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VISIONS DU RÉEL 2021 Competition

Liesbeth De Ceulaer • Director of Holgut

“By shooting at night or at twilight, I wanted to get away from reality to evoke a more dreamlike and mythical world”


- The Belgian director talked with us about her experience shooting her documentary in Siberia

Liesbeth  De Ceulaer  • Director of Holgut

Belgian filmmaker Liesbeth De Ceulaer presented her documentary Holgut [+see also:
film review
interview: Liesbeth De Ceulaer
film profile
at this year's edition of Visions du Réel. In front of her camera unfolds the archaic and mysterious landscape of Siberia, where the signs of climate change can be observed with the naked eye. The director told us about her experience and the challenges of shooting in such a remote region.

Cineuropa: Where did the inspiration for the film come from?
Liesbeth De Ceulaer: I started research for the film in 2013. I was fascinated by different stories of animal extinctions that humans had contributed to. The more I read about it, the more I realised that I needed to show this wild world and look for a specific story that talks about it. Although extinctions took place in the past, I didn't want to make a historical film. I wanted a movie that shows that it is still happening today, in front of our eyes. During my research I learned about the story of the mammoths and how, because of climate change, their remains are coming back to the surface. At some point I met this family of fishermen that lives in a remote village and is not linked directly to the mammoths. Over the course of the years, all elements of the film came together. 

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Do you know the film Genesis 2.0 [+see also:
film review
film profile
by Christian Frei and Maxim Arbugaev? What do you think of it? How did it influence your own project?
When I travelled to Yakutia I was told about this other documentary. I was concerned at first, since I wanted to make a movie on something that was not told yet. Funding was very difficult also because the different sources were telling me that there is already a documentary on the subject. I decided to give to the film a more poetic side and abandon the idea of giving too much information. The fact that Genesis 2.0 showed the idea of de-extinction of the mammoth by cloning liberated me from having to explain this in my film. Eventually, Genesis 2.0 helped me find my own way.  

How did you find your protagonists?
The two brothers are from the village I went to for my research on tusk hunters. I stayed with the family and I was fascinated and captivated by the beauty and magic of the tundra. The tusk hunters were the focus of my attention, but so was the landscape. I had a strong connection with Klim, who lives in the village. He studied film in Sankt Petersburg and he was of great help to me for all the arrangements that needed to be made on location. Since the trips were very expensive, I need someone I could collaborate with. The two brothers are friends of his, the younger brother is really living in the city and the idea came to use this situation in the film, too. I met the two protagonists only shortly before the shoot. 
The scientist in the film lives in the city. I read articles about him and how he works with a clone laboratory in Korea, and about his connection with the tusk hunters. I contacted him by e-mail and was able to convince him to be part of the film. 

How were the shooting conditions on location? 
There are big differences in the seasons, in winter it can get to -45 degrees. This is one reason why we shot in summer. Moreover, I didn't want to show a magical winter wonderland but a land that is changing. I wanted to show the melting, the water and the mud. 
We were very lucky with the weather conditions. Some challenges came from the warm and mud which attracted mosquitos. We camped out mostly, spent a lot of time on boats and had to climb often with heavy material. We were forced to think and be very fast, since there was no possibility to come back. 

In the first part you shot a lot at night, and in the second more by day. Did you intend to structure your film like this, does it have a metaphorical meaning, or was it due to the circumstances you found?
I decided about it before filming. By shooting at night or at twilight, I wanted to get away from reality to evoke a more dreamlike and mythical world. The twilight scenes helped create this atmosphere. I was not always looking for it, it was also a coincidence since in summer there is a lot of twilight.

You entered a world dominated by the presence of men. Were you received with skepticism because of your being a woman? Maybe some expected you not to be able to adapt to their habitat? 
I knew in advance that it was going to be tough, especially physically, and I prepared myself for it. I never directly felt any negativity against me. The scientist was our guide when we were with the tusk hunters and there was always a nice atmosphere and many nice encounters. With the two brothers, it was a longer expedition. I felt well taken care of, they are very honourable people and took it as their duty to look after us.
I did enter a world where women are normally not welcome or not seen. There are certain things over there that only men take care of or are allowed to do. Because I came there as a filmmaker, a professional, I had some privileges and more access, and everyone accepted me as the “guide” of the project.

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