Alisi Telengut is a award-winning animator and filmmaker based in Montreal. Her 2013 film, Tears of Inge, was named the Best Short Film at the 24th Stockholm Film Festival. Last month, her new short, Nutag-Homeland, was an Official Selection of the Sundance Film Festival, where it was presented in the Animation Spotlight. The film uses hand-painted animatics to depict the forced diaspora of the Kalmyk people from modern-day Kyrgyzstan during the second World War.
Nutag-Homeland continues to tour the international festival circuit, with screenings in March 2017 at the Omaha Film Festival and the 55th Ann Arbor Film Festival. Alisi Telengut spoke by e-mail with Sean L. Malin about her highly specific visual style, showing Nutag-Homeland at Sundance, and her relationship to the Kalmyk people.
Sean Malin: Although you are the primary voice of this film, independent filmmakers and documentarians often tell me that making a “personal” movie requires eating humble pie for the simplest of favors and appealing to old friends’ sympathies. It’s not just a process of finding the money anymore. Did you find that, in making this film and getting it seen, you were required to ask many favors directly?
Alisi Telengut: Yes, Nutag-Homeland was completed with lots of help. In the beginning stage, I got in touch with a few Kalmyk families and they agreed to help my research on the subject of the film, and I conducted a few interviews. The animatic (the plan of the animated film) was in fact based on the interviews. Throughout my research, the animatic had evolved, and I had about ten slightly different versions. For almost each of them, I received valuable feedback and comments from my friends and advisors.
I was very grateful that the post-production was completed by the Filmmaker Assistance Program of National Film Board of Canada (NFB). I did the sound design myself and I wanted to have specific locomotive soundtracks from the nineteen-forties in my film, but it was very difficult to find them. Then I had access to the sound library of NFB to get the specific sounds that I wanted. The sound design, colour correction and the final output were all done within this program.
SM: You hand-paint your animations, many hundreds of different versions of which are necessary for each of your films. Is there a painting medium that you have not yet used or practiced with that you would like to explore for future films, like the more traditional “Claymation” technique or the watercolor-inspired animations of The Snowman?
AT: I’ve tried various animation techniques such as “Claymation”, paint-on-glass, drawn-on-paper, et cetera when I was studying Film Animation at school. But I like working with oil pastels and oil stick, and sometimes with some other painting materials. For my future animation projects, I want to combine three-dimensional forms and objects with two-dimensional painted imagery.
SM: I see many descriptions of your films as “non-narrative,” or a “visual poem,” but I have not seen the terms “experimental” or “avant-garde” applied to them in my research. Would you describe Nutag-Homeland as an experimental film, or does that seem inappropriate to you?
AT: Yes, Nutag-Homeland is indeed an experimental film, or an avant-garde film. Without a linear narrative structure and the interviewed voices, the historical tragedy was expressed by elements of deportations, such as horses, trains and people, appearing and disappearing, to create an ambience and a dream from another world. At the same time, the straight ahead “under camera” animation technique is always experimental.
SM: How much experimental or non-narrative film do you watch for recreation? Do you enjoy avant-garde films? Do you particularly respect any contemporary filmmakers from Canada making art-movies like your own?
AT: I watch experimental films from time to time. In Montreal where I live, there are communities that hold screenings of independent, art and experimental work. Also, almost every year, I go to see some experimental programs at Festival du nouveau cinéma in Montreal. I have lots of respect for Chris Welsby, his work and the ideas behind them.
SM: Regarding the subject of your new movie, have you spent any time in the republic of Kalmykia or in Kyrgyzstan more generally? Can you describe the filmmaking culture there in terms of history and exposure to the Western world?
AT: I would love to visit Kalmykia and surrounding regions and countries, but I’ve never been there and I’m unable to describe the filmmaking culture over there. However, I’ve met and conducted interviews with the Kalmyk descendants. As Kalmyks in Russia, they immigrated to Paris during the war, and then as French citizens, they came to Quebec in the 70’s. Interestingly, they said that they always wanted to go back to their homeland, but at the same time, they consider themselves citizens of the world.
SM: Who are the primary cultural heroes and artists to deal with the Kalmyk people’s diaspora before you?
AT: There’s a book about this particular history in detail by a scholar of Kalmyk origin: The Kalmyks by Elza Bair Guchinova. Another book, The Deportation of Peoples in the Soviet Union by Nikloai Bougai, covers mass deportations of national groups, including Kalmyks. There are also folk songs by the Kalmyk singer Tsagaan Zam.
SM: If you had to make a list of supplementary texts to help someone engage with Nutag-Homeland, especially someone with no familiarity of the Republic of Kalmykia or the Kalmyk people, what books, essays, films, or music would make that list?
