The film you expect from Renato Borrayo Serrano’s documentary study of a Nenets woman raising five young children in the Arctic tundra is, in a subtly momentous way, not the one Serrano delivers with the unflinching “Life of Ivanna.” When it has become almost an article of faith that the purpose of such ethnographic portraits is to create empathy with cultures and lifestyles entirely foreign to our own — all of us chasing that little puff of serotonin we get from a reassuring, “deep down, we are all the same” moral — it is perversely admirable to insist so proudly on a subject’s aloof and defiant selfhood. With Ivanna — capable, truculent, chain-smoking Ivanna — empathy would be an imposition.
We are met instead with an unadorned slice of extremely hard, extremely precarious life that is still somehow lived with a robust and unsentimental determination. At 26, Ivanna lives in a small one-room cabin on skis with her five kids, ranging in age from Yulianna, a girl of maybe 10 or 12, down to a baby still being bottle-fed. While there are two neighboring cabins nearby whose occupants we occasionally glimpse outlined in a snowstorm, or gearing up a team of reindeer to drag the dwellings to a new, equally featureless patch of permafrost, the real impression is of Ivanna and her kids alone together, in the claustrophobic confines of the hut, within the paradoxically agoraphobic massiveness of the tundra.
Ivanna rarely smiles. Her children mostly call her “Iva,” when they’re not using more choice epithets. Her son, barely more than toddler, has already picked up a richly salty lexicon from the swearwords she frequently barks out. Sometimes he plays with a large kitchen knife, hacking away merrily at a stick while Ivanna smokes silently in the corner.
The cabin is so small that although Serrano’s impulse is to intervene as little as possible, we cannot help but be aware of the camera’s presence. Sometimes, Ivanna is caught glancing over to where he or co-DP and co-writer Daria Sidorova must be hunkered; sometimes she talks briefly to them offscreen, or offers them a drink. But while the kids too play up to the camera, for long stretches they all seem to forget it’s there, as they move in and out of its narrow, locked-off frame.
Gradually we learn a little of Ivanna’s backstory. In her terse voiceover she tells of getting pregnant at 15, of another son who died, of her husband Gena, of the time when she first went to school and didn’t know how to climb stairs, never having seen any before. But these details are sparingly revealed, and only the briefest allusions to her Nenet heritage are made, over images of her and the kids eating the liver raw and warm from a newly killed deer or fetching buckets of freezing water from a hole in the ice. Even then, the picture they build is merely of the circumstances of her life. Whatever thoughts and dreams Ivanna has, beyond the practical desire for a nicer house and a less hardscrabble day-to-day, remain her own secrets.
Serrano filmed over the course of four years, but “Life of Ivanna” is not a continuum. Instead it is bisected by a long scene in which Ivanna and the children go to visit Gena in the house where he lives with several others, on the edge of the frozen desert. This sequence, of escalating drunkenness, karaoke and an act of domestic violence that Serrano implies is a final straw for Ivanna’s marriage, is deeply disquieting not least in its unusually matter-of-fact portrayal of the alcoholism that is a fact of life out here. But it too has one of those arresting compositions that the camera happens on every so often.
Here, we’re looking down at one of the kids lying asleep on the grimy linoleum beneath a counter where three fish are laid out and an inquisitive black cat is sniffing and nibbling at them. For a film that actively avoids imposing neat narrative arcs onto a subject who seems entirely distrustful of such processes, certain moments like this nonetheless seem imbued with strangely fable-like power. What the fable means, and whether the intimidating, irreducible Ivanna might somehow understand it, are questions this elusive yet hard-edged film does not answer. To do so would be to attempt to make the world seem cosy and small when “Life of Ivanna” serves to remind us just how big it is, and how very little we know of it.