Maappa and The Ungovernable Female Protagonists of Sakha Cinema

Adelaide McGinity-Peebles, Natalya Khokholova
The Sakha Republic, which has produced its own films for more than thirty years, has recently gained the attention of scholars of Russian and Eurasian cinemas globally (Damiens 2014, 2015; Strukov 2018; Romanova 2022; McGinity-Peebles 2022). Frequently, scholarship has highlighted the role of Sakha cinema in consolidating and promoting Sakha identities, histories, and culture against the historical context of imperial Russian and Soviet colonial oppression. However, little attention has been paid to the representation of female protagonists in Sakha cinema and their important role in Sakha identity building. This article seeks to fill this important scholarly lacuna, focusing on the figure of the ‘ungovernable’ female protagonist in Sakha cinema in four important examples: Maappa (Aleksei Romanov, 1986), Moi ubiitsa / My Killer (Kostas Marsan, 2016), Pugalo / Scarecrow (Dmitrii Davydov, 2020), and Ichchi / Spirit of Itchi (Kostas Marsan, 2020). In all four films, the female protagonists are viewed as horrifying and grotesque by their communities and are vilified as such. These Sakha figures of the “monstrous-feminine” (Creed 1993) seek vengeance as monsters or spectral entities, visually representing mother nature, which is likewise unruly. Although this coding of the female protagonist as a formidable force of nature is not exclusive to Sakha cinema, it is in fact a fundamental notion within Sakha culture. For example, all water bodies are considered ‘grandmother’ (ebe) and are respected and revered as such by the Sakha people. Overarchingly, our analysis shows that these female protagonists defy integration within the russified Sakha society and are therefore fundamental to the films’ agenda of championing Sakha culture. We argue, therefore, that these ‘ungovernable’ female protagonists function as a site of Sakha resistance in the face of colonial oppression. Furthermore, the ‘ungovernable female’ archetype has important implications beyond just Sakha cinema, and gestures to a cinematic resistance against colonial (and patriarchal) oppression globally.
Sakha cinema, Indigenous sovereignty, Indigenous cinema, womanhood, post-Soviet Russia, decolonisation.


Sakha Cultural Revival in Maappa (Aleksei Romanov, 1986)

The Problematic, Unruly Female Protagonist(s) of My Killer (Kostas Marsan, 2016)

Scarecrow (2020) and the Ostracised Female Healer

Sakha Female Vengeance in Spirit of Itchi (Kostas Marsan, 2020)






Suggested Citation


Sakha cinema has begun to attract wider scholarship in recent years, with publications focusing on its history (Damiens 2015), genres (Damiens 2014; Ivanilova and Majumdar 2023), local-global relations (Strukov 2018), cultural artefacts (Mészáros 2022; Romanova 2022), and post-coloniality (McGinity-Peebles 2022). However, scholarly works are yet to examine the ungovernable female protagonist – an important figure in Sakha cinema. In this article, we argue that this stalwart figure who refuses to conform or be subjugated to colonial systems of power functions as a repository of Sakha identity long repressed under successive Imperial Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russian regimes.1 Crucially, she challenges centuries-old Russian and Soviet cultural and political hegemony in Sakha (Yakutia), despite often facing rejection from her own Sakha community.2 Her presence is as old as Sakha cinema itself: she is the subject of the first Sakha-language film ever made – Maappa (1986) – which, as Sibiryakova (2022) states, “was the first attempt to reconstruct Sakha identity through film”. Maappa (discussed at length later in this article) revealed both the yearning for, and the ability of, cinema to promote long repressed Sakha cultural values and identity.

The link between Sakha cinema and Sakha identity was institutionalised in 1992 through the establishment of the Republic’s first state-owned studio, Sakhafilm. In his inaugural speech, Stepan Sivtsev-Dollu, head of Sakhafilm, declared the need “to emphasise the role of cinema in the spiritual revival of the people of the Sakha Republic” (Savvina 2017). Since then, cinema has been tasked with the consolidation and promotion of the Sakha language, identity, customs, history, and folklore. Of the ethnic republics in the Russian Federation that produce their own films, Sakha cinema is the most diverse in terms of genre and prolific in terms of the number of films produced.3 The Sakha film industry experienced a domestic boom in the 2000s (Savvina 2017) and by 2011, up to fifteen films per year were produced in the Republic, equivalent to the average yearly film output of Kazakhstan (McGinity-Peebles 2022). Consequently, the Sakha film industry gained the affectionate moniker ‘Sakhawood’ among its local population. This is especially noteworthy when one recalls that films have been shot on a shoestring budget of approximately one million roubles (£15,000)—which is comprised of a mix of private funds and stipends from the Republic—and the filmmakers and crews are a mix of professionally and non-professionally trained. Sakha films are generally made in the Sakha language with Russian subtitles added, which subverts the hegemony of the Russian language: less than half the population speak Sakha as their first language and UNESCO has deemed the language to be “vulnerable” (McGinity-Peebles 2022).

From 2016 onwards, Sakha cinema began to make a name for itself among national and international film festivals and critics. Films such as Ego dochʹ / His Daughter (Tatʹiana Everstova, Russian Federation, 2016), Koster na vetru / The Bonfire (Dmitrii Davydov, Russian Federation, 2016), and 24 snega / 24 Snow (Mikhail Barynin, Russian Federation, 2016), were shown at national and international film festivals celebrating Indigenous, Arctic, Asian, and Russian cinema. Meanwhile, in 2017, the Busan International Film Festival in Korea hosted a Sakha film showcase titled “Sakha Cinema: World of Magical Nature and Myth” comprising seven features and five shorts spanning three decades of Sakha filmmaking (McGinity-Peebles 2022). Sakha cinema’s ascent onto the national and global stage continued with Dmitrii Davydov’s Pugalo / Scarecrow (Russian Federation, 2020) winning the Grand Prize at Kinotavr Film Festival (Russia’s biggest film festival) as well as planned collaborations via the Arctic Indigenous Film Fund (AIFF), established in 2018.

The Sakha films that have performed particularly well on the global stage use lavish cinematography associated with the global art house genre and stories rooted in Sakha cultural and historical particularity. As we discuss, the deliberate aesthetic links fashioned between the local and the global in later Sakha cinema also subvert the ongoing Russian cultural hegemony within the Republic. Nonetheless, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has had various repercussions on Sakha filmmaking. The Sakha participation in international collaborations and cross-cultural initiatives such as the Arctic Indigenous Film Fund have halted. The war has also affected the scope and subjects of Sakha filmmaking. While Sakha cinema has since its inception addressed imperial Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet oppression implicitly, the first Sakha film to address historic Russian colonialism directly, Nuuchcha / The Russian (Russian Federation, 2021), has to date never been allowed to be screened in Russia, the war representing the final nail in the coffin of a film that was mired in controversy even prior to February 2022.4

The war in Ukraine has placed the question of decolonisation at the forefront of Russophone cultural studies and this journal’s Special Issue on decolonisation in post-Soviet cinema is crucial to these debates. Our article makes an important contribution to this Issue: the films discussed here, like Sakha cinema itself, are decolonising entities, reclaiming Sakha cultural identity and history after centuries of Imperial Russian, Soviet, and indeed, post-Soviet Russian oppression. Furthermore, this article is a collaborative effort of two authors of Sakha and non-Sakha heritage. We bring local, national and global perspectives to our analysis of Sakha cinema, contributing to the decolonising of Russophone/Post-Soviet film scholarship, which is still dominated by Russian and Western voices.

This article investigates the decolonial attributes embodied in the female protagonists in four films – Maappa (Aleksei Romanov, Soviet Union, 1986), Moi ubiitsa / My Killer (Kostas Marsan, Russian Federation, 2016), Pugalo / Scarecrow (Dmitrii Davydov, Russian Federation, 2020), and Ichchi / Spirit of Itchi (Kostas Marsan, Russian Federation, 2020). Each of these films is significant for how it contributes to the discourse of Sakha culture and the historical and present-day relationship to the (former) imperial centre. Maappa, as discussed, heralded the role of cinema in reviving Sakha cultural heritage after particularly stringent oppression in the Soviet era. My Killer was made after a distinctly colonialist federal law was passed in 2016 allowing Russian citizens to be granted plots of land in the Far East (Fondahl et al. 2019: 2-4). The film’s portrayals of a vengeful nature against the post-Soviet capitalist social order thus represent a unique challenge to the political and environmental status quo. The national and international success of Scarecrow truly put Sakha cinema on the map: its celebration of Sakha mysticism and nature entwined with lavish cinematography renders it the case study par excellence of the recent strategy in promoting Sakha culture locally, nationally, and globally. Meanwhile, Spirit of Itchi marks a return to traditional Sakha horror storytelling – horror is the most prominent genre in the Republic – combined with the higher production value found in the recent global-facing Sakha cinema. Its reworking of the locally beloved genre for diverse audiences (local, national, and global) marks an important juncture in the strategies used to promote Sakha identity through cinema.