AT: As I mentioned, The Kalmyks and The Deportation of Peoples in the Soviet Union are important resources to know about Kalmyk people and the displacements. The film’s about diasporic experience and “the other”. I heard about the story of Moses when I was younger, and later I was very touched and inspired by the book Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority by Immanuel Levinas. He’s a French philosopher of Jewish Lithuanian origin. In terms of the idea of homeland and homecoming, I found inspiration in “Holderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister'” by Martin Heidegger.
SM: As I am a journalist completely unfamiliar with the Kalmyk people or their tragic mistreatment during WWII (other than a few days’ worth of research), I wonder what goes through your mind before agreeing to do interviews to promote your film. I would guess that very few American journalists have any prior concept of the importance of cultural recovery that your film holds for Kalmyk audiences. When doing interviews, do you anticipate complete ignorance like my own with laughter? Or does it upset you?
AT: As the primary voice of the film, if I don’t at least make an effort to promote it, then it might not even have a chance to get seen. Most people that I’ve encountered have never heard about the Kalmyks nor the deportations. It doesn’t upset me though – I’m used to explaining that part of history.
SM: Having taken on this subject in your work, do you feel a responsibility to speak up specifically about the murder and abuse of the Kalmyk when talking to journalists?
AT: Yes, I do have a responsibility, because I think that “the other” needs to be recognized. I’ve encountered journalists that are trying to know and expose the truth. The Kalmyks were among the fourteen ethnic groups that were punished through deportations, and nearly 120,000 Kalmyks by nationality were displaced. These deportations were a result of accusations by the Soviet Union of being Nazi accomplices and anti-Stalinists during World War II. The Kalmyks were not alone, and the exact number of ethnicities involved in the deportations became a problem when I was doing research. According to Guchinova and Bougai (the authors of the two books that I mentioned above), the deportations began as early as the 1920s, from the far east regions, Central Asia, to the Baltic regions and European northern territories of USSR. Thousands of families were forcibly relocated from their homes, including Koreans, Kurds, Turks, Armenians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Jews, Poles, ethnic Germans, Lithuanians, Latvians, and up to more than 60 nations.
SM: Nutag-Homeland was shot in a very different political time from the current one, especially in terms of the Canadian relationship with the United States. As a member of a collective, how has the atmosphere and creative charge between you and your colleagues changed in the time since you shot the film to now?
AT: At the time when Nutag-Homeland was shot, the refugee crisis became very serious. I realized that even though political time changes, it’s only temporary comparing to the theme of diaspora. I’m a member of the collective Art Embassy; however, my website is run on the Cargocollective, which is a personal publishing platform.
SM: To make a short film requires a lot of touring, a lot of educational screenings, and a lot of festival pairings with other films. How do you feel pairing Nutag-Homeland with the other films in the Animation Spotlight category affected the audience’s responses to your film at Sundance?
AT: I think the Animation Spotlight program at Sundance has something for everyone. From happy to sad stories, from hand-drawn to stop motion, there’s a variety of subjects and techniques. I feel Nutag-Homeland echoes with two other films in the program, Laughing Spider and Broken, in terms of political subjects and memories being expressed as animated shorts.
SM: I wonder, as a Jewish-American myself, how Jews, Armenians, Palestinians, Kurdistanis, or Native Americans would respond to the themes of diaspora, abuse, and forgottenness. Have you encountered any audience members with personal relationships to the film as you’ve been touring the world?
AT: Yes, I was very touched. Once after a screening, an audience member came to me, he said he’s originally from Romania, and he thanked me for making this film and he said his family were victims of the deportations. Then on different occasions, Polish and Estonian audience members said similar things. The film got screenings in countries and regions that I had never expected, such as Latvia, Croatia, and Serbia. Recently I got an invitation from Slovakia.
SM: Every single frame in your film is a different painting, which must mean that – between your many visual art pieces and films – you have thousands of loose pieces or animation cells lying around. Are they for sale? Do you exhibit the paintings themselves in galleries or museums, or do you only exhibit your work as a filmmaker?
AT: In fact I have nothing left at the end of a film except for the last frame. Because of the “under camera” animation process and technique, each frame is created and painted on top of the previous one. The entire film was shot on a single piece of paper fixed on a camera stand, while a digital camera was mounted on the top to take pictures when a frame was completed. As I animated more and more, the oil pastel accumulated on the same surface, and I had to remove them from time to time. So I don’t have thousands of paintings or animation cells, but a pile of oil pastel residue. You could see a bit of how I work here: