real ritual behaviour too. All this lends a theatrical feel to the ethnographic footage.

Piebald Dog shows the hardness of the Nyvkhi traditional life and culture. It is not a sentimental tribute to the "noble savage". Life for a Nyvkh male is tough, but the Nyvkh woman's lot is tougher. Gevorkian says that he tried to convey accurately the world view and mentality of the Nyvkh. We are shown the Nyvkhi's precarious struggle against nature and their animism, which is born of this brutal reality.

But Aitmotov's story grapples with problems common to all humanity. Who are we? Where are we going? His outlook is basically optimistic, Gevorkian believes: humanity can survive if it takes responsibility for the future.

Unfortunately, the Nyvkhi's prospects may not be bright. Over the last couple of years they have been moving back to their traditional lands after being forcibly relocated in the 1960s. They still survive by fishing, hunting and gathering. Along with several tribal peoples, they face a very uncertain future as international mining corporations move in for the kill in this resource-rich part of Russia now "liberated" for the market.

(Also in for the kill is BHP, which recently lost a tender to exploit a large natural gas field on Sakhalin. BHP agents are lobbying for the tender to be reopened, according to the March issue of Australian Business Monthly.)

Yevgeny Galichanin, president of the Russian Public Academy of Science, has observed that in this part of Russia there is a mind set like that in a gold rush. "Not only will people sell their own country — they'd sell their own mother. It's scary."

Ecological disaster has already struck Sakhalin Island. For the last few years during August and September hundreds of thousands of dead salmon have clogged the coast, killed in futile attempts to get to spawning grounds in now dried up and poisoned rivers.