Maappa was made in 1986, while the other three films were produced in the 2010s. We therefore read it as a matrix film; a film to which these three films harken in their contemporary discourses of Sakha selfhood. Traces of Maappa can be found in the rebellious female protagonist in Nuuchcha, thus despite her transgressiveness, this figure has persisted into the 2020s. It should also be noted that these four films were written and directed by men, and the films purposefully conflate Sakha identity with femaleness.5 This conflation also mirrors wider nation-building strategies globally, where the figure of the woman is also used to symbolise and unite the nation in diverse national contexts.

Using a close textual analysis approach to each film, we unpick the mechanics of how each female protagonist resists and challenges imperial Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet Russian cultural hegemony and, crucially, the internalised colonialism and ensuing hostility of her community. While Spirit of Itchi conforms most closely to the global folk horror genre in its aesthetics and style, we show that all four films to varying degrees draw on horror tropes to emphasise the female protagonists’ alienation and struggle for dignity and acceptance. Thus, like Sakha cinema itself, the ungovernable female protagonist functions as a cri-de-coeur for the respect and revival of Sakha culture in the wake of centuries of colonial oppression. This expression of resistance from the formerly colonised periphery is particularly poignant in light of Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine and the Russian state’s unabashedly chauvinist and ethnonationalist narratives of history.6

Sakha Cultural Revival in Maappa (Aleksei Romanov, 1986)

The eponymous Maappa is undoubtedly one of the most important characters in Sakha culture, influencing all subsequent depictions of wronged women in Sakha cinema. Maappa (1986), which was Aleksei Romanov’s diploma work, is set in the mid-nineteenth century and tells the story of forbidden love between Ilzha, a young servant, and the eponymous undead maiden Maappa. Maappa is based on Sakha writer Nikolai Zabolotskii’s 1944 novella of the same name,7 and the film is a korotkometrazhka (short film) with only a twenty-minute runtime. Quite a few details from the novella are therefore omitted from the film; it is pared down to its essential characteristics. Travelling on horseback, we observe Ilzha as he stops by a deserted home where he encounters Maappa. It is revealed only later that she is undead (having killed herself aged sixteen). Maappa asks Ilzha to find her bones and give her a burial according to Sakha custom.

The film itself functions as a metaphor for the ungovernable female entity; through its title, Maappa, it revives the now-popular figure of the undead maiden brought to life in Zabolotskii’s novella, which itself is derived from ghost stories (tübelte) from Sakha folklore.8 Furthermore, it was the first ever fiction film made in the Sakha language, anticipating the Sakha linguistic-cultural resurgence that would take place (particularly through cinema) from the 1990s onwards after decades of Soviet oppression. The film was made in 1986, the beginning of the perestroika period, when Sakha citizens began claiming sovereignty prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. Specifically, 1986 saw the last significant instance of interethnic violence in the Republic, with violent clashes erupting between ethnic Sakha students from Yakutsk State University and ethnic Russian “toughs” in the Spring of that year (Balzer and Vinokurova 1996: 109). 1986 and Maappa, then, are important cultural moments in Sakha history that symbolise the resurgence of Sakha culture after centuries of colonial oppression, first under the Russian Empire and then under the Soviet Union.

The eponymous protagonist is an üör – a figure akin to the evil undead – who was once human but died a violent death and remained unburied. Like all üör, she inhabits a deserted settlement in a remote area of Sakha (known as an alaas). Üör threaten the normative social order with the pain, grudges, and secrets they bear towards their community. These characters are liminal beings, since they can interact with humans, provide knowledge of the past, and make the invisible visible or tangible. In the film, Maappa’s status as an üör is suggested from the very opening scene, which features the sonorous, extra-diegetic sounds of the guttural kylyhakh song that conveys a sense of despair and uncertainty in the atmosphere. After receiving his blessings from the Ytyk Maas magical tree, Ilzha stumbles upon the deserted cabin, where Maappa appears as an apparition at the cabin door, which resembles an entrance to another world. The male voiceover then asks: “What is this? Is it a dream, or is it reality?” Maappa, as an üör, inherently challenges notions of time, perceived reality, and conceptions of life and death, thereby disrupting the atheistic, scientific narrative of humanity and existence imposed by the Soviets on the Sakha people. She instead embodies Sakha beliefs on temporality, spirituality, and the universe formed of the Lower, Middle, and Upper Worlds.

In the film, Maappa tells the story of her suicide and the circumstances leading up to it: rumours of her suffering from leprosy had led to her being cast out by her community. Consequently, aged only sixteen, she was forced to live alone on the estate left to her by her parents. Maappa possesses gold, which she gifts to Ilzha for his kindness, respect for cultural traditions, and desire to maintain harmony across the three worlds of the Sakha universe. Thus, Maappa’s rehabilitation through Ilzha and Ilzha’s belief in and respect for Maappa’s lived experience and spiritual beliefs further symbolise hope for the revival of Sakha culture after centuries of colonial oppression. Traumatic stories, like Maappa’s, function as photographic documents of the past, reminding the Sakha people of that which was never allowed to be mourned or addressed under Imperial Russian and Soviet rule. Due to its cultural specificity and pared down visual aesthetics, Maappa is difficult for non-Sakha viewers to interpret, echoing Ivanilova and Majumdar’s analysis of Sakha horror film as embodying Indigenous refusal “to explain, perform or make things easy” for the non-Indigenous audience (Ivanilova and Majumdar 2023).9 Maappa is truly a film for its Sakha viewership.

In her community, Maappa represents order, beauty, and safety from enemies and diseases (i.e., from the harmful effects of outside forces), but when these expectations are not met, the community spurns her. As Maappa tells her story, she regains her authority, thus reclaiming her agency and defying the patriarchal social order imposed on her. Traditional Sakha culture had clearly delineated roles for men and women, with men primarily running affairs external to the household (Tarasova 2021: 5). However, in traditional Sakha society, women were typically accorded respect and were not ‘othered’ as per the gendered hierarchies endemic to Russian and other European settler colonial societies (Nikaeva, Starostina and Tarabukina 2021: 3-4). Intersectional Feminist, Post-Colonial, and Indigenous Studies scholarship have long demonstrated that colonialism is a fundamentally gendered process and that patriarchal social hierarchies that subjugated women are fundamental to colonial systems of power (Hall 2009; Spencer-Wood 2016; Arvin, Tuck and Morrill 2020). Indigenous Studies has also charted the ways in which Indigenous communities have internalised colonial patriarchal norms (Hall 2009). Maappa’s mistreatment by her community can be read as a product of its internalised colonialism and modernity; she is othered, vilified and pathologised as a ‘diseased’ woman.

The false rumours of Maappa’s disease introduce an element of the uncanny into Maappa’s story, whereby she is viewed as a figure of the Kristevan “abject” (Kristeva 1980). Her suicide represents a deeply taboo act in Sakha culture; a terrible, logical conclusion to her community’s spurning of her. Maappa ultimately demonstrates that compassion is an essential aspect of Sakha identity, a recurrent notion found across Sakha cinema, including in the two other films under our analysis in this article: Scarecrow and Spirit of Itchi.

Maappa bears her trauma to Ilzha. Screenshot from Maappa (1986).

The closing scene of the film shows Ilzha digging a grave in the snow for Maappa to fulfil her wish of being buried. In the final moments of the film, we observe Maappa as a free soul, wandering joyfully through the forest of the Upper World. Crucially, these final shots are visualised in colour, whereas the film is primarily shot in sepia. An intense golden light bathes Maappa and the forest in contrast to the darkly tinted earlier scenes. These final images denote a symbolic shift from winter to summer, from Maappa’s oppression to her liberation, anticipating the liberation of the Sakha people from Soviet rule in just five short years after the film was made.

Maappa the film and Maappa the character together symbolise Sakha identity in the wake of Soviet repression as well as the restoration of Sakha cultural values. Maappa’s mistreatment, social ostracism, and desire for closure according to Sakha rituals (burial) mirror the repression of Sakha identity under the Soviet regime and the Sakha people’s desire for sovereignty and respect. Through her suicide, status as an üör, and relationship with Ilzha, she transgresses repressive social norms and time. Her significance in Sakha culture is such that she has become a stock character in Sakha horror, representing the female protagonist as both a monster and a liminal creature – one who links imaginary realms with reality and, through that process, makes traditional storytelling possible.

The Problematic, Unruly Female Protagonist(s) of My Killer (Kostas Marsan, 2016)

The 2016 debut film by Kostas Marsan My Killer, like Maappa, focuses on an unruly female protagonist that subverts the social order. As noted in the Introduction, the film was made in the wake of the colonialist law that granted Russians entitlement to land in the Far East, thus it can also be read as a complex story of the vengeance of Sakha nature contaminated by ongoing colonial practices.10 The film’s plot predominantly focuses on the police investigation of the murder of a young woman, Liuba Sofronova. Initially, it seems Liuba was killed by her jealous gold-smuggler boyfriend. In the film’s final scenes, we find out that Liuba is in fact alive, and that she has killed her twin sister Vera, who had discovered a stash of gold and had confronted, and attempted to blackmail, Liuba. My Killer was screened at several international film festivals including the Spirit of Fire festival in Russia, Moscow International Film Festival, and the Asian World Film Festival in Los Angeles. The film is therefore part of the Sakha international film boom that took place from 2016.

Although the focus of the film is the police investigation into Vera’s murder, it is fundamentally preoccupied with Sakha nature, in particular Lake Saisary and its surrounding landscape. Thus, the ungovernable female is conflated here with the nature of Sakha, which dominates the diegesis and bears witness to the crimes against nature and the murder of Vera by her twin sister Liuba. In Sakha culture, water bodies are gendered as feminine, and rivers, lakes, and seas are considered ebe (grandmother) and are revered and respected as such (Burnasheva 2020: 6; Crate 2013: 118). As Crate (2013) explains, water is integral to the Sakha spirit world: the Sakha people believe that “Uu ichchiileekh” (water has a spirit), and according to Sakha cosmology, humans need to respect this spirit when interacting with water (ibid).

Lake Saisary in the film functions as a metonym for the Sakha nature that was exploited by the Soviets for gold but nonetheless remains perennial. The wide panoramic shots of the lake and surrounding nature reveal their overwhelming sublimeness. The sublime is a fundamentally Eurocentric, colonial concept: when applied to Indigenous-occupied landscapes, it invariably excludes the Indigenous subject and portrays the Indigenous’ peoples land as a space to be dominated and/or a means to reinvigorate the colonial subject through its “awesomeness” (Nida, 2019). Marsan, however, utilises the aesthetics of the sublime as testament to the ungovernability of the Sakha nature, which may be exploited and extracted by Imperial Russian, Soviet and indeed, post-Soviet (neo)colonialism (as per the 2016 land-granting law), but nonetheless remains elusive and unruly.

The lake and surrounding area are also presented as a complex, contradictory space. What was once a vital reservoir used by the Sakha locals as a watering hole for cattle and a site for fishing is today teeming with homeless people and brigands and is in a general state of dilapidation. This duality adds to the uncanny visual and affective qualities of the film: the characters of Vera/Liuba mirror the duality of the lake and surrounding nature. In the film, the surface of the water glares threateningly; it is a liminal space where strange creatures may lurk. In the final part of the film, in which the police investigator confronts Liuba at Lake Saisary, she appears like a mermaid in the lake, her long dark hair framing her face and body. This visualisation of Liuba is deliberate: mermaids are an important aspect of Sakha water folklore, and the filmmaker, Kostas Marsan, has stated in interview that he was keen to bring the figure of the mermaid to the surface and into the “mundane nightlife of the city, before sending her back into the water”.11 Liuba, a being of the water, moves into the space of the city and disrupts its social order by committing murder, specifically sororicide. Her disruptive presence represents the succumbing of the rational imperialist order to nature and its powers